Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Defending My Irrational Love For You-Know-Who

Whenever I end up in a group of people talking about Tiger baseball, the question inevitably comes up. “So, who’s your favorite Tiger of all time?”

I hate this question. I don’t hate it because I find it difficult to decide. I don’t hate it because I’m a private person that guards my baseball secrets. And I don’t hate it because I generally dislike conversation with people (which is kinda true).

I hate it because my favorite player of all time is Bobby Higginson. Nine times out of ten, my answer is met with a roll of the eyes, a smart alec comment, or a blank stare. “Bobby Higginson” has become a name that no longer means what is good about the Detroit Tigers baseball club. It’s now a term that is used as a punch line on sports talk radio and in bar conversations.

In less than a decade, people have forgotten what Bobby once met to the city of Detroit and its fans. And furthermore, they don’t even care.

And it drives me insane.

“Bobby Higginson was overpaid.”

At the end, Higgy was quite overpaid for what little he was able to contribute to the team. From 2003-2005, the Tigers paid Higginson almost $30 million for three seasons where he delivered a batting average no higher than .246 and 26 total home runs. 2005, in particular, was hard to swallow for many Tiger fans as Bobby was limited to ten ballgames, hit .077, and was forced to retire from the game due to injury. People had already been calling for his head at this point as a young Marcus Thames was being held back in Toledo to keep the aging, slumping Higginson on the roster.

What people tend to forget now, though, is that throughout Higginson’s younger years, he (like many players) was quite underpaid for the numbers he put up. 1996 and 1997 saw Bobby put up OPS+ numbers of 145 and 133 while making $170,000 and $375,000. He made $4.4 million in 2000. That’s not bad for a guy that became one of only 19 men in baseball history to hit .300, score over 100 runs, hit 30 home runs, hit 44 doubles, drive in over 100 RBI, and steal 15 bases in the same season. 2000 also saw him lead all left fielders in putouts and assists. He would repeat in both categories in 2001.

Overall, I hate when people complain about a player due to his salary. Would you turn down that kind of money when you’re near the end of your playing days and trying to plan you and your family’s future? Would you have turned down the money thrown at Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, or Dontrelle Willis? Heck no, you wouldn’t have. If you want to be angry about stuff like that, save it for the GM that threw the cash away. Be happy for the player put himself in a position to make the kind of money that we could only dream of.

“Bobby Higginson was a jerk.”

There’s all sorts of stories out there about Bobby not being a nice guy. You can read about him fighting with teammates, management, flight attendants, fans, and probably that singing hot dog vendor yahoo at Comerica if you looked hard enough. I can’t count the amount of times I saw Higginson mouth the “f” word while on the field. In fact, when Robert Fick was on the team, I used to refer to them as "Fick and F-ck". He rarely smiled and never came off as a “good guy” like more current favorites like Brandon Inge, Magglio Ordonez, or the recently departed Curtis Granderson.

And you know what? Who cares? The man was as intense on the field as anyone I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a Tiger uniform. He wanted to win and wanted to do whatever he had to in order to get the job done. (More on that in a minute.) Bobby Higginson was a terror for opposing teams during his peak and was the only consistent offensive threat in the Tiger lineup for around a decade.

But if you insist on looking for those nasty Higgy stories, check out a couple more for me. Read about how he would take his bat after batting practice and walk over to a kid in the stands and hand it over. Read about the wink and a wave he would, from time to time, give to fans in the outfield calling his name. And especially read about how he took out full page ads in both Detroit major papers thanking the fans once he realized his career was over. He might have been a jerk at times, but he showed more class at the end than many of the fans did.

“Bobby Higginson was a loser.”

During Bobby’s playing days (1995-2005), the most games the Tigers won were 79. Eleven long years and the team never even broke .500. To many, they like to shoulder a lot of the blame on Higginson, who was the centerpiece of the Tiger linup for the majority of these seasons.  It didn't help that the first full year without him, the Tigers went to the World Series.

The people that like to make this argument make me feel like I’m getting a brain tumor. Baseball, more than perhaps any other sport, is a team sport. One player cannot decide the fate of a baseball team. Was it Higginson that was responsible for the miserable pitching Detroit fans were subjected to for over a decade? Is Bobby to blame for the fact that the best players his supporting cast would see in eleven years were immortals like Tony Clark, Damian Easley, and Dean Palmer?

