Tito Fuentes: The Tigers' first free agent was also the team's first hot dog

Jeff Zelevansky

Before Lou Whitaker made second base his own for 18 years in Detroit, his predecessor spent one delightful and flashy season in Motown.

Let's play some word association.

The sport is baseball. The player was a hot dog. He wore number 44.

Go.

Everyone who said Reggie Jackson, take a step backward. We have some nice parting gifts for you backstage.

Tito Fuentes had a gold tooth, wore headbands over his baseball cap and did a nifty bat flip as he arrived in the batter's box.

And he wore number 44, playing second base for the Tigers in 1977.

Young Louis Whitaker wasn't quite big league-ready and the Tigers needed a second baseman in the worst way, because that's what they had in 1976 -- a second baseman in the worst way.

Gary Sutherland started '76 at the keystone position, but in June he was traded to Milwaukee for someone named Pedro Garcia, straight up. Neither second sacker was anything to write home about.

With the hot prospect Whitaker still a year away, Tigers GM Jim Campbell, never known for his deep pockets, broke out owner John Fetzer's checkbook in a move totally out of character.

Free agency had taken baseball by storm ever since a landmark ruling in 1975 made pitchers Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers and Dave McNally of the Orioles the game's first modern-day guns for hire, able to sign with the highest bidder for their services.

Starting in 1976, a draft was held, with teams "selecting" that year's crop of free agents, who could then negotiate with any of the clubs that drafted them. It was more of a circus, but it excited MLB fans.

The Tigers, with the miserly Campbell functioning as the caretaker of Fetzer's money, didn't select anyone in the 1976 free agent draft, despite fan protest.

But when second base proved to be a black hole heading into the 1977 season, Campbell finally decided to break off a check.

For the grand total of $90,000, Campbell signed Fuentes away from the San Diego Padres.

I was a 13-year-old, shaggy-haired baseball fan at the time, and I knew all about Fuentes from his National League days with the San Francisco Giants and the Padres. And I was as excited as hell that he was going to be a Tiger.

Fuentes was an anomaly for more than the fact that he was the Tigers' first legitimate free agent.

The Tigers were a button-downed, ultra-conservative franchise under the Fetzer ownership, which began in 1961. Campbell himself fit perfectly into that model -- a no-nonsense guy who abhorred style and put a premium on substance.

On the field, with the exception of the eccentric Denny McLain and with apologies to happy-go-lucky Norm Cash, the Tigers of the 1960s and into the 1970s were a mostly vanilla bunch -- just the way Jim Campbell preferred it.

There was nothing vanilla about Tito Fuentes, whose very name was ostentatious by Tigers standards.

Fuentes was credited with one of the game's best quotes, uttered after he was brushed back one night.

"They shouldn't throw at me," Fuentes said. "I'm the father of five or six kids."

The Cuban Fuentes broke into the big leagues with the Giants in 1965 at age 21 and by 1969 he was the team's regular second sacker.

In a sport where the greats of the game make the hard plays look easy, Fuentes had a flair for making the easy plays look hard -- or, at the very least, stylish.

Fuentes didn't do anything in a routine manner. From the headband over the baseball cap to the bat flip in the batter's box, Fuentes hammed it up. And that included plays in the field. He even threw the baseball in a fun, fancy way. He would leap when he didn't need to, and so forth.

I knew of all this when the news was reported that the staid, no-nonsense Campbell, who personified the franchise, had signed Fuentes in February, 1977.

I told anyone who would listen, and those who didn't care to, that watching Tito Fuentes play second base for the Tigers was going to be a treat. I know I sure enjoyed it.

I can still see the switch-hitting Tito ambling up to home plate, the barrel of the bat in his hand. Then, the tap onto the plate with the handle as he flipped the bat half a rotation with one hand and caught it by the handle with the other. Pure joy.

On top of his antics, Fuentes ended up setting a career high in batting average with the Tigers at age 33 in 1977, hitting a robust .309 while being slotted in the no. 2 hole for manager Ralph Houk, another conservative baseball man.

Meanwhile, Whitaker and a shortstop named Alan Trammell spent '77 getting final seasoning before their storied big league careers would begin one year hence.

So despite setting a career high in BA and playing decently in the field, Fuentes' one-year contract was allowed to expire without the Tigers lifting a hand to re-sign him.

But Tito knew that going in -- that he was a one-year stopgap before Whitaker's ascension to the big leagues.

Fuentes retired in 1978 after batting .140 for the Oakland A's, who released him in July.

Today, Tito broadcasts for the Giants, and he remains one of the fans' most favorite of any player in franchise history in San Francisco.

They have good taste.

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