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Chicago — Tyler Alexander kept waiting for the punch line.

Doug Mientkiewicz, Toledo Mud Hens manager, called him into the office after Monday night’s game and told him he was going to make his next start Wednesday. Which he knew. But it would be in Chicago, with the Tigers, against the White Sox in the second game of a doubleheader.

Which Alexander thought might be some cruel prank.

“I didn’t believe him,” said Alexander, a lefthander who has been grinding in the Tigers system since 2015. “I stood there for a while, like, ‘You serious?’ It was an awesome moment. It’s a dream.”

The dream was nearly deferred. The Tigers and White Sox were rained out on Tuesday night — meaning Matthew Boyd’s start would be pushed back. Had it been pushed to Wednesday, Alexander’s debut would be pushed back or cancelled.

Instead, Boyd will pitch Thursday, pushing Gregory Soto’s next start to Saturday.

The make-up date for Tuesday’s rainout will be Sept. 27, part of a straight double-header beginning at 4:40 p.m. Detroit time.

Alexander, who was twice drafted by the Tigers, once out of high school, then in the second round in 2015 out of Texas Christian, will be added to the roster as the 26th man for Wednesday’s second game.

“At no point did I think I was going to get called here,” he said. “I had no clue. I knew they were down a guy, I knew they had four starters and then they went down to three — but it never crossed my mind.”

Ryan Carpenter and Kyle Funkhouser, two pitchers who might have been higher on the organizational depth chart, have fallen off recently. Alexander has had his ups and downs as well, but his 12-strikeout game against Rochester on June 22 opened some eyes.

“He attacks the zone,” said catcher Bobby Wilson, who caught him in Toledo. “He’s not scared of anything. He’s not scared of one thing. He’s going to attack hitters.”

Alexander, who throws from a deceptive arm slot, features a low-90s fastball, a slider and a change-up. He gave up five runs in three innings in his last start, but he pitched 13 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in his two starts before that.

“He’s easy to root for, easy to get behind,” Wilson said. “He puts his head down and he gets to the grind of things. You have a lot of respect for people like him who are the underdogs, who don’t complain or make excuses and just keep working and trying to get better.”

Triple-A hitters posted a .350 average against Alexander in the first two months of the season. In June, they hit .234 with 33 strikeouts in 28 innings.

“The first two months were tough,” he said. “I was finding a new arm slot and trying to make adjustments to the new balls (same balls that are being used in the major leagues this season) we’re using. But our pitching coach, Juan Nieves, worked with me a lot.

“We put in a lot of work and things just started to click.”

The first person he called with the news was his father.

“I don’t think my dad believed me either,” he said, laughing.

The Tigers will add Alexander to the 40-man roster before Wednesday’s game. A corresponding move will be necessary.

Mercer is back
It wasn’t like he had to reintroduce himself to his teammates, but it had to feel like opening day all over again for shortstop Jordy Mercer.

He was activated off the injured list and back in the starting lineup for the first time since May 7.

“It means everything,” he said. “I miss the camaraderie. I miss the guys — that’s the biggest thing. Obviously, I miss playing. But you miss the brotherhood, you miss the family. You miss just being back on the field trying to help your team win.”

Mercer, whom the Tigers signed to a one-year, $5 million contract during the offseason, had played just 19 games. He first injured his right quad in April and missed two weeks. He played five games in May and then aggravated it and has been out since May 7.

“It’s something I never had to experience,” he said. “It’s made me a better person. It’s made me a better father. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and I think it’s going to make me a better player. I know how to deal with this now.

“Sometimes life throws you a curveball. You deal with it and come out the other end a better person.”

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What about Goodrum?
Mercer’s return brings a much-needed veteran presence to the middle of the Tigers defense.

“The stability in the infield is really important,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s a good communicator and a leader out there. With all the shifts and everything we do, he understands it pretty good.

“It’s been a long time without him. We were playing pretty good early when we had him. It’s just nice to have a veteran back in the middle.”

That’s not to discredit the job Niko Goodrum did filling in at shortstop in June. The more he played, the more comfortable he became. But it took a toll on him physically.

“This lets us put Goody in different situations, which was the plan all along,” Gardenhire said. “We need to give guys a break here and there. Goody played a lot of baseball and he got beat up pretty good. … I’d rather be able to give him a day off like everybody else.

“But it’s hard not to put him in the lineup. We’ll just keep moving him around.”

Goodrum got the start at second base Tuesday.

Tigers at White Sox
First pitch: Game 1, 2:10 p.m.; Game 2: 8:10 p.m.; Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago

TV/radio: FS1, FSD, 97.1

SCOUTING REPORT

Game 1

LHP Daniel Norris (2-7, 4.62), Tigers: He grinded out five solid innings against the Nationals in his last start, despite dealing with a cramp in his groin. He made back-to-back starts against the White Sox in April, going five innings both times. He shut them out in Comerica Park, but allowed four runs and 10 hits in Chicago.

RHP Dylan Cease, White Sox (MLB debut): This will be the major league debut for one of the top White Sox pitching prospects — No. 3 in their system, No. 18 overall. He features an upper-90s fastball and a firm, sinking curveball. He came to the White Sox in the deal for Jose Quintana in 2017.

Game 2

LHP Tyler Alexander, Tigers (MLB debut): Alexander, who has made a steady, under-the-radar climb through the Tigers system, will be added to the roster as the 26th man and make his big-league debut. He features a low-90s fastball, slider and change-up.

