What a great month it was in April of 2006 for one Tigers first baseman.
Detroit fans found themselves enamored with the power-hitting ability of a one-time Rule 5 draft pick nicknamed “Big Red.”
And no, I’m not talking about Bill Walton, the Grateful Dead fan who won two NCAA championships with the UCLA Bruins and two NBA titles in his Hall of Fame basketball career.
Instead, I’m talking about a former 33rd-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in Chris Shelton.
People forget that while former Detroit skipper Jim Leyland lit the fire under his players’ behinds that was needed for his young team, Shelton was another reason for the club’s great first month to the season.
He became the first breakout star of the club’s memorable ‘06 campaign with nine long balls in the first 13 games of the season and 10 in the first 23, and he instantly became a fan favorite. His home run outburst set a record for homers by a Tiger in the month of April.
His nine big flies in the first 13 games was only exceeded by Philadelphia Phillies Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, who homered 11 times in his first 13 games in 1976.
Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story’s historic start to his big league career recently got me thinking about Shelton, as did the home run barrage by new Tiger Jarrod Saltalamacchia early in the ’16 season. Story hit seven home runs in his first six major league games. In the process, he became the fastest player to reach seven big flies as well as the only big leaguer in MLB history to hit seven home runs in his team’s first six games.
It was a “Story-book” start to Story’s career, and one that probably won’t be seen again for a long time. But Shelton came close with his impressive start in ‘06. Shelton, by the way, hit more HRs through 13 games in ‘06 than Story did this season in 13 games. Story had eight after game No. 13.
As for Shelton, Tigers TV announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen would gleefully call him “Big Red” when he came up to bat, and the nickname stuck with Detroit fans.
Some even labeled him “Red Pop” due to his fondness for hitting the long ball and because he played his home games in Detroit, the longtime home of Faygo soda.
Many fans, at the same time, fell in love with the club for the first time since it had Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell manning second base and shortstop, respectively, on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.
Prior to ‘06 the franchise had been in a period we might call the dark ages: the club hadn’t recorded a winning season since 1993. As a result, Shelton and his fast start held a special place in many fans’ hearts, and still does for many.
Unfortunately, his success and stay in Motown wasn’t prolonged, as he hit only one home run in the month of May and then hit five more before being demoted to Triple A-Toledo at the end of July.
After slugging .783 and recording an on-base plus slugging above 1,000 in 25 games in March and April combined (1.186 OPS), he failed to get his slugging percentage above .386 and his OPS above .730 in a single month the rest of the season.
Once the Tigers acquired left-handed hitting first baseman Sean “The Mayor” Casey from the Pirates at the July 31st trade deadline, Shelton was officially no longer the club’s starting first baseman.
Shelton, though, was recalled when rosters expanded to 40 players on September 1. However, he didn’t hit well enough to warrant a spot on the Tigers’ active roster for any of the three rounds that the club played in during the ‘06 postseason.
He hit .211 with zero home runs and a minor league-caliber .549 OPS in 13 games and 21 plate appearances during September and October combined.
At that point, he was no longer “Big Red” or “Red Pop,” as his early season luster had worn off and subsequently so did his affection from the Tigers faithful.
He became just another player on the Tigers roster, and he no longer was able to escape the vitriol of fans who were exposed to the club’s late-season collapse, which cost Leyland’s first Tigers squad an American League Central division crown.
Shelton never regained the high level of esteem he once possessed, either. He played in 50 more games as a major leaguer but never donned the “Old English D” again.
Additionally, after ‘06, he only hit two more homers, and they both came in 2008 as a member of the Texas Rangers.
He was never seen in the majors again after the 2009 campaign when he spent nine games with the Seattle Mariners.
As fast as Shelton had risen to fame in April of 2006, he fell to mediocrity, and his Major League Baseball career came to a halting stop at the age of 29.
Despite that being the case, Shelton should always be remembered for playing an integral role in the resurrection of the Tigers franchise in April of 2006.