Tigers' 'Red Pop' took baseball by storm 8years ago this week

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Few Tigers fans of today will blank on the name Chris Shelton, even though his 15 minutes of fame expired eight years ago.

They called him "Red Pop," for three things: his red hair, his power surge and his playing in Detroit, the home of Faygo.

Chris Shelton had a helluva career one week. But here's the thing about Red Pop. Eventually, it goes flat.

Shelton, eight years ago this week, blasted out of the starting gate with a fury for the Tigers. He was Ruth, Aaron and Cobb rolled into one. Never had I seen an opening week like Shelton's in 2006. I may never again.

There was little to suggest that Shelton was a candidate to author such an amazing start. He was a right-handed hitting, backup catcher/first baseman/third baseman. He had some power, but Shelton couldn't even make the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were in the middle of a dark era.

The Tigers took a flyer on Shelton by selecting him in the Rule 5 Draft in 2004 after the Pirates, who drafted him in the 33rd round of the 2001 Amateur Draft, left Shelton unprotected and off their 40-man roster.

Because of the Rule 5 stipulation that the Tigers had to keep Shelton on their roster all year or risk losing him back to Pittsburgh, Shelton was a passenger on the 2004 team. He got all of 46 at-bats, batting a robust .194.

Shelton didn't make the Tigers out of spring training in 2005, but starting first baseman Carlos Pena got injured, so Shelton was recalled from Toledo on May 31.

The redhead showed some punch. Shelton batted .299 and slugged 18 homers in 388 at-bats, serving as a first baseman and DH.

But those numbers didn't portend what was about to happen the following April.

The Tigers started the 2006 season in Kansas City, with several newcomers: manager Jim Leyland, pitchers Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, and for the first time as an Opening Day starter, Chris Shelton.

Shelton batted sixth and played first base that day. His first time up, against Royals starter Scott Elarton, Shelton singled. His next time up, the kid from Utah drove a home run over the left field wall.

In his next at-bat, Shelton homered again, spawning the first "I see you, Chris Shelton!" from FSD analyst Rod Allen.

Two days later, in Game Two, Shelton went 3-for-5. Then the Tigers, unbeaten, moved on to Texas, where Shelton again slammed two homers in one game. He hit another big fly in Game Four.

That was five home runs in four games, and the Tigers hadn't even played a home game.

Fans in Detroit gave Shelton a hero's welcome when he stepped to the plate in the home opener on April 10 against the defending world champion Chicago White Sox. And why not? All Shelton had done during the maiden road trip was slug five homers, drive in nine runs, and bat .583. He was putting up slo-pitch softball numbers.

Shelton slugged four more home runs over the next week, giving him nine homers in his first 13 games, and no one in American League history---not Ruth, not Greenberg, not McGwire, not Thomas---had hit nine homers so fast to start a season.

In baseball history, only NLers Mike Schmidt, Larry Walker and Luis Gonzalez had hit nine home runs in their first 13 games.

Chris Shelton, the redheaded kid from Salt Lake City---the player that the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates didn't want---was the fourth.

When Shelton hit his ninth homer in 2006, he was batting .471. Red Pop was sparkling and fizzing.

Of course, no one could keep up such a pace. And Shelton SO did not.

Over the next month-and-a-half, Shelton hit just two homers. His batting average had settled to a more realistic .292. But then it got worse.

Shelton wore his sizzling start, which was jackrabbit, more like an albatross.

I strode into the Tigers clubhouse in late-July before a game, and I encountered Shelton, whose average had fallen into the .270s by then, sitting in front of his locker. It had been a long time since he was the talk of baseball and was more Red Pop than Faygo's soda.

Shelton, at the time, was still being talked about, but unfavorably. He began to press, and with the July 31 interleague trading deadline approaching, there were whispers that the Tigers might go looking for help at first base---Chris Shelton's position.

So it didn't go too well when I asked Shelton if there was something the matter with his swing. It was a delicate, yet combustible moment in front of his locker.

His green eyes locked into mine and his mouth grew taut.

"C'mon, man," he began, "I ain't answering that s***. Go away."

I went away, leaving him to grip a baseball bat, shaking his head.

About a week later, the Tigers acquired veteran first baseman Sean Casey from the Pirates, ironically. To make room for Casey on the 25-man roster, the Tigers optioned Red Pop to Toledo.

It would be terrific if that wasn't the end of Chris Shelton as a relevant big league ballplayer. But it was.

Shelton came back to Detroit in 2006 when the rosters expanded on September 1. Red Pop went 4-for-19 with two RBI. He was left off the Tigers' post-season rosters in all three rounds as the team made it to the World Series.

Shelton didn't make the Tigers 25-man roster in 2007's spring training, and spent the entire season in Toledo. On December 5, 2007, the Tigers dealt Red Pop to Texas.

Shelton managed to get 97 at-bats with the 2008 Rangers, batting .216. A 26 at-bat season followed in 2009 with Seattle, Shelton batting .231.

His last big league game was on July 30, 2009. He was a month past his 29th birthday.

Shelton's last shot at the bigs was in 2011, when he signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets. But the Mets' Triple-A affiliate released Red Pop before the season began.

Chris Shelton had just 807 at-bats as a Tiger, but the first 51 of the 2006 season, when he slammed nine home runs, had 17 RBI and batted .471, won't soon be forgotten.

He had his moment in the sun, and for some big league players, sometimes that's all you can really ask.

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