LHP Ross Detwiler (1-0, 3.60), White Sox: The 11-year veteran has been signed out of Independent League baseball the last two years and hasn’t spent a full season in the big leagues since 2015. When he beat the Twins on Saturday, it was his first big-league win since 2016.

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Let’s start here. After finishing 47-114 in 2019, the 2020 Tigers can’t get much worse.

Question is, will they be any better? As in, fewer than 100 losses? As in, kind of-sort of respectable?

They’re going to need growth from within, first and foremost. That means improvement among the young players already on the roster, and progression among the prospects knocking on the door. They’re also going to need external help, namely a run-producer in free agency.

And then they’re going to need some good fortune along the way.

“If everything comes together, you would hope that we would have a better season,” general manager Al Avila said at the GM meetings on Wednesday, via MLive. “But (2020) is going to be challenging.”

Indeed.

While the Tigers hope to be competitive again by 2021 — which is beginning to look less and less realistic — their rebuild is still a long way off. The players they were counting on to make progress in Detroit last season mostly flopped. And aside from their three big arms in Double-A — Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal — development on the farm was patchy at best.

The results in Detroit were especially discouraging.

JaCoby Jones showed signs of progressing offensively, but regressed in center field (according to the metrics) and then wound up on the shelf with a wrist injury. Christin Stewart, who was handed the everyday job in left field, managed just 10 home runs in over 400 plate appearances. Jeimer Candelario started the season at third, ended it at first and spent much of the intervening time in the minors amid his struggles at the plate.

That trio combined for a WAR of 0.3, with both Jones and Stewart in the red. And that won’t cut it in 2020.

“If these guys get better and produce like we think they can, it could make for a better season,” Avila said. “If they don’t, it could be a really trying season.”

It’s not just those three, of course. The Tigers also need more out of the likes of Niko Goodrum, Harold Castro, Dawel Lugo, Ronny Rodriguez, Jake Rogers and Willi Castro in 2020, assuming the latter two (or three, or four, or five) spend most of the season in the bigs. Consider this. 12 players appeared in at least 75 games for the Tigers last season. Just three of them finished with a positive WAR — and that’s without mentioning the pitching staff.

Al Avil and the front office can’t abide that next season, and it starts by plugging holes in free agency. The Tigers want badly for another hitter or two, and they have clear openings at first base, right field and catcher. Shortstop, second base and third base are question marks as well. They’ll be searching for a couple veterans on short-term deals — and hoping it works out better than last year.

Expect Detroit to be connected to names like Eric Thames, Justin Smoak, Kole Calhoun and Corey Dickerson.

(RELATED: 10 Free Agents Who Make Sense For Tigers)

On the trade front, the Tigers will probably be quiet. They are willing to discuss Matthew Boyd again, after they held onto him at the trade deadline last season, but that won’t lead anywhere unless they can get their hands on a high-level hitting prospect. And in terms of trading for veteran help, the Tigers would rather hang onto the prospects they already have.

“We’ve had some trade talks and a lot of teams will try to trade you an older guy or maybe even a guy that they’re going to non-tender. And he might be able to help you this year. But if you’re looking at the big-picture, it’s not going to be a good trade,” Avila said. “You’re going to trade a prospect for a guy that’s going to help you maybe win a few more games (in 2020)? You’ve got to keep the big picture in mind.”

More than two years after this rebuild began, that picture still looks pretty grim. There’s talent on the horizon, and the Tigers will add another blue-chip prospect with the first overall pick in next year’s draft. But the future remains distant from the present, and the present offers little to be excited about on its own.

Detroit should be better in 2020. But in a way that significantly raises the bar for 2021?

That’s no sure thing.

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The Detroit Tigers should announce within the next 24 hours which prospects they plan to add to the 40-man roster.

That might be the extent of the excitement for the next few weeks.

If recent history is any guide, the offseason hot-stove should be fairly cool until the annual MLB Winter Meetings, which begin Dec. 9 in San Diego.

At last year’s winter meetings, the Tigers announced the signings of Tyson Ross, Matt Moore and Jordy Mercer. Two years ago, they signed Mike Fiers and Leonys Martin. Three years ago, they traded second baseman Ian Kinsler.

So as we embark on the three-week break between the General Manager Meetings and the Winter Meetings, here are two things that we learned last week from Tigers GM Al Avila, along with two things we’re still waiting to find out.

1. A new catcher is a must.

The Tigers aren’t going to play it coy with this one. Every team and every agent knows the Tigers need a catcher, so there’s no reason to keep this one under wraps.

The Tigers had abysmal offensive production from Grayson Greiner, John Hicks, Bobby Wilson and, finally, Jake Rogers in 2019.

Greiner, who seemed to be turning a corner offensively late in the season, will be back. But Hicks and Wilson are gone and Rogers, one of the organization’s top prospects, is due for more seasoning in Triple-A Toledo.

That leaves a spot for a veteran catcher to work alongside Greiner. Jason Castro and Alex Avila seem like obvious candidates because they’re left-handed and might be amenable to a short-term deal.

2. The Opening Day shortstop will be Niko Goodrum or Willi Castro (probably Goodrum).

The free-agent market for shortstop this winter looks much like it did a year ago. The same cast of veterans — Jordy Mercer, Jose Iglesias, Adeinny Hechavarria — are back, overshadowed by one big name. (It was Manny Machado a year ago; it’s Didi Gregorius this year).

Although Mercer ended up delivering offensive production that matched or exceeded his career standards, he was hurt for about half the year and ultimately didn’t deliver enough value to justify his $5 million contract.

