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Published: Friday, 12/15/2006

Inge a good player, but a better man

It was early March and Brandon Inge was standing in the parking lot at Tigertown munching on a juicy, double-decker hamburger.

The Detroit Tigers third baseman was enjoying a rare day off during spring training.

But that didn t prevent him from chatting with a reporter and his father, a first-time visitor to Lakeland, Fla., for more than 15 minutes.

Inge always has time for everyone.

He rarely refuses an autograph request or an interview.

If you extend your hand, he ll shake it.

He truly is one of the good guys in baseball.

It was nice to see the Tigers reward him with a four-year, $24 million contract extension last week.

Inge doesn t have a mean bone in his body.

Even if he s not hitting his weight at the plate, or if he s booted a crucial ground ball, he ll greet you at his locker with a smile.

Heck, after St. Louis Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright fanned him to end the World Series with runners at the corners, Inge shrugged his shoulders and said, At least I went down swinging.

Inge is a fighter.

He was one of a handful of players who survived the dark days of baseball in Detroit the 119-loss season in 2003.

He has a much better chance of ending up on a golf course than he does in Cooperstown after retiring, but he s still a powerful No. 9 hitter.

Last season, he set career highs with 27 home runs, 83 RBIs, and 83 runs.

Inge batted .273 in the playoffs, with one homer and four RBIs as the Tigers beat the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics before falling to the Cardinals in their first World Series appearance since 1984.

Manager Jim Leyland likes his range and strong arm. Leyland believes Inge will eventually blossom into a Gold Glove third baseman.

Even though he committed 25 errors at the hot corner this season, including three in the playoffs he led all AL third baseman in assists with 398 during the regular season.

His 555 total chances were 81 more than any other major league third baseman.

Inge flourished under Leyland s leadership. His all-out hustle made him a fan favorite in Motown.

At 29, it s hard to believe that he is the Tigers longest-tenured player, but it s nice to know that he ll be wearing the Olde English D uniform through 2010.

Inge attended Virginia Commonwealth, where he was a shortstop and relief pitcher.

He was drafted in the second round as a catcher by the Tigers in 1998, despite never having played the position.

He was slated to begin the 2001 season at Triple-A Toledo, but when Mitch Meluskey suffered a season-ending injury, Inge was named the Tigers Opening Day starting catcher at age 24.

He hit just .180, .202, and .203 with 15 home runs and 69 RBIs in his first three seasons and shuffled back and forth between Detroit and Toledo.

One hitting instructor after another tinkered with his swing. It literally drove him batty.

In 2004, he lost his catching job for good after the Tigers signed All-Star Ivan Rodriguez.

But Inge bounced back in 2005 to become the everyday third baseman, and he regained his stroke.

He has a lot of potential. And now he has enough money to buy everyone a bushel-full of burgers.

Don t laugh. Inge just might do it.



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