News that Brandon Inge's career with the Detroit Tigers came to an end Thursday was no great surprise. Not to fans, many of whom have been calling for his head for years now, many of whom have been hoping the inevitable could be staved off by better performances on the field. Not to members of the organization, who asked him to take a demotion to the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens last July and declared he had to hit to keep his spot with the team secure this season. And, most of all, not to Inge himself, who saw the writing on the wall and the bridge on the horizon drawing closer by the minute.
"I'm always a guy, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," Inge told the media scrum in the Tigers' clubhouse Thursday afternoon. " Looks like somebody took out the bridge. I'm gonna find another way around."
Inge's poor play on the field this year and for several years past is beyond dispute. His move to second base did not come without a few hiccups. Plays that may not fit the rule book definition of errors still showed the athletic 12-year veteran was moving along a learning curve. His lack of success at the plate did not justify Inge having more time to learn the position. Following a poor showing in spring training, Inge went just 2-for-20 this month playing for the Tigers. He hit a home run April 16. He hit a double April 24. He went hitless during the other seven games he appeared in. It was time, and Inge knew it.
"That's just the business side of it," Inge said. "If you've been around this game long enough, you understand. You understand how it works. You don't let it affect you in any way on the field. You prepare yourself."
And so did we.
Some prepared with glee, hopefully anticipating the game that would mark Inge's last. While it's understandable people may look forward to having fresher faces trying to help the team's future, some appeared to have the toothless grins of peasants at a middle ages beheading, hooting and hollering and throwing spoiled food at the one only too aware of the fate he was about to meet. Many, I think, are able to see the move from a more balanced perspective, understanding why the move had to be made but with no joy for what was set to come.
Outside of Michigan, the soap opera of Inge bewilders. How can one player cause such passion? What is this fascination with Inge? His addition or removal from the 25-man roster is hardly a blip on the national stage, yet Tigers fans bicker endlessly about each move, each day he spends in the lineup.
For many, Inge is a player easy to sympathize with. Listed at 5-11, 188-pounds, he isn't the biggest guy on the team. He had to look up to the Paul Bunyon statures of many of his teammates, much as we would if we met them. Many things didn't come easy to Inge. He may have made the hustle play, but he didn't always make the perfect throw. He struck out 100 more times than he hit for safely. He batted a paltry .234. He met dejection with a boundless optimism that it might be better next time, even when others thought it best he quit trying.
Inge was there for the bad times, making his debut in 2001 and playing in a majority of the games when the team lost 119 games in 2003. He was there in the good, serving as one of the club's main voices as the Tigers burned bright in 2006 before their light was finally extinguished. During that season, he hit a career-high 27 home runs, a mark he reached once again during his All-Star 2009 season. Yet to end the 2006 World Series Game 5 loss to St. Louis, he struck out and walked back to the dugout as the Cardinals celebrated their championship.
Inge did his part, as many players do, to use his position of celebrity to help others. One of the most memorable posts by Bless You Boys editor emeritus Ian Casselberry was about a day Inge spent at Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, where Ian's mom worked.
"He was very nice," Mom said. "Very humble, too. He seemed kind of shy. Who's number 15? Is he the one who donated all the money?"
He was, and he was at Mott as the hospital celebrated his donation of $100,000 to build a playroom for children receiving cancer treatments. Inge loved being a Detroit Tiger, and all that it meant. He loved spending his entire career with Detroit. He chose to live in Michigan -- year round. In this era of free agency, that's a story you're going to read less and less. In the end, he suffered the inevitable declines and failures that will hound any athlete who hangs on just a bit too long. And like an aloof party goer, he failed to take the clues that it was time for a graceful exit.
Thursday, at the close of a dreadful home stand and with a plane waiting on the tarmac to take his teammates to New York, the team's host declared the night over. Many wished the door would slam on Inge's face, but the host shut it gracefully, thanking him for what he has meant for the team and community.
Spending his final minutes as a Detroit Tiger in the home clubhouse at Comerica Park, Inge looked back before he looked forward: "This has been where I've been my whole career. I'll miss the guys. A chance to go play somewhere else may be a good thing for me personally, but my heart will always be in Detroit, 100%, forever. ... I hope the team does well. I hope they go on and win it all."
My hope is that this song of Brandon Inge, with so many choruses repeating over the years, will some day have a fitting coda -- one worthy of a player who gave everything he could but who could never give enough.