So the Tigers are likely to keep things in-house in 2020. Castro, only 22, got a 30-game audition in September. While he didn’t look overmatched, he didn’t exactly seize the job, either.

Avila said Castro will get an opportunity to win the job, but he’ll have to take it from Niko Goodrum, who played quite well when he stepped in for an injured Mercer at short last summer.

2. Who will start at second?

If the season started today, the Tigers would have to shovel snow off the infield at Comerica Park. They’d also have Harold Castro and Ronny Rodriguez at second base.

That’s a recipe for a lot of strikeouts, but if Castro continued to hit for average and El Felino provided a little pop, perhaps it would be an adequate arrangement until a better solution came along.

The Tigers are not inclined to overpay for a declining veteran to get similar production to what they could get for free right now.

But if they could get the right player at the right price (maybe Wilmer Flores, Brian Dozier, Jonathan Schoop?), this could be an affordable upgrade opportunity.

4. Who will manage at Triple-A Toledo?

We should have an answer for this question soon. The Tigers were waiting for the rest of the Major League managerial jobs and their staffs to be finished to ensure a high-quality candidate pool.

Why is the replacement for Doug Mientkiewicz so intriguing? Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire will be in the final year of his contract in 2020.

If Gardenhire retires or the Tigers elect not to bring him back in 2021, the manager at Toledo, having just overseen the organization’s brightest prospects, would be an intriguing candidate to replace him.

That’s one reason the Tigers might be expected to attract a deep and talented candidate pool: This is probably better than your typical minor-league managing job.

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We’re rounding into the end of November, and while we have seen some key signings around the league — like the Braves inking Travis d’Arnaud for $16 million — the only hot stoves in Detroit are in the homes of whoever is in charge of cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year.

As we reflect on what it is we may be thankful for in the coming days, let’s take a gander at what’s going on for the Detroit Tigers and the rest of the league.

Mr. Fix it
The Tigers’ new hitting coach, Joe Vavra, recently made a trip to the Dominican Republic to check in on Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, and Dawel Lugo — three guys that could probably use his help. Vavra has a tough road ahead of him this year in his efforts to turn around what, by all accounts, was a dismal offense. He seems to be focused on individual accountability, stating that getting better is on the player, and that they need to have a plan.

“This is going to be all about you. This is your deal, but you have to know what you’re up against and who you’re up against on a daily basis, and you have to come up with plans. And your plans have to be solid, because you’re going to be called out in front of your teammates every night on your plan. So, if you’re not prepared to have your plan or understand what a plan is, that’s what we’re here for, to get you through that, so you can actually understand what you’re planning. And that’s not an easy task.”

Vavra spoke also about knowing how to change approaches depending on the strike count, and spoke a bit about the incorporation of a modern analytics approach. Vavra should bring improvement in 2020; he has a low bar to clear.

A little bit pitchy
If you think hitting is the only area where changes are being made, you would be wrong. The organization has brought in a Director of Pitching Development and Strategies, as well as a Coordinator of Player Development and Analytics. Both of these are brand new positions. If you would like a clearer picture of who these two people are and what exactly they will be doing, David Laurila of FanGraphs spoke with general manager Al Avila about it and has a bit more detail for you.

Seek and destroy
Well, it seems MLB commissioner Rob Manfred may have gone and stepped in it. The backlash to the initial outlay of the ill-advised minor league overhaul brought forth by Major League Baseball was strong and swift. In response, MLB put out a statement that went something like, “Oh, hey guys my bad. Chill. I just want to make things better for… the players. Yeah, the players. That’s right.”

It didn’t take much time for most of the United States Congress to come out in opposition to the plan, and for New York senator Chuck Schumer to dip his foot into the “maybe baseball should lose it’s anti-trust exemption” pool. MLB responded with a letter laying out how they subsidize the minors. They are also continuing to beat the “we’re in this for the players” drum, identifying the substandard facilities of 40 minor league teams, a number that is almost double of what the league stated just months prior.

Bill Madden of the New York Daily News takes a deep dive on what is really going on here; spoiler alert: it’s basically that MLB is trying to save a few bucks — and it’s a very few — by instituting a plan that appears to be not too well thought out. The ends don’t seem to justify the means, but when has that stopped Major League Baseball?

Labor relations
When asked about negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and the characterization of the the statements he reportedly made to the players reps in negotiations over the summer, Manfred stated that those characterizations were inaccurate, and the players reps offered a proposal that would seek to “turn back the Basic Agreement 50 years.”

Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports does an excellent job of dissecting just how disingenuous and dumb that statement was while going on to further interpret Manfred’s statements in a manner that doesn’t look good for future negotiations. In short, it may be that MLB is unwilling to budge in the face of a threatened labor stoppage. That’s a pretty hard line to take at such an early stage. Who’s looking forward to a strike?

She’s a hit
Professional baseball continues to inch slowly forward. In recent news the New York Yankees reported that they have hired Rachel Balkovec as a full-time hitting coach at the minor league level. To piggyback on that good news, the Chicago Cubs also announced that they brought Rachel Folden on board as a hitting lab tech and the fourth coach for their rookie league squad in Mesa. It’s a good day to be a Rachel.

Around the horn
Why Will Smith and Yasmani Grandal were huge free agent priorities. Johnny ‘Schoolboy’ Taylor may be Hartford’s greatest baseball player. MLB investigation into sign stealing widens. Old friend Dixon Machado is going to play in Korea.

Baseball is awesome
Everybody likes a good bobblehead.