This is the same kind of argument that is going to cost Miguel Cabrera the MVP award this year. I heard the following on ESPN radio the other night. They were talking about the AL MVP race and the commentator (whose name escapes me right now) was saying that despite Cabrera’s superior numbers, he has Robinson Cano and Josh Hamilton ranked ahead of him due to their teams’ records. If anything, putting up amazing numbers on a losing team with little support makes guys like Cabrera and Higginson look even MORE like superstars in my eyes. I just don’t get it.

“How could Bobby Higginson be your favorite player?”

Everyone is different. I make fun of Brandon Inge fans all the time. But I get why they like the guy. More power to them, but he’s just not what I look for in a baseball player. As a kid, Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell were my heroes. I hardly think I’m alone there. But it was in my late teens to my early twenties that I really began to appreciate and love Major League Baseball. And that’s when I started watching every Tiger game and got to see Bobby Higginson play every day. He was the best player on some awful teams and his struggle became something that I could get behind. Bobby was an underdog, in my eyes, and I just wanted to see his efforts pay off, even just once.

If I haven’t completely bored you yet, in closing, here’s a couple of moments in Bobby’s career that I will never forget.

September 27, 1998: Roy Halladay has a no-hitter going with two outs in the 9th against the Tigers. It is broken up by a home run by Bobby Higginson. Awesome.

1998-2000: In six consecutive games that I attend in Detroit, Higginson hits home runs in each game. The seventh, he doesn’t hit one. But he does homer again in the eighth and ninth games I attend. We had a special bond, you see. If I had season tickets, he would have won an MVP.

Date I Can’t Remember, Early 2000’s: A buddy of mine and I aren’t speaking over some nonsense with a girl. I know…shut up. Anyway, I go to my local hangout to watch the Tiger game. Who is sitting on the other side of the bar? My estranged friend. We sit through the entire game without a word spoken between us. The Tigers are trailing in the bottom of the 9th and who comes up with a chance to win it? Bobby Higginson, that’s who. And sure enough, Higgy hits a walk off homer to win it. Both my friend and I jump up screaming, look at each other, and run over and hug each other like nothing ever happened. We’ve remained good friends ever since. Thanks, Bobby.

August 17 and 19, 2004: The end is near. I’ve been hearing it from everyone on how Higginson is done with. He’s toward the end of his final full season and it’s been a struggle. The Tigers are in Chicago in the middle of another losing season. Bobby remains in the lineup with people hating on him, but in these two games, he would have his last hurrah. Each game would see Bobby hit two home runs against White Sox pitching. I can remember him after his second in one of the games rounding the bases and pointing into the Tiger dugout as if to say “I told you so”. I was in my glory going nuts yelling “he’s back” and making ridiculous predictions for Bobby’s comeback. He would hit three more homers the rest of his career.

April 10, 2005: Goodbye. The Tigers are trailing the Indians 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth. The tying run reaches base and there are two outs. The injured Higginson comes to the plate as the winning run. I begin going bananas in the outfield bleachers, bargaining with God or whoever for one last Bobby walk off. The friend from the earlier story is with me doing the same. However, the God of Baseball was not taking requests this day as Bobby, like the Mighty Casey before him, would strike out to end the game. It was the last time I ever saw him play in person. He would only play in six more games period after this.

So, that’s my Higginson stuff. To me, Bobby’s always going to be on my personal Detroit Tiger Mount Rushmore along with Gibby, Tram, and Magglio. But Bobby remains special to me and whenever people continue to ask me who my Tiger is, no matter how much I might not want to answer, the response will continue to be “Bobby Higginson”.

I remember Bobby Higginson. And I’ll always care.


Anonymous said...

"Read about how he would take his bat after batting practice and walk over to a kid in the stands and hand it over." Yup. True Dat. My son was one of those lucky kids back in the day at Tiger Stadium when not many people gathered around the Tigers dugout during BP. And later that season we were able to sneak the bat back into Tiger Stadium and Bobby autographed it for him. Bobby is/was a class act as far as our family is concerned. Thanks for the memories.

Anonymous said...

I'll always remember Higgy for pissing and moaning about playing an exhibition game against the Whitecaps, essentially saying it was a waste of his time and he shouldn't have to play against low level-A talent. That may be the case, but how is the Tigers Caravan any more glamorous? Or how about when you actually have to PLAY alongside level A talent in spring training games?

Oh, that and some very poorly played flyballs late in his career. Didn't he collide with C. Mo at some point?

Bob said...

I wear my Hig jersey proudly. And sponsor his page on Baseball-Reference .com. Hig bought me beers at Woody's a couple times. That's all it took, nevermind that he was the only REAL Tiger for a lot of years.

lee said...