He ranks among the leaders in home runs and RBI, but Mickey Tettleton's new-found versatility could be his biggest contribution to the Detroit Tigers this year.
In the midst of what could be a career year, Tettleton looms as an All-Star without a position. The ex-Orioles catcher started behind the plate last night for only the 22nd time this year -- four fewer than he has played in the outfield and only nine more than he has started at first base.
The transition of Tettleton from an everyday catcher to a hitter for various positions has presented Tigers manager Sparky Anderson with several options, all offensively related. It has allowed Chad Kreuter (.330, five homers, 20 RBI) 35 starts as the catcher and Kirk Gibson (.266, seven homers, 34 RBI) to serve as the primary designated hitter against right-handed pitching.
The time in the outfield has given Tettleton a better appreciation of those who do it on a full-time basis. "It's a lot tougher than it looks," he said.
"You can never understand what it's like to have a ball get lost in the lights until it happens to you," said Tettleton. "It's a very lonely, empty feeling. All you can do is try to be somewhere close when the ball comes out [from the glare of lights]."
Presented with the options he had, Anderson said he didn't spend any time debating the move of Tettleton to the outfield. "I don't worry about that [switching positions] -- I just put somebody out there.
"A lot of times I'll play a guy somewhere, just so I can place other guys [in the lineup]," Anderson explained. "And if I ask somebody to do something he can't do, it's my fault. Blame me, don't blame them."
Make no mistake, though, Tettleton wouldn't be a leading
All-Star candidate, despite his numbers (18 home runs, 60 RBI) if it weren't for his background as a catcher. He is third in the voting behind Ivan Rodriguez and the injured Sandy Alomar, and he seems almost certain to be part of the American League team at Camden Yards on July 13.
If he is part of the All-Star celebration here, Tettleton says it will have a special meaning -- but it won't be one of vindication.
"As far as telling the Orioles 'I told you so,' I have no feelings like that at all," said Tettleton. "I'm grateful to the Orioles -- they gave me a chance to play.
"To be able to come back and play in the game, and spend some time with friends I made while I was here would be special," said Tettleton. "But I don't have any bad feelings about the Orioles."
It was in 1988 that Tettleton, after being released by the Oakland Athletics, found himself without a job and willing to accept one with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. He quickly earned a promotion to the big leagues, but has not forgotten the experience.
"I think about it a lot," Tettleton said. "It taught me not to take anything for granted."
It was during the "Why Not?" season of 1989 that Tettleton had his breakthrough year, his 26 home runs (65 RBI) indicating for the first time the potential stored inside his powerful frame. But, with free agency on the horizon, he struggled the next season, falling off to 15 homers and 51 RBI.
Those numbers were dwarfed by 160 strikeouts. At season's end, the Orioles were unwilling to risk $5 million for a three-year contract or a possible arbitration hearing and decided instead to clear a spot for Chris Hoiles. The result was the forgettable trade of Tettleton for right-handed pitcher Jeff Robinson.
The move paid off big time for Tettleton, who got a $1.6 million contract from the Tigers in 1991 and then signed an $8 million, three-year deal after hitting a then career-high 31 home runs.
Looking back on his last year here, Tettleton said there was only one explanation for his drop in production. "I think it was just trying to do too much to live up to the previous year," he said. "I got in such a rut, I couldn't get out of it. It was definitely a learning experience."
Last night Tettleton hit his 18th home run of the year, a titanic shot that landed in the vicinity of Boog's barbecue stand behind the right-center-field bleachers and hit the warehouse on the bounce. With 60 RBI, he is on a pace to shatter his personal highs of 32 home runs (set last year) and 89 RBI (1991).
And almost certainly his production will lead to an All-Star selection. The only other time Tettleton made the AL squad was while he was with the Orioles in 1989, when he had 20 homers and 51 RBI at the break.
"The way I look at it, I win," said Tettleton.
"Either I get to go to the All-Star Game or I get to spend three days with my family. I can't lose."