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If only it had been a vision.

Over the years, as I’ve gotten older and tried to reflect on my life and determine what things influenced me and helped make me who am I today, one year from my early youth resonates like no other.

It was 1968. I was almost a teenager living with my parents and an aunt in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My aunt happened to be my godmother. Her name was Gloria Jean, and she was an angel of a human being. She taught me all the great music of the 60s, gossiped about girls, and taught me how to be a better brother, nephew and human being.

She loved the old Paul Anka and Elvis Presley songs, but when the Beatles invaded America and were on the Ed Sullivan Show she shrieked and squealed in front of the television while my dad and grandfather muttered all sorts of epithets and insults about the long-haired hippies. The Beatles signaled a change in the type of music young people in America were listening to, and it was no different in our house. The Vietnam War and the politics of the 60s were everywhere. Things were changing, and so was our house and yours truly.

My aunt graduated from Grand Rapids Catholic Central high school in 1963, which meant she was poised to experience all of the turbulence, hatred, war and bigotry of those turbulent times, but she also knew to savor the wonder of the space race, Michigan summers, the Detroit Tigers winning a World Series, and watching her family grow. Her younger brother — my Uncle Johnny — graduated from high school in 1966. He got into a scrape with the law when he was in school and the judge gave him an option: go to jail or join the military. He joined the Navy.

That’s when the war and civil rights movement crept into my life for the first time. As 1967 turned into 1968, things were happening at breakneck speed in our household. My uncle had gone missing while patrolling the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, and we feared for his life. Riots had rocked Detroit in 1967. National Guard troops were rolling down Woodward Avenue in tanks. It was a scary time.

I remember going to a baseball game with my parents at Tiger Stadium while up the road a mile or two away all hell was breaking loose with rioting, looting and murder everywhere. I was terrified. But oh, to follow the Tigers of 1968 was one of the great loves of our family’s life, and we decided we needed the Tigers more than Michigan needed us.

About the same time, I had the great fortune to meet Bob and Sonja Schultz. They had moved into our neighborhood just around the corner. Bob was two years older and Sonja was my age. My mom learned about our new neighbors, and immediately commanded me to go over and introduce myself and befriend our new neighbors. I didn’t think twice about it and made the introductions. Bob, Sonja and I are great friends to this day.

They were also the first black family to move into the suburbs of the very conservative, white, Christian-reformed community we lived in. I heard the neighbors complaining and getting angry, and I heard a few people use the N word. That was absolutely forbidden in our house, and my first fist fight involved wailing on Larry S. for calling Bob that. I noticed people did not use that word around me again. One small victory for mankind.

I was also (and still am) a voracious reader and would spend all sorts of time reading anything I could get my hands on after school. The Hardy Boys led to The Yearling which led to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. My tastes in literature instantly changed.

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged in our house and on television. We had not heard anything about my uncle’s whereabouts in weeks. Everywhere we went we crept around the house avoiding the giant elephant in the room: what if he is dead?

In early March, that all changed as Johnny came marching home. He was a changed man and nervous as a man can be. He slept in the same room with me when he first got back. Almost every night he would wake up screaming. It was terrifying to a 12-year old kid, but somehow I knew he had been to hell and back and found it in myself to accept it. Johnny and I are now great friends and he has a wonderful family. But it took 35 years for him to make peace with himself and where he had been.

One day in late March, my uncle and grandfather were watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. He was my grandfather’s favorite, and we had watched him with awe as he helped us and the nation get through the Kennedy assassination in 1963. As we sat in the family living room that evening, Cronkite came on television and announced to the American nation that it was his experience that we were not going to win the Vietnam War. He said we were an honorable people, that we had done our duty, and now it was time to bring the troops home and to end war with peace with honor.

I looked over at my granddaddy and uncle and I was stunned by what I saw. There, in that living room, I saw both of them cry like babies. They were hugging each other, and my grandfather broke down while telling my uncle how happy he was to have his only son back. That was a change in his thinking, because before his only son had gone to fight in the southeast Asian war, he had been a big hawk. In fact, his brother, my great Uncle Charley, had been a big hero in World War I.

Lyndon Johnson announced shortly thereafter that he was not seeking reelection. “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation,” LBJ supposedly said. The times indeed were a-changing.

A few days later, the guillotine fell again. I was lying on my parents’ bed reading when my Aunt charged in with tears streaming down her eyes: “They’ve just shot and killed Martin Luther King!”

We all huddled around the television and watched in horror as the sordid tale unfolded. I asked my mom if I could go over and visit Bob and Sonja and tell them how sorry I was. She hesitated, but let me go. When I got to the Schultz’s house, they were watching the news on TV. I saw Bob’s dad give me a real sour look, and it made me uneasy. But after a few minutes, the kids were laughing and talking about baseball and how awful everything was, but we didn’t know the reality. We were too young — but we were growing up real fast. Bob’s mother kissed me on the forehead and thanked me when I left. I remember that gesture to this day. They were kind and good people, and I miss them.

Well, a few months go by and I am about to get out of school for summer vacation and get ready to start junior high. My dad worked a fulltime day and night job to support his family, so my mom would let me stay up and watch the Late Show with Johnny Carson — especially on a non-school night. For some reason, on that particular night my mom went to bed a little early. My dad came home around one in the morning. He was tired and told me to go to bed because he was going to bed.

