When you see Gerald Laird on his baseball card it looks like your uncle’s fantasy camp photo. He doesn’t particularly look like a major league ballplayer. But he is, and he’s a valuable one.
Baseball, unlike any of the other sports, allows everyday, average Joe looking fellas to make a living on the field. If there was a Statue of Baseball resting in New York Harbor, it might read “Give us your tired, slow, and frumpy.” As John Kruk once famously said to a female fan: “I’m not an athlete, I’m a ballplayer, lady!”
The Detroit Tigers have their John Kruk once again – Laird. As a professional ballplayer, Laird is in the game because of his unique skills that appeal to big league general managers and managers, not for his physique. He looks more like the guy in accounting who you let play right field on your company slow pitch softball team than he does a million-dollar baseball player. But that’s what the Tigers will pay their backup catcher in 2012, and he’ll be worth every penny of Mr. Ilitch’s pizza money.
This will be Laird’s 10th season in the major leagues, and his second stint with Detroit. Laird is that coveted asset: an excellent defensive catcher who knows how to handle pitchers, can shut down the opponent’s running game, frame the strike zone, and foster good relationships with home plate umpires. He can also do the dirty work of lunging in the dirt to retrieve errant pitches and blocking the plate. He’s built to block the plate. His mid-section is fortified with what Mickey Lolich used to call his “beer muscle”. With his shirt off, Laird looks nothing like Alex Avila or Ryan Raburn. He looks a lot like your uncle.
But that’s the beauty of baseball: players like Kruk and Lolich and Laird can have a place in the game, as everyday players, superstars, or as role players. And don’t underestimate the importance of Laird’s role on the Tigers. Last season, as the Tigers drove toward the AL Central title, Jim Leyland ran Avila out behind the plate for an ungodly amount of games. Without a decent backup receiver, Avila took a beating. It showed in the post-season, where Alex’s bat was slow and limp. Laird will start a game or two a week, giving Avila some rest. He’ll also come in to catch the last few innings of games that have been decided.
Last season, Laird served in that same role for Tony LaRussa’s team, winning a ring when the Cardinals made their magical run in October. Prior to his first stint as a Tiger, Laird was the second receiver for the Texas Rangers. In 2007 he played in 120 games, and he had enough pop in his bat to hit nine home runs. But Laird is not being paid to be a power hitter, he’s being paid to be a reliable, sturdy backup catcher. People in baseball know how valuable he is to a team. San Diego GM Kevin Towers once tried to pry Laird away from the Rangers, but couldn’t do it.
“The Rangers knew they had a commodity,” Towers said. “The only way they were going to part with him was if some team grossly overpaid.”
Laird is fine with his role as an anonymous (to the fans) cog in the team machine. He’s not wired like Brandon Inge – he doesn’t think he’s an everyday player when he’s obviously not. Laird knows his strengths and he acknowledges his weaknesses. He’s slow (probably the slowest runner in the game), he’s a below-average major league hitter with poor plate discipline, and he doesn’t have much power.
But the Tigers didn’t bring Laird back because of what he can’t do, they brought him back because of what he can do. In 2012, Tigers fans will get to watch him be what he is, and that’s pretty important to the team as a whole. He’s an inspiration to “Average Joes” everywhere.