The last time the Mud Hens found water after a long drought, they got hosed, the grinch stealing their ace and their postseason.
This time, the Tigers kept their grubby paws away.
Call it the I-75 Peace Accord.
As playoff baseball returned to the corner of Washington and Huron for the first time in 11 years Wednesday night, the Hens took the field with a full deck, the Tigers leaving them alone to go after a Governors’ Cup title.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Good on Detroit.
For as much grief as we’ve given the big club for being inattentive parents the past decade — think: the McAllisters from Home Alone — it’s a class move.
If the Tigers wanted to, they could have congratulated the Hens on a remarkable run, then picked them clean. Major league teams are free to expand their rosters from 25 players to 40 on Sept. 1, and, naturally, almost everyone the Tigers intend to summons are in Toledo, including the Hens’ top prospect, outfielder Christin Stewart. Expect at least a half dozen players here to get the dream call.
But it’s a call that can wait. To their credit, the Tigers — a cool 23 games out of first place themselves — recognized the chance to toss their loyal but frustrated affiliate a bone.
Besides, the Hens have a special thing going, their zero-hour revival continuing with a 10-3 opening win over the Durham Bulls.
Would anyone be the least bit surprised if Toledo is crowned king of Triple-A?
Hens manager Doug Mientkiewicz said the Tigers’ gentle hand “meant a lot.”
“You’ve got to leave them alone,” Gardenhire told reporters. “You start announcing [call-ups] and half of them go in the tank because, ‘Hey, I thought I’d be called up.’ Right now, they’re focused on this. It’s easier just to wait, believe me. I’ve been on both sides of it.
“They have a legit chance. Good for them. They’ve battled through us taking all of their players, they’ve started bullpen days. Because of the injuries we’ve had, we’ve really screwed with that team. [Mientkiewicz] and them have done a heck of a job. We took a lot of players right in the middle of it. I mean, we’ve taken their starter the day of [many times]. That’s a good run by those guys.”
Appreciate that this is not always the case.
Every other team in the International League playoffs endured major losses when the calendar flipped to September — a fact of farm life the Hens know well.
Think back to 2002, or, if you will, the year the grinch stole the playoffs. On the eve of the Hens’ first postseason game in 18 years, the last-place Tigers extracted the fork from their own carcass and stuck it in Toledo. They called up 23-year-old left-hander Andy Van Hekken, a second-tier prospect who meant little to Detroit but everything to Toledo, where he went 5-0 with a 1.82 ERA in seven starts and lined up as its Game 1 starter.
Thoughts on the timing of the move? “None that I want to express,” Hens manager Bruce Fields said before Toledo was swept out of the playoffs.
“This is the major leagues, you know,” then-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski fired back. “This is every player’s goal.”
Truth is, I get both sides.
We will never begrudge a promotion.
Van Hekken, for instance, went on to stonewall Cleveland in his major league debut — he remains the last pitcher to toss a shutout in his first start — and made four more starts for the Tigers that September. He never returned to the majors, but he will always have that sip of glory. I’m going to go out a limb and say he wouldn’t trade it for a start before 4,000 fans in a minor league playoff game.
But there is merit, too, in keeping a team together, as Detroit mostly did with the Hens during their 2005 and 2006 championship runs. If the Tigers are serious about raising their prospects in a winning culture, they are showing it.
“This is important,” Mientkiewicz said. “Minor league playoff games are as close as you can get to being in a big league regular-season game or playoff game. You learn a lot of about your prospects. You learn who can calm it down and who can’t when it really matters.”
Not where it matters most, of course. That’s the major leagues, you know, as Dombrowski would remind.
But it does matter, and for those waiting on their call to Detroit, what’s a few more days?
“We’re having a blast,” Stewart said. “We’re here now, so we might as well win the whole thing.”
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