When “The Q” sparked the Tigers with his speed and spirit

Rookie Quintin Berry was perfect on the base paths for the Detroit Tigers in 2012.

Rookie Quintin Berry was perfect on the base paths for the Detroit Tigers in 2012.

He only played 105 games in a Detroit Tigers’ uniform, but Quintin Berry secured a place in team history thanks to two things: his feet. He also gained acclaim for his spirited enthusiasm on the field.

The rookie outfielder emerged as an unlikely spark after he got a chance in 2012, helping the Tigers to a second consecutive division title and the American League pennant. Along the way the speedster stole base after base (after base) and pestered opposing catchers. Not one of them could throw him out.

The Tigers signed Berry after the 2011 season to a non-guaranteed free agent contract, promising an invite to spring training. Berry was barely on the radar in spring however, despite showing off his speed and hitting the ball pretty well. The team was well-stocked with outfielders, including Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch, Andy Dirks, and Delmon Young. Ryan Raburn was nabbed as the reserve outfielder. But manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski took notice of Berry in Lakeland. The normally gruff Leyland sang his praises even though the decision was made to send Berry to Toledo.

“He’s played his butt off, and he’s hit the ball very well. And you know he can run, he’s the best base stealer we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Leyland said. “But there’s only so many spots on the club.”

Berry was no stranger to the minor leagues, he’d played six years already in three different organizations. But he’d never tasted a stint in “The Show” and with his 28th birthday on the horizon, it was starting to look like Berry was a Triple-A ballplayer. The knock on him had been his bat: at that point he was a singles hitter at best, often not hitting enough of those. But he had three things going for him: he was able to play any of the three outfield positions, he was lefthanded, and he could run. Boy, could he run. In his first full season as a professional, in the Phillies’ farm system, Berry swiped 55 bases. The following year he pilfered 51. He had 48 at Reading in 2009 and in 2011, his last season in the Reds’ organization, he stole 41 bases. Also impressive was the fact that he was rarely thrown out.

As a Mud Hen, Berry showed a new skill off: his ability to draw a walk. He posted a .368 on-base percentage for Toledo while also stealing 19 bases. But Berry probably would have been a Mud Hen all year if it wasn’t for an injury to Austin Jackson. In May the Detroit center fielder was sidelined and Berry finally got his shot in the big leagues. His first game was on May 23 in Cleveland against the Indians. Leyland wrote his name in as his leadoff hitter.

“I never doubted that hard work would get me to my dream,” Berry said.

In his third trip to the plate, Berry showed how unique he was. Leading off the sixth, he bunted a ball that popped to the right side of the infield, in that no-man’s land between first and second on the infield grass. Second baseman Jason Kipnis took a few steps in from his position and then withdrew, thinking first baseman Casey Kotchman would field the low popup, but the ball fell and squibbed between the defenders, bouncing toward shallow right field. Kipnis gave chase and Berry just kept running. By the time Kipnis had the ball in his glove, Berry was half way to second base at full steam. The throw was a split second too late and Berry slid in to the bag with an unusual but thrilling double.

A batter later, Dirks doubled and Berry cruised home with the first run of his big league career. As he crossed the plate he clapped his hands furiously, displaying the emotion that would become one of his trademarks.

The next night Berry doubled and scored again. The following game he had two hits, a walk, scored a run, and stole his first base for the Tigers. On May 27 against the Twins, Berry stole two bases off Joe Mauer, easily wrapping his arms around the bag after head first slides. He had three hits in that game and in Boston three days later he had a triple in tiny Fenway Park, sliding into third on a groundball down the line that would have been a double for even the fastest of his teammates. He had three singles and two stolen bases the next day in a 7-3 win over the Red Sox to help Max Scherzer get the win.

“He’s exciting, he brings something different to the team,” Scherzer said after the win.

When the team came home to Detroit for a three-game series against the Yankees, Berry was hitting .333 with 13 hits and nine runs scored in nine games. He’d also stole five bases in five tries. Just a week and a half earlier Tiger fans had never heard of Quintin Berry, but now he was a curiosity. His first game at Comerica Park in front of the Detroit fans would make him a phenomenon.

In his first at-bat in Detroit, Berry launched a pitch from CC Sabathia to the deepest part of centerfield, over the head of former Tiger Curtis Granderson. By the time the ball was relayed back to the infield, Berry was standing on third base. Six pitches later, Berry trotted home after Danny worth singled. Berry added a single and a double in his Motown debut. By this time, the fans adored him.

The following night, Berry walked to lead off the game and quickly swiped second base, barreling into the bag head first in a cloud of dirt. When he popped up, he was clapping his hands and yelling. The crowd roared with delight. Who was this incredible spark leading off for the Tigers? “The Q” had arrived.

