Yashinsky: The Curse of the Tigers' Left Fielders

There are certain positions in particular settings that carry with them a built-in level of prestige.  Jumping center for the Los Angeles Lakers.  Operating out of the shotgun for the San Francisco 49ers.  Playing opposite Lou Gossett in anything.  These are roles that create legends.  Wilt, Kareem, Shaq, Montana, Young, Gere; a single name is sufficient to describe these once-in-a-lifetime figures. 

Then there is left field for the Tigers, the revolving door of the Motor City.  Many have embarked on this journey with hope and promise.  A starting position for a big league ball club -- what could be better?  But shortly thereafter, reality sets in.  Untapped potential is left unfulfilled, healthy careers become injury-ravaged, and majestic home run balls become long flies to the track. 

The Curse

The Curse of the Tigers’ Left Fielder is a living thing. 

The lack of continuity at this position is simply stunning.  Going back the last 27 Opening Days, the Tigers have started 21 different players in left field.  There was a new face every year from 1987 to ’93, and again from 2007 to the present.  Chances are that if you have played in an above average softball league in the last decade, and done so with a little pop at the plate and range in the outfield, the Tigers have been tracking your progress.  That nameless gentleman monitoring your Tuesday night doubleheaders in Novi hasn’t been there for the $2 dogs; he’s there to scout you.

Andy Dirks entered this year with a firm grasp on the spot.  He had a terrific summer in 2012, batting over .320 with some nice power in a part-time role.  The sky was the limit.  But Dirks caught the Tiger left field bug, and has been scuffling most of the season.  A recent 5-hit outing in Kansas City has the average hovering right around .260, which is about his high-water mark for the year. 

Making up the other half of the LF platoon is Matt Tuiasosopo.  After a sizzling start to the campaign, ‘Sopo (to make Spell Check less angry) has crash landed into the dog days of summer.  Since the All-Star break, he has one lonely extra base hit.  Obviously, Jim Leyland would love to be able to use a right-handed hitter against guys like Jon Lester or Derek Holland in the playoffs.  But as ‘Sopo continues to slug with the ferocity of an old teddy bear, that becomes a much less realistic option.

It’s hard to blame these guys, really.  There’s a higher power at work here.  Young phenoms, in-their-prime veterans, aging stars -- they all suffer the same fate after setting up shop in left field for the Tigers. 

The park was buzzing when prized prospect Juan Encarnacion trotted out to left on Opening Day in 1999.  “He’s a five-tool player,” everyone clamored in anticipation.  Unfortunately, one of those tools was the “complete inability to differentiate ‘ball’ from ‘strike’ as the pitch approached home plate.”  Turns out that’s kind of important.

Where Careers Go to Die

Jacque Jones arrived in Detroit (2008) having just completed his ninth consecutive solid big league season (.285, 66 RBI with the Cubs).  But left field for the Tigers is where careers go to die.  Jones had a horrific first month with the club, hitting about a buck-sixty and boasting the fluidity of a pre-oiled Tin Man in the outfield.  He was summarily released, signed by the Marlins for a cup of coffee, and out of baseball for good shortly thereafter. 

Those are just a couple of the countless examples.  Fred Lynn, Curtis Pride, Johnny Damon, the irritable Young brothers -- the list of has-beens and never-weres could fill a book. 

Many would make the case that the best left fielder in Tigers‘ history was the homegrown hero from Northwestern High, Willie Horton.  And while Willie’s playing days are long in the rear view, his presence remains.  The statue of #23 stands proudly beyond the outfield fence, overlooking its former terrain. 

But for Willie’s sake, maybe they could rotate his likeness about 45 degrees to the right.

Nobody likes watching a former home crumble to pieces right in front of their eyes.

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