Despite uneven career, Inge loves the game

Nordmenn of baseball

Brandon Inge

Photo: Mark Cunningham / Detroit Tigers
Brandon Inge during his Detroit Tigers playing days. “Few major-leaguers had more fun playing the game of baseball than Inge,” wrote Tony Paul in The Detroit News in March.

Michael Kleiner
The Norwegian American

Brandon Inge’s major-league baseball career was like a merry-go-round. He was switched from position to position. Just when he thought he was settled, the Detroit Tigers would make a splashy free-agent signing or trade, pushing his status into uncertainty. He had some productive and non-productive offensive and defensive seasons in his 13 seasons (2001-2013), 12 spent with the Tigers.

The Motown fans and media had a love-hate relationship with Inge. He never lost his love for baseball or for Detroit.

Tony Paul wrote in the March 29 Detroit News: “Brandon Inge played for a lot of good baseball teams, and…a lot of bad baseball teams. The smile always was there, though, through thick and thin. Few major-leaguers had more fun playing the game of baseball than Inge.”

Gregory Eno wrote of Inge’s carousel career in Detroit in the Jan. 28, 2012, Bleacher Report: “He has been, in a way, the Rasputin of the Tigers. Or the poetic feline who possesses nine lives. Take your pick. They’ve tried running Brandon Inge out of town for about eight years now. It’s all been done to him—free agents and trade acquisitions arriving to play his position (twice), talk radio blazing with anti-Inge venom. The Tigers even designated him for assignment last summer, and traded for a replacement: Wilson Betemit…Betemit…is gone. And Inge is still here. Figure that one out.”

Inge signed with Oakland on April 30, became a free agent Oct. 29, signed with Pittsburgh Feb. 13, 2013, and released Aug. 1, 2013.

He played 1,083 games at third base, 376 at catcher, 33 games in center field, 10 in left field, eight in right field, 19 at second base, four at first base, and one at shortstop. He had a composite fielding percentage of .976, but .995 as a catcher, and .962 at third, where he could mix dazzle with confounding. Offensively, he only had a career .233 batting average, .301 on-base percentage, .384 slugging percentage, 228 doubles, 152 home runs and 648 RBIs. Yet, his 76 homers at Detroit’s Comerica Park is the second most by a Tiger behind Miguel Cabrera, one of the players who displaced Inge.

Inge was born on May 19, 1977, in Lynchburg, Va. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University, and the catcher was drafted by the Tigers in the second round, 57th overall, in 1998. After three years and part of a fourth in the minors, the Tigers recalled him in 2001.

In 2003, though he spent some time at AAA, Inge played in 104 games behind the plate for the Tigers, compiling a .996 fielding percentage. At the plate, however, he hit only .203 with eight homers and 30 RBIs, as the Tigers finished 43-119. They signed prized catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who entered the Hall of Fame in 2017. Inge wasn’t smiling, declaring he was the best defensive catcher in MLB.

Inge saw more playing time over the next few seasons, as he became the ultimate utility player. In 2004, he played third base, catcher, center, and right and left fields. He had his best offensive season to date, hitting .287 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs.

Over the next few seasons, he started to settle into third base and would have won a Gold Glove, if it wasn’t for errors in trying to be too good. In 2005, he was the starting third baseman and hit .261, with 31 doubles, 16 homers, and 72 RBIs in 160 games.

In 2006, the Tigers began adding pieces that would make them competitive in the AL Central—and eventually win four straight titles from 2011 to 2014. Inge played in 159 games in 2006, finishing second on the team with 27 homers, and fourth with a career-high 83 RBIs. He also set the Detroit record for most assists in a season by a third baseman.

The Tigers led the division until the last day of the season, but their 95-67 record earned them a wild-card playoff spot. They beat the Yankees 3 games to 1 in the division series, swept Oakland 4-0 in the championship series, and lost to St. Louis 4-1 in the World Series. Inge wielded a hot bat in September, and hit .345 in the ALCS and World Series. He put the Tigers ahead in Game 1 of the ALCS against the A’s with a third-inning solo homer.

Slugger Gary Sheffield was added to a lineup of Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, and Curtis Granderson, but third base was still Inge’s. He played 159 games, hit .236 with 14 HRs and 71 RBIs. Detroit missed the playoffs.

Excitement reigned the following season as slugging third-baseman Miguel Cabrera joined the Tigers. Inge started opening day in center for the injured Granderson, but when Granderson returned, Detroit moved Cabrera to first, Guillen from short-to-first-to-third to accommodate new SS Edgar Renteria, and Inge back to utility player. He hit .205 and the Tigers sank to last place.

The 2009 campaign was redemption for Inge. Back at third, he played in 161 games, batted .230 with 27 homers and 84 RBIs. He had 21 taters and 58 RBIs before the All-Star Game, and was a nominee for the fans’ vote for the last roster spot on each team for the All-Star Game. He won with a record 11.8 million votes. Selected for the Home Run Derby, he went homerless. Inge played the second half of the season with bad knees.

He started at third in 2010 and had 13 homers and 70 RBIs.

Then, came the bizarre 2011 season. Mononucleosis and his .177 average resulted in the Tigers designating Inge for assignment on July 19. He accepted the demotion to minor-league Toledo, then was recalled in late August, homered in his first at-bat, and was on the postseason roster. He said he had refound his love for the game in the minors.

The first-place Tigers eliminated the Yankees in the ALDS and lost to Texas in the ALCS. He batted .333 in the postseason with a home run against Texas. During the playoffs, Wendy Thurm at FanGraphs.com wrote: “Based on my research, Inge appears to be the only player in the past 10 years with more than five years of major-league service who was designated for assignment, then was recalled by the major-league team that sent him down, and then went on to play a significant role in the postseason.”

Cruel fate struck Inge again in the offseason as the Tigers signed first baseman Prince Fielder and moved Cabrera to third. At the Fielder introductory news conference, manager Jim Leyland said, “Inge is not a happy camper.”

After a two-for-20 start in 2012, the Tigers released Inge.

Inge is back in Detroit. In the spring, he was named player development director for baseball at the Legacy Center in Brighton, Mich.

“First and foremost is you compete, which is why we play the game,” Inge said in a Detroit News article. “But if I don’t see a smile on every kid’s face that comes on and off the field, then it is a problem. This is one of the best games ever, and you should be enjoying yourself. Developing kids has become my passion. When they move on to the next level, I want them to be looked at as great baseball players, but also good human beings, someone you would consider a great teammate.”

If Inge can still smile after his carousel career, those kids have a good role model.

 

This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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