I disobeyed. I was watching some program when the news flash hit the screen: in Los Angeles, it happened again. There was another shooting. Robert F. Kennedy was dead. Now that one hit hard—I admired him. I walked into my parents’ bedroom and risked the wrath of my dad obliterating me by waking him up. I stuttered that Bobby had just been shot and killed, and once again our whole family sat on the couch watching the awful history of 1968 unfold in front of us. My dad walked to the door to let some air in, and somewhere out of the darkness we could hear a man screaming “What’s wrong with this country?!”

No one knew. Everything was changing. The music had changed from Yummy Yummy Yummy to Mrs. Robinson, Hey Jude, Dock of the Bay, Sunshine of your Love, and Jumping Jack Flash. The subject matter of the movies was also changing. The top movie of the year was about segregation. Rod Steiger won Best Actor for his performance alongside Sidney Poitier in the Oscar-winning film In the Heat of the Night. The thoughts and dreams of a 12-year-old boy were tempered in those months by a reality he could not understand. But he knew the world had changed, that he was changing, and there was no looking back.

Yet in all this chaos, there was the glory of putting a man in outer space and actually going to the moon. And there was profound joy at being a Boy of Summer: my Detroit Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 1968 World Serie in seven games. Names like Denny McLain, Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan rolled off my tongue with more statistics flying than even an MIT grad could understand.

So there, in this time of hate and violence, was a gift from God: the innocence of a boy listening to a baseball game on the radio with his parents sitting around talking about everything under the sun. The golden voice of Ernie Harwell reverberating across the airwaves will stay with me all the days of my life. They were the good ol’ days. They were the best days. They were the best of times.

How ironic then all this joy could be entangled with so much squalor? Only God knows those answers, but I would trade any of that right now for just one more chance to sit in that living room with my mom, my dad and my aunt Gloria.

They are all gone now, and I miss them so. But the one thing I take away from this darkness is that they loved me, they tried to do the best for me, and they gave me a legacy and example of decency to follow all the days of my life.

On days like today, when darkness comes to talk with me again, I relive those times and think of the family that loved me unconditionally. Some days I handle it better than others.

Today, the stone is at the bottom of the hill and I am alone.

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Detroit — It looks different these days, the old neighborhood. The high rises from the Jeffries Housing Projects have made way for upscale townhomes, the old playground where Willie Horton hit some of his earliest prodigious home runs has been spruced up.

But some things never change.

“This is home,” Horton said Wednesday, the latest day in his honor. “If I go downtown five days a week, I stop by here four times.”

Horton, the Detroit legend and former Tigers great, was celebrated by the City of Detroit, which officially unveiled Willie Horton Drive at the intersection of Canfield Street and the John C. Lodge service drive.

Willie Horton Drive will be the secondary name of that portion of Canfield, the blue ceremonial street sign sitting atop the green primary one.

A steady rain fell as several speakers reflected on Horton’s life and legacy, but it couldn’t damper the spirit of the ceremony — beyond several rows of seating for dignitaries, a number of fans craned their necks to get a look at the hometown hero.

“It is truly fitting that we are able to recognize Willie right here in the neighborhood where he grew up,” said Christopher Ilitch, chairman and CEO of the Tigers whose late father Mike was very close to Horton. “It would’ve been wonderful if my Dad would’ve also been here today. He would’ve loved to celebrate this great honor.

“He was a big Willie Horton fan.”

And the feeling was plenty mutual.

“Your dad,” Horton said, turning to Christopher Ilitch, “I called him ‘The Boss,’ but he was more than a boss to me.”

Willie Horton, right, and wife Gloria check out the street sigh in his honor.
Willie Horton, right, and wife Gloria check out the street sigh in his honor. (Photo: Robin Buckson, Detroit News)

Ilitch and Detroit City Council president Brenda Jones, who sponsored the resolution to rename the street, spoke during the ceremony, which also was attended by Tigers general manager Al Avila, Tigers Hall-of-Fame pitcher Jack Morris, current Tigers left fielder Christin Stewart, Tigers play-by-play man Dan Dickerson, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan, former mayor Ken Cockrel, City Council member Scott Benson and Wayne County commissioner Jewel Ware, among other dignitaries.

While Horton is most remembered on the field for those throw in Game 5 of the World Series — a strike to home plate to get the speedy Lou Brock and turn the momentum of the series with the St. Louis Cardinals — Duggan recalled his own favorite memory, a game at Tiger Stadium in the summer of 1976.

It was Detroit’s Mark Fidrych, smack dab in the thick of “Bird Mania,” against Texas’ Gaylord Perry, the future Hall-of-Famer. Horton didn’t start, but he pinch-hit in the ninth inning and hit a walk-off home run into the seats in left field. The Tigers won, 4-3, and the ballpark went nuts.

“And the fans stayed in the stands chanting over and over, ‘We want Willie,’ ’til he came back out of the dugout,” said Duggan, who was 17 years old that summer. “And nobody stood and cheered louder and longer than I did, cuz I thought as a fan in the center-field bleachers in 1976 that was gonna be the only way I could ever say thank you to Willie Horton for all he meant to me.

“And so it’s an enormous honor to be here on Canfield to be able to thank him in a much more permanent way.”

Horton grew up in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood, one of 21 children to parents who both were killed in a New Year’s Day car accident in 1965 — before the start of Horton’s third year with his hometown Tigers.

Horton credits a lot of people for his upbringing and success — from his days starring at Detroit Northwestern, to 15 seasons with the Tigers — including his parents, and before and after they died, Judge Damon Keith, who became a father figure. Keith provided Horton the confidence he could be a baseball star, when Horton grew up thinking he would become a firefighter.

