Two weeks from tomorrow the Detroit Tigers will begin their 2015 season with a game against the Twins at Comerica Park. There will be some new names on the opening day roster, but there will probably only be one rookie.
Rookies have a tough time making the 25-man roster, especially for teams like the Tigers who are in contention every year. Detroit prefers to entrust playing time to established major leaguers. It’s rare that a rookie gets to play regularly for the Tigers, like Nick Castellanos at third base last season, or Drew Smyly three years ago as a starter/reliever. The Tigers like players with big league chops.
The rookie with the best chance to go north this spring is catcher James McCann, a rock solid defender behind the dish who’s outplayed veteran Bryan Holaday for the backup role to starter Alex Avila. Manager Brad Ausmus, a catcher himself in his playing days, easily recognizes that the 24-year old McCann is already major league caliber with the glove and the mask. His offense is good enough to nudge Holaday off the team.
And that’s how it goes. If a rookie has a chance to make the team he has to clearly outplay a veteran. If he does, the job is his. But as hard as it is today for a rookie to make the roster for the Tigers, there was a time when it was much more difficult.
When Gates Brown was in his first big league camp with the Tigers in 1961, he had a hard time impressing the coaching staff at all. Not because Brown didn’t hit the ball well, but because he couldn’t get into the batting cage. In that era veterans frequently “froze out” young players, denying them a spot at the plate for batting practice. If they did get into the batters’ box, young players were rushed out after a few swings.
“Get out of there rook, and let me hit,” was a frequent taunt from the veteran players.
Most veteran players weren’t happy to see young players come along because it reminded them that their jobs could be taken away, especially as a player entered his 30s. This was the attitude for just about as long as baseball has been played for money.
“I didn’t talk to any of the rookies, they were there to take my job or the job of one of [my teammates],” said Ray Hayworth, a catcher for the Tigers for 11 seasons between 1926 and 1938.
If a rookie was highly-touted it could be even worse, as veterans would do all they could to show the young ballplayer that they weren’t a “big shot” yet. When 18-year old Al Kaline reported to the Tigers in June of 1953, he was far from welcomed with open arms. Veteran outfielder Don Lund ignored the youngster, and a few others took delight in diminishing the teenager in his first few weeks on the team. It was telling that the player who helped Kaline the most in his first season was a pitcher, Fred Hutchinson. Kaline couldn’t take Hutchinson’s job away from him.
Some rookies are so good so fast that the veterans have no choice but to embrace them. Late in spring training in 2006, manager Jim Leyland announced that he was giving roster spots to rookie pitchers Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. As the season progressed it was obvious that Leyland’s faith in the young rookies was well-placed. Both “JV” and “Zoom Zoom” could throw a baseball over 100 miles per hour and they were crucial to the team’s success that season, culminating in winning the pennant. Verlander was named American League Rookie of the Year.
The way rookies are received can depend on how good the big league team is. In the mid-to-late 1970s the franchise was in transition, as the Tigers shed the veterans who had brought them success in the 1960s. As a result, emphasis was placed on the farm system, which churned out talented young players during the decade. Most of them transitioned rather easily to the big league clubhouse, with one notable exception.
Kirk Gibson wasn’t your normal rookie. He was an All-American flanker at Michigan State and All-Big 10 as a baseball player, a sport he only played for two years in college, mostly as a lark. When he made the big league team in spring training in 1980, it didn’t take very long for Gibby to show that he would have no part in traditional rookie hazing. Pitcher Jack Billingham was in his 13th season in the major leagues, a former member of the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, he’d played under Sparky Anderson for several years. Not a small man (he was 6’4, 200 pounds and thick limbed), Billingham took joy in teasing rookie Gibson, poking fun at him in April during Detroit’s first homestand. After a while, Gibson had enough and charged at Billingham, pinning the startled pitcher to the floor of the Tiger Stadium clubhouse. The two were separated by teammates, Gibson wagging his finger at Billingham. “Keep your %$#@# mouth shut!” Gibson ordered. Billingham left Gibson alone, in fact he was traded a few weeks later. Gibson was no normal rookie.
Who knows how Gibby would have handled the hazing that was prevalent in baseball 100 years ago, during what was known as “The Deadball Era.” When rookies arrived on the scene back then things could get real ugly.
When Ty Cobb arrived on the scene in 1905 he was an easy target: he was from the deep south at a time when most ballplayers were from the north and the east coast; he was only 18 years old and high-strung — Cobb was described as “a man without humor, a serious sort.” As a result, it was easy for several of the more vocal veteran Tigers to rile Cobb up in 1905 and in his first full season in ’06. The biggest instigator was Matty McIntyre, an outfielder whose job was directly threatened by the arrival of young Cobb. McIntyre physically intimidated Cobb, keeping him from getting his wings during batting practice. He orchestrated a prank where Cobb’s spikes were nailed to the clubhouse floor and he (or one of his friendly teammates) sawed Ty’s cherished bats in half. Unfortunately, at the exact time this was going on, Cobb was recovering from a great personal tragedy. His mother had accidentally shot his father dead and subsequently faced murder charges of which she was eventually acquitted. Cobb was not only going through a transformative time in his professional career, he was also dealing with a family nightmare.
Pitcher Ed Killian was McIntyre’s roommate and best friend, and in ’06 he tangled with Cobb on several occasions, goading the youngster with verbal abuse and leading others in ruining the crown of Cobb’s hats. Boss Schmidt, a hulk of a man, joined the group and physically challenged Cobb on three occasions. Cobb fought Schmidt but was beaten each time. Still, Ty didn’t back down, and he was so worried about his own safety that he took to carrying a pistol. But eventually the accumulated stress got to the 19-year old and he was sent to a sanitarium in Detroit due to a “nervous breakdown.” He missed six weeks while he recovered, most of his teammates unaware of his hospitalization. Amazingly, Cobb returned in early September and led the Tigers with a .316 average in his rookie season. But it wasn’t easy being a young player in those days.
McCann won’t have his bats sawed in half this season, and it’s highly unlikely that he’ll have to raise his fists toward one of his teammates. It’s not easy breaking into the big leagues, but it’s easier than it used to be.