SAN FRANCISCO —The impeccably groomed downtown ballpark. The standing-room only crowd. Jim Leyland’s Tigers in the other dugout.
When the Mud Hens hosted Detroit in an April exhibition game at Fifth Third Field in Toledo, Quintin Berry figured this was as good as it gets.
“That was like my big-league debut when I got to Triple-A,” he said.
Berry was a blistering center fielder but going nowhere fast, a 27-year-old who had spent the past three seasons hanging on in Double-A. He just wanted to stick around in Toledo.
His major league ambitions? Those were from another life.
“It was out of reach,” he said, “Impossible. Not going to happen. I was just playing as long as I could.”
Understand then why Berry — the least likely Tigers player to be in majors — is in wonder his rags-to-riches journey has taken him to the World Series.
Along with a black suit, Berry wore an uninterrupted smile as he met with reporters before Game 1 against the Giants.
Thought to be a cup-of-coffee temp when he was called up to fill in for the injured Austin Jackson in May, Berry instead provided the Tigers an instant lift and has made his stay last into October.
“I’m going to try to soak in every minute I can,” said Berry, who did not start Game 1 against the left-handed Barry Zito.
Berry asks himself often what might have been.
His baseball story almost ended for good last season. A former fifth-round pick by the Philadelphia Phillies, he was close to walking away after being released by the New York Mets in spring training.
Berry returned home to San Diego with his wife, Priscilla, and figured maybe it would be best if he went back to finish his coursework in public administration at San Diego State and become a high school coach. He was not going to play independent ball, as his agent suggested.
“If no other team wants to give me that opportunity, then I’ll just go back to school and I’ll be done with it,” he said. “I was having a kid, and it was at that point where I couldn’t just try to keep my dreams going. I had to think of how I was going to take care of my family financially. Independent ball is not going to pay you enough to take care of a newborn son and a wife.”
Yet the Reds’ organization called, and Berry figured he would give it one more shot. Problem was, he kept treading water, playing all but the last four games of the season in Double-A.
This spring, after signing with the Tigers’ organization, he tempered his aim.
“Everybody was like, ‘Do you want to make the big-league team?’” Berry said. “No, I just wanted to make the [Mud Hens]. I just wanted to play in Triple-A.”
In vowing to prove his worth to Toledo, though, a funny thing happened. He caught the Tigers’ eye. Berry hit .270 with 19 stolen bases in 35 games at Toledo — three more steals than the Tigers’ season total at that point — then continued the pace in Detroit. Berry batted .258 with 44 runs and 21 steals in 94 games in the regular season and is batting .278 with three runs and two steals in seven postseason games.
“To make it to the World Series, it’s a dream that you don’t think is ever going to come true,” he said. “To do it all right now, it just adds to the story and makes it even more of a fairy tale.”
To think now what might have been.
“I think about it all the time,” Berry said with a wide grin. “I could be back at school, trying to make ends meet, staying with my mom and my boy, not really knowing what I’m going to do with my degree. I’m just glad I stuck with it and someone gave me a call.”
SPEAKING OF WHICH: Long before the Tigers purged Oakland and New York from the playoffs, their path to the Fall Classic carved through Toledo. Berry is one of 14 former Mud Hens on the Tigers’ World Series roster. Mostly as part of rehab assignments, eight stopped by this year: pitchers Al Alburquerque, Doug Fister, and Drew Smyly; catcher Alex Avila; second baseman Danny Worth; utility man Don Kelly; and outfielders Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks, and Berry.
Other Mud Hens alums include pitchers Phil Coke (2011), Rick Porcello (2010), and Max Scherzer (2010) and infielders Omar Infante (’02, ’03, ’07) and Ramon Santiago (’02, ’06, ’07, ’08).
FISTER’S HOMECOMING: For Doug Fister, fantasy will become reality when he starts Game 2 today.
“Growing up, don’t tell anybody, but I was a Giants fan,” the native of nearby Merced, Calif., said with a laugh. “Being able to come to a couple games when I was little, it’s always been a dream and a goal for me to [pitch in San Francisco], and now it’s happening. … It’s something that obviously is a moment that will never be forgotten.”
Fister went 10-10 with a 3.45 ERA during the regular season and has delivered in the playoffs. The right-hander limited the A’s to two runs over seven innings in the Division Series and held Yankees scoreless over 6 1/3 innings in the ALCS.
TIE IT ON: No need to adjust the set. That will be a University of Toledo bowtie you see Fox reporter Ken Rosenthal wearing during the television broadcast of Game 3 in Detroit.
Rosenthal wore a UT bowtie to benefit the Dana Cancer Center during a regular-season game, and held a Facebook contest to determine which ones he would wear during the World Series. UT’s tie got the third-most votes.
SECRET HANDSHAKE: Don't dare try to talk Prince Fielder into offering any specifics about his signature handshake with Miguel Cabrera.
It's not going to happen even though he knows everybody is clamoring to learn it from the leader himself.
"It doesn't have a name but it definitely is awkward when I see a grown man wanting to do it while I'm walking down the street," Fielder said. "It's just something me and Miguel do, and it's top secret. It's borderline weird, 'Hey, come on,' and I'm like, 'Hey, come on, I'm an adult.' It's cool, it's funny. It just feels weird sometimes."
The complicated move features the two players reaching out their right hands for a low handshake, then another backward slap before a high-five that's followed by them bringing both of their arms out as if to form a 'W' above their heads. Next, they move their right hands together as if sprinkling dust then come together in a warm embrace.
Would Fielder just walk everybody through it already?
"I can't do it," Fielder said, grinning. "It's top secret."
CATCH 'EM ALL: Buster Posey can get comfortable in his squat behind home plate.
Unlike in the last two series and several games down the stretch, Giants manager Bruce Bochy plans to keep the all-star catcher in his usual spot for every game even though he has the option of a designated hitter in Detroit. Hector Sanchez caught Barry Zito in Game 4 in Cincinnati in the division series. He also started behind the plate of the Game 4 loss against St. Louis for Tim Lincecum, with Posey shifting to first base in each.