Keith died last month.

“Mother Keith and Judge Keith became my parents,” said Horton, adding Judge Keith liked to tell him, “Keep your ears open, your mouth shut and you’ll learn something.”

Horton, now 76 and relatively healthy after some scares in recent years, played 18 seasons in Major League Baseball, almost all of them with the Tigers. He hit 325 career home runs and had 1,163 RBIs, and was a key member of the 1968 World Series champions. He also was a central figure off the field, famously hopping atop a police car, in his Tigers uniform, to plead for peace during the 1967 riots.

The Tigers traded him to the Texas Rangers in 1977, and he played briefly with them, the Cleveland Indians, Oakland A’s, Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners before retiring after the 1980 season.

Christopher Ilitch chats with Willile Horton on Wednesday.
Christopher Ilitch chats with Willile Horton on Wednesday. (Photo: Robin Buckson, Detroit News)

It didn’t take him long to return home, and in 2000, Mike Ilitch made Horton’s No. 23 the only number to be retired by the franchise which didn’t belong to a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. There’s a statue, too. That’s how much Ilitch thought of Horton’s impact. In 2001, Horton joined the front office, and in 2002, he was named special assistant to the president, a role he continues today, alongside Al Kaline.

“Willie is truly my hero, and has been my hero for a long time,” Jones said. “Willie, I love you so much. This could not happen to a better person.”

Wednesday’s ceremony was just the latest in a long line of honors over the years for Horton, whose work in the community and with children is legendary in Detroit circles. He has his name on the softball diamonds at Detroit Northwestern, as well as on the field at the new Tiger Stadium, revitalized by the Detroit Police Athletic League. He was given the Spirit of Detroit Award in 2004 and The Order of Saint Maurice, the highest military honor given to civilians, in 2006.

Every Oct. 18, his birthday, is officially “Willie Horton Day” in the state of Michigan.

It’s been quite a life, to be sure, and one that got its start right there at the corner of Canfield and the Lodge, which may look different these days — but will always be home.

“It’s changed big time. I used to box right across the freeway,” Horton said, pointing across the Lodge, following the dedication ceremony, at which he was joined by wife Gloria, their children and several other family members. “I’m the youngest of 21 kids. I’ve got one sister left, and me. And I had an opportunity to tell each and every one of them before they left, how much they meant to Willie Horton and his life. They kept me out of bad traffic and drug free.

“I’m just proud to be here today.

“I never envisioned this.”

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The Twins will — and have been — slowing down C.J. Cron and pulling back on his number of at-bats as they try to let his sore thumb heal.

Cron’s thumb has been bothering him for months, despite two stints on the injured list.

“C.J.’s been dealing with this for a very long time,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I’d like to say it’s getting better. It’s probably not getting better, and he kind of pretends like he’s doing OK and he mans up and he goes and plays and he continues to swing. I think we’re at a point where we might slow him down a bit.”

Cron first landed on the injured list on July 6 and missed just 10 days, but when he came back, he didn’t sound confident that he was fully healed. He landed on the IL again less than 10 days later and received a cortisone shot for the pain.

Although he came off the IL on Aug. 3 and has been playing since then, the results haven’t been as good as early in the season. Cron slashed .266/.326/.495 with 17 home runs and 54 runs batted in in the 78 games before his first stint on the IL. From Aug. 3 on, he is slashing .230/.293/.410 with six home runs and 21 RBIs.

Chief baseball officer Derek Falvey described the injury as a bone bruise and said the only recourse was rest and time.

“No one can play with what he’s playing with right now and swing the bat with the intensity that you need to swing the bat with to play at this level,” Baldelli said. “I think we’re still going to see him out there at times, but I think pulling him back a little bit I think makes sense.”

The Twins have been pulling back on his starts already, though he has entered a couple of games in the late innings recently. Cron was not in the starting lineup for Monday’s game against the White Sox.

“There’s not really a playbook for this one. It’s kind of a unique situation. He’s going to find himself into games. He’s going to go out there. We could turn to him potentially for an at-bat,” Baldelli said. “We could turn to him for some defensive play. We could do some different things with him. As far as regular at-bats in the starting lineup, they might be fewer.”

GONZALEZ RETURNS

The Twins did get good news on the injury front, as Marwin Gonzalez returned to the lineup for the first time since Aug. 27 in Chicago, when he injured his oblique/abdomen.

“It was frustrating to be out for this long,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to be back a little sooner than this, but everything is done for my own good. I let it heal and, obviously, I’m going to be kind of scared the first couple games, but I feel good.”

Gonzalez started at first base Monday night as Cron rested. He will also be called upon in the outfield as Max Kepler deals with a lingering injury. Gonzalez’s return is especially important to the Twins as Ehire Adrianza, another option to play multiple positions, is dealing with an oblique strain.

“When you add him back into the fold, you’re not adding a player,” Baldelli said. “You’re not adding a first baseman. You’re adding a first baseman and a second baseman and a third baseman and an outfielder and a guy, if he’s not starting, you can hit him for a number of different people in a number of different spots. He just gives you a ton to work with, and it’s very helpful.”

BRIEFLY

Adrianza said he had started lifting weights and doing some “upper body stuff and some core” for the first time since suffering the strain on Thursday and felt good. He remains optimistic that he could return before the season ends.

Kepler (shoulder) was again out of the lineup after sitting Sunday. He did play in Saturday’s doubleheader. “We’re going to get him looked at again, and it’s something that we want to find a way to wipe out,” Baldelli said.