Berry hit safely in each of his first 11 games for the Tigers. He kept stealing bases, most of them easily. The way he stole them was exciting. Berry would take a normal lead off first, then as the pitcher set himself, he’d take another long shuffle stride, extending his lead. He was daring the pitcher to throw over. If he didn’t, Berry would pivot and thrust himself toward second and after only two or three strides he was at full speed, his long legs powering him across the infield dirt. Not since Ron LeFlore had the Tigers had such a base stealing threat. Any time he got on first there was an excellent chance he’d take the next 90 feet for free.

The problem with Berry playing so well was that Jackson was going to come back eventually. Leyland was faced with a decision. At first, with Jackson back, Berry came off the bench for about a week, but then Dirks went down with an injury, so Q was given the starting spot in left.

“Whatever the job is, I’m taking it,” Berry said. When Dirks came back, Berry was still too valuable to send back to Toledo. Instead, in August the Tigers sent Don Kelly to the Mud Hens.

Now batting in the #2 spot behind AJax, Berry gave the Tigers a potent speed attack at the top of the lineup. In his first game starting in left, on June 17 in Detroit against the Rockies, Berry had five hits, the last one an infield single on a routine ball to shortstop. He had another stolen base in the game, too. He was now 9-for-9 on the base paths.

When Dirks came back, Leyland admitted that he needed to find playing time for his exciting rookie outfielder. He shuttled Berry, Dirks, and Boesch between right and left, giving one of them a day off every few games. Berry continued to play well, providing dramatic performances. On June 21, he delivered a walkoff hit in the 10th inning to beat the Red Sox in Detroit. He hit his first home run two days later in Pittsburgh to help the Tigers win 3-2. In July he made an amazing diving catch to end a win for Justin Verlander at Comerica Park.

Berry would never be thrown out as a Tiger, not once. For the regular season he was 21-for-21 as a base stealer, most of the time making it look easy. His 21 successful steals to start a career set a MLB record. He’d get a chance to extend it in the postseason, as the Tigers clinched the division crown in September and placed Berry on their playoff roster.

Leyland started Berry three times in the ALDS against Oakland, and the rookie responded with three hits, including a double, and one stolen base. In the four-game sweep of the Yankees in the ALCS, he had two hits in two starts and added another stolen base. His magical rookie season would continue. It was as if the baseball gods were rewarding Berry for his patience. After six and a half seasons in the minors, he was going to the World Series.

“This is a dream,” Berry told the Associated Press on the eve of the World Series.

But instead of a dream, the Fall Classic turned into a nightmare for the Tigers, as they lost four games in a row to the Giants. Berry started games three and four in Detroit, but he went 0-for-8 for the series. He never for a chance to steal a base in the World Series.

Berry started the 2013 season in Toledo, a victim of the crowded Detroit outfield. While his emotion and baserunning were appreciated the previous season, his punchless batting statistics victimized him. With most teams carrying seven relievers, there wasn’t room on the 25-man big league roster to keep a singles-hitting spare outfielder and pinch-runner. Had he played 30 years earlier Berry would have been a perfect fit for managers like Billy Martin and Whitey Herzog, but in the world of baseball in 2013, The Q was not a viable option when teams wanted power and versatility from their bench players. Don Kelly was the spare outfielder for Leyland’s team in ’13, along with his many gloves that allowed him to play third, first, and even catcher if needed.

Quintin had a bad season at the plate for the Mud Hens in 2013, though he was 15-for-17 in stolen base attempts. In June he was waived and picked up by the Royals. He swiped 13 more bases (in 15 tries) for Omaha but was let go again. That’s when the Red Sox snatched him up, eyeing him as the perfect single-use weapon. Berry played only a handful of games for the Bosox in 2013 but he earned a spot on their playoff roster and he was used as a pinch-runner, stealing three bases in three attempts, including one off Alex Avila and the Tigers in the ALCS. He finally got a steal in the World Series, winning a ring.

The last few years have seen Berry bounce from team to team without much playing time. There still isn’t much use for his type of player on a 25-man roster over the course of a full season. But his speed is still alluring as a short-term weapon. This season he’s playing for the Angels’ Triple-A team in Salt Lake City. He’s still stealing bases, sliding head first, and pumping his fists. His major league totals show a .265 average in 125 games for the Tigers, Red Sox, Orioles and Cubs. Last season while wearing the uniform of Chicago, he was gunned down by Tony Cruz of the Cardinals. It was the first time he was caught stealing in the big leagues after 25 successful attempts.