The Mick's back, and booed for lots of wrong reasons


July 02, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

It was just like old times for the Mick last night. Meaning: The fans booed him (at least, some of them did).

I was shocked. Tettleton, obviously smarter, was not.

In fact, when the Mick returned to Memorial Stadium yesterday for the first time since his trade to Detroit, the very first thing he asked was whether the fans would boo.

For what?

For hitting 14 homers and driving in 41 runs for the wrong team?

Let's get something clear. This was not the Mick's fault. The Mick did not want to go. The Mick wanted to eat his Froot Loops here for the rest of his career.

He didn't dream of clearing the roof at Tiger Stadium twice, as he already has this season. He didn't dream of doing it once. His field of dreams was always in Baltimore, where he had made a career for himself.

If you want to boo someone, you can pick among Roland Hemond, Frank Robinson, Larry Lucchino and Eli Jacobs. Each played a part in what was obviously a very bad trade, sending him to Detroit for journeyman pitcher Jeff Robinson (3-6, 4.56 ERA as an Oriole).

You don't have to be a genius to see now it was a dumb trade, but that isn't so bad. Dumb trades get made all the time. It's why they have general managers. What was so wrong with the Tettleton trade was that money was the principal factor. If Tettleton made $300,000 a year -- as, say, Ernie Whitt does -- Tettleton would still be an Oriole.

On a team short of power hitters, Tettleton was sent to Detroit two days after the Orioles traded for Glenn Davis and his $3.25 million salary. It was a cost-cutting move (Tettleton now makes $1.6 million) on a team that has the second-lowest payroll in baseball and a record to match.

The Orioles said they wanted to give Chris Hoiles a shot at catcher. Fine. And Bob Melvin is a great backup. But why not use Tettleton as a No. 3 catcher (or No. 1 if Hoiles were to fail) and let him compete with Sam Horm for No. 1 DH? If the Orioles weren't looking for left-handed power, why did they invite Larry Sheets to spring training? Yes, Larry Sheets.

Why would anyone possibly boo the Mick, the old cereal killer himself? He's a good guy who never criticized the Orioles and still won't. Ask him whether he feels vindicated, and he looks at you as if you're nuts.

"I just feel glad to have a chance and glad that things are working out," he says.

They're working out all right. They're working out like Jane Fonda. The guy the Orioles gave up on is probably going to be back on the All-Star team. Sparky Anderson, in typical Sparky-ese, says the guy the Orioles gave up on is the best catcher in the big leagues.

Of course, it wasn't just the Orioles who didn't want Tettleton. No one wanted him. In a year of runaway free agency, Tettleton was the player stalled on the track.

"I think everyone looked at the 160 strikeouts," he says. He smiles. "Which are a lot of strikeouts."

And they looked at the second half when Tettleton had no idea what he was doing at the plate. The harder he tried, the worse he hit.And the worse he hit, the harder he tried.

"I was trying to get four hits in one at-bat," he says. "I was miserable, and I made everyone else miserable. I made my wife miserable. I took it home with me, and that's the last thing you want to do."

Tettleton wanted to take those games to the city dump, if anywhere. And yet, Tettleton still hit 15 homers and drove in 51 runs last season. And he switch hits and figured to never, ever have a year as bad as the last one.

The Tigers took a chance, as they did on a couple of players, and now they have this team of home-run hitters and strikeout hitters where Tettleton has to feel right at home. The Tigers lead the majors in both categories, by about 30 or 40 miles.

"Guys come out of the dugout swinging," he says. "It can get contagious."

There's a little strikeout fever, too, led by Rob Deer, who already

has 96. Tettleton has 55, which is a poor third on the Tigers.

"We're the K-K-K-K club," Tettleton says of him and Deer and Cecil Fielder and Pete Incaviglia. "If I strike out 150 times, I know I'm not going to lead the team."

The difference for Tettleton this season, he says, is that he's lowered his hands slightly and he's lowered his anxiety level significantly. It's all a matter of being comfortable, as Cal Ripken or Randy Milligan could tell you. And now Fielder talks about how wonderful it is to have Tettleton, who's hitting .269, behind him.

As for Tettleton, he's the same old Mick, a little wide-eyed at the success he's having. My favorite memory of Tettleton was in the '89 All-Star Game where he struck out in his one at-bat. He said it was the greatest strikeout of his life.

And when, in the space of a week, he hit the 24th and 25th homers over the roof at Tiger Stadium, he couldn't quite believe it.

"I was shocked," Tettleton says of the first one. "I asked Cecil where it went, and I couldn't believe it."

When he looked at the list of hitters who preceded him -- including Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew -- he said he couldn't believe that, either. His quote: "I wonder where I fit in with that group."

Maybe he doesn't fit in with them. But I kind of think he would fit in pretty well with the Orioles, who are finally starting to find themselves this season, too.

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