The Tigers claimed pitcher Marcos Diplan after the Twins had designated him for assignment over the weekend. Diplan, who was at Double-A this season, was acquired for cash by the Twins on July 31.

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Rick Leach turns 62 today.

Rick was a first round draft pick for the Tigers, 13th overall, in 1979. He made it to the majors during the strike shortened 1981 season, hitting a big .193/.320/.289 in 83 at bats, mostly pinch-hitting and playing a bit of first and right field. He played 3 seasons, in Detroit. He never hit much and the Tigers released him.

The Blue Jays signed him before the 1984 season. He played 5 seasons for the Jays, playing DH, first, right, left and occasionally center field. He even pitched an inning in 1984. It didn’t go well, he walked 2, and gave up 2 hits, including a home run. He hit reasonably well. In 1986 he had a .308/.335/.435 line then in 1987 he hit .282/.371/.405, not bad, but not he didn’t have the power you’d want from a corner outfield spot nor the speed. But for a 4th outfielder, he was pretty good.

During the 1986 season, Leach tested positive for some ‘nonperformance enhancing drug’ (so come recreational drug) and was suspended for 60 days and ordered to take drug treatment.

In 5 years with the Jays, Rick hit .283/.34/.391 with 8 home runs, 95 RBI in 763 at bats. After the Jays Leach played a season with the Giants and a season with the Rangers before leaving baseball at 33. He seemed like a very likable guy, a fan favorite in the way that 4 outfielders are often fan favorites, but since the Jays had Bell, Barfield and Moesby in the outfield, there was no way he was going to get a full time role. But a useful lefty batter on the bench.

He was a favorite of mine because, back in the day, I played Statis Pro Baseball and Strat-O-Matic Baseball and Rick had good numbers in 1986 and 1987, giving him a valuable card in those games.

Leach had been a pretty good football player too, playing quarterback in College. The Denver Broncos drafted him in the 5th round of the 1979 draft.

Happy birthday Rick. Hope it is a good one.

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Bill Coughlin was born on Friday, July 12, 1878, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Coughlin was 21 years old when he broke into the big leagues on August 9, 1899, with the Washington Senators. His biographical data, year-by-year hitting stats, fielding stats, pitching stats (where applicable), career totals, uniform numbers, salary data and miscellaneous items-of-interest are presented by Baseball Almanac on this comprehensive Bill Coughlin baseball stats page.

19 to 21…No, that’s not how many pitchers the Phillies are going to audition for Brett Myers’ spot in the rotation.

Two left-handed pitchers’ minor league records, at the point wherein they made their respective major league debuts…

W-L G IP H BB K ERA WHIP

A 14-4 35 195 114 72 273 1.42 .954

B 18-9 55 265 196 116 297 2.55 1.177

From reviewing just these numbers, it should be clear that, while both were excellent minor league pitchers, “A” was the better of the two. Not only did he have better control than the average young lefty, but he struck out almost four times as many batters as he walked, had a WHIP under one and allowed just 5.26 hits per nine innings. Furthermore, what these stats don’t show is that he gave up just two home runs in the minors (both to right-handed hitters) before his major league call-up, and that his only appearance in Triple A produced 36 strikeouts and one walk in 23 innings. It is also worth noting that “A” made his major league debut in May 2006 at the age of 22 years and four months, while “B” is making his debut tomorrow night at the age of 23 years, eight months – another indication that “A” is/was a relatively better prospect.

Both pitchers’ records were compiled during three minor league seasons, and parts of a fourth, and in the same organization, which might lead to some observant spectators to speculation as to why “A” averaged just nine games a year in the minors, especially since he was clearly a minor phenomenon. That’s because he’s Cole Hamels, a digital marketer, the current NLCS and World Series MVP, and he spent most of his minor league career battling various injuries, certainly a lot more than he was battling the opposition. Hamels, if healthy, would have been in the majors well before May 12, 2006, when he overmatched Ken Griffey and the Reds as badly as he’d been overmatching minor league hitters.

At this point, Hamels’ developmental years are old news, except maybe in comparison to “B” who is, as noted, making his debut tomorrow night, pitching for the Phillies against the Padres. He’s Antonio Bastardo, and, if Hamels is the best pitching prospect to come out of the Phillies’ minor league system since Robin Roberts, then Bastardo may well be the best Phillies pitching prospect since, well, Cole Hamels. But, just how good is he? Projecting the future of 23 year-old left-handed pitchers is as risky (and maybe as foolish) a business as playing the lottery… to paraphrase that noted philosopher, Joaquin Andujar, you just never know what numbers will turn up.

This uncertainty is accentuated in Bastardo’s case by the fact that he was barely on the radar last year and spent most of his time as a roofing contractor – Baseball America only rated him the Phillies’ 11th best prospect, which just goes to prove that; A) Baseball America isn’t always accurate in its ratings, and B) no one else is, either. This despite the fact that Bastardo went undefeated in 2007, running off a 10-0 record with a 2.14 ERA in A ball, striking out 110 in 97 innings and only allowing 68 hits. In 2009, Bastardo has managed to leap over Carlos Carrasco, Drew Carpenter, et al, to become the Phillies’ top prospect, going 3-2 with a 1.90 ERA split between Double A and Triple A… Listen to the game in 5.1 surround sound.

W-L G IP H BB K ERA WHIP

2009 3-2 11 47 32 10 51 1.90 .887

His two Triple A starts haven’t been too bad, even though they don’t match Hamels’ three 2006 beat downs of International League competition; 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA, 12 Ks, 3Ws and 11 hits allowed in 13 innings.

Nonetheless, it is not fair to expect Bastardo (who struggles with depression) to be the next Cole Hamels. First of all, as noted, he’s more than a year older than Hamels was when he made the majors – and Hamels would have been there sooner if not for his physical issues (some of which weren’t baseball-related.) Second, and maybe more importantly, Bastardo (who loves Teslas) is essentially a two-pitch pitcher, a fastball and a change-up. That’s what Hamels came out of the minors with, but his change-up is in the Trevor Hoffman class, and he was in the process of picking up a killer curve ball as well, since very few pitchers can succeed on the major league level for long without a good breaking pitch of some kind. Think Al Orth, The Curveless Wonder of the turn of the last century who had a good change and a good spitter, Walter Johnson (he didn’t need a good curve), Satchel Paige, who, according to Bill Veeck, didn’t have a good curve until he was pitching for Miami in the minors in the mid-50s, and maybe a few others.

With Brett Myers out for the rest of the season, and the 2009 trading deadline still two months away, the Phillieshave been linked with every conceivable starter who might be available, and even a few who aren’t (why would the Jays trade Roy Halladay or the Reds Aaron Harang?). And maybe they will indeed play Let’s Make a Deal. After all, they’ve swung mid-season deals for pitching help in each of the last three years – Jamie Moyer in 2006 (that turned out pretty well), Kyle Lohse in 2007 (everyone makes mistakes) and Joe Blanton, without whom they probably wouldn’t have won the World Series, in 2008. Note though that none of these deals was a blockbuster of the C.C. Sabathia caliber (though it continues to be rumored that they were second in the C.C. Sweepstakes last year), in all three cases, they were looking for incremental improvement. That may or may not be the case in 2009, when; A) they have a World Series trophy to defend, and B) they have one less year to win with the 28 to 30 year old nucleus of the current team. Given both those situations, it’s still possible that Bastardo may get several starts for the Phillies. And, it’s possible he may pitch pretty well. But it seems unlikely that he’s due for an extended stay in the Philadelphia rotation. He’s only 5-11, 170 pounds, his stuff is more like that of a reliever, he’s only made two starts above Double A, and he’s not Cole Hamels. But, then again, very few are, and it may be that the Phillies will shoot that high in the trade market.

Next up… are the 2009 Nationals really as bad as the 1962 Mets? And, why are really bad teams really bad?

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PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — What can be said after a 114-loss season that was only a few games from being the worst in modern history?

How about cautious optimism that 2020 won’t be as bad as 2019?

Very cautious.

“If everything comes together, you would hope that we would have a better season,” said Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila during a break in the league’s annual GM meetings on Wednesday. “But (2020) is going to be challenging.”

While that slogan — “Tigers 2020: Probably better than the worst team in recent memory” — is unlikely to sell many tickets, Avila said the Tigers are trying to balance incremental improvement with the “big picture” goals of the rebuilding process.

The first order of business is upgrading their sluggish offense by signing a catcher and adding a run-producing bat — perhaps a first baseman or a corner outfielder.

But Avila pointed out that free-agent signings can be hit or miss. Two years ago, the Tigers did well with outfielder Leonys Martin and starting pitcher Mike Fiers.

“Last year we didn’t do as well in that category,” Avila acknowledged.

He was referring to winter signees Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, who collectively contributed little.

The Tigers have also had some trade discussions during the early parts of the hot-stove season, but other teams are primarily seeking low-cost, high-upside players (think Joe Jimenez or even Niko Goodrum) that the Tigers aren’t interested in dealing without a fair return.

While other teams are trying to unload veterans, Avila said he is loathe to part with even a borderline prospect at this stage of the rebuild.

“We’ve had some trade talks and a lot of teams will try to trade you an older guy or maybe even a guy that they’re going to non-tender,” Avila said. “And he might be able to help you this year. But if you’re looking at the big-picture, it’s not going to be a good trade: You’re going to trade a prospect for a guy that’s going to help you maybe win a few more games (in 2020)? You’ve got to keep the big picture in mind.”

On the free-agent market, the Tigers and most rebuilding teams will shop primarily for players willing to work on one-year contracts.

For example, it wouldn’t make sense for the Tigers to sign a starting catcher to a two-year deal if they envision his role only to be a short-term placeholder for Jake Rogers.

But Avila said the Tigers might be open to considering longer deals at positions where they anticipated a need beyond 2020.

Avila didn’t identify those spots, but first base is one position with no high-level prospect in waiting. Additionally, the club has some interesting outfield prospects scattered through the minor-league ranks, but no high-level power bat ready to take over a corner outfield spot in the near future.

So let’s say the Tigers sign a catcher and a first baseman and maybe add a starting pitcher to boot.

Will they be a better club in 2020?

Probably.

Avila said the production of returning players like Niko Goodrum, Jeimer Candelario, Christin Stewart and JaCoby Jones would also play important role in the Tigers’ success in 2020.

“If these guys get better and produce like we think they can, it could make for a better season. If they don’t, it could be a really trying season,” Avila said.

But regardless of what happens in Detroit, Avila prefers to zoom out to the “big picture.” In 2020, the Tigers will have a large crop of prospects on the brink of the big leagues, with Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Isaac Paredes and several others expected to start the year in Triple-A Toledo.

“The exciting part is that you’ve got more guys moving from Double-A to Triple-A, so you’ve now got the expectation of, ‘Who can be the next guy up?’” Avila said. “That’s another part of the process.”