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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to defend their back-to-back American League Central titles.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

WS PREVIEW: Series all the sweeter for Tigers who had no guarantees to be here


DETROIT — He’d grown accustomed to having his last name on the back of a jersey.

But after being released by a third different Major League Baseball organization in the span of five years, it was looking more and more likely, for the time being at least, that he was resigned to having only his first name on a name tag.

Working the front desk at a gym. Baby boy on the way. Hopes and dreams dwindling further and further into the distance.

A long, long way from where he’d dreamed of being — and a long, long way from where he is now.

Having come very, very close to giving up his baseball dreams a little over a year ago, Quintin Berry is one of several players on the World Series-bound Detroit Tigers for whom the magical ride is just a tad bit sweeter, given the uncertainty they’d had about whether or not they’d ever make the trip.

—————

On April 1 last year, Berry was released by the New York Mets.

Before that, he’d been waived by the Phillies, who’d drafted him in 2006, then left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft by the Padres, who’d claimed him off waivers.

After the Mets released the 26-year-old Berry, he was out of baseball for the time being, and left to scrape by a meager living by working the front desk at a gym.

“I would check people in and call people and make sure if they changed their credit card, I tried to get them to give it to me and they never wanted to give it to me,” Berry said. “That was my job at the front desk. I’m definitely glad I don’t have to do that right now, that I’m able to come out here and keep playing.”

It wasn’t a given, though.

He’d get a phone call three weeks after the Mets released him, offering him a reprieve with the Cincinnati Reds. That wouldn’t last, either.

“I started laying in bed, when I got released, you know, a little over a year ago. I definitely started thinking about my job resume, going back to school and trying to figure it out,” Berry said, admitting he was close to pulling the plug on his baseball career. “To think I would’ve missed out on all this, man? I’d have been kicking myself. I never would’ve thought I’d have got here, but I’m so happy I did.”

He didn’t miss out, thanks in part to the call he got later in the year from the Tigers. Assistant general manager Al Avila pushed hard to get the speedy Berry, who gave the Tigers an element they were sorely lacking at all levels.

Coming from playing Double-A ball for the Carolina Mudcats in the Southern League, not much was expected of Berry, other than to add organizational depth. Even when the lean center fielder poked a grand slam over the center field fence in Bradenton, Fla., continuing his surprising spring training, he said his only goal was to stick with the organization. At the time, he felt lucky to be sent to Triple-A Toledo.

After hitting .270 with 19 stolen bases in 39 games for the Mud Hens, his shot at the big leagues came when Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson went down.

Berry performed well enough in his stead to stick on the roster when Jackson came back, adding a spark.

Like some fans, Berry himself was sort of waiting for the bottom to drop out of the situation. It never did.

“Well, it’s a wonderful story. It’s a tribute to him,” general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “But when you see a story like that, with a guy that’s been really a journeyman minor league player — he’s bounced from organization to organization, but he’s always tried. He’s got tools, but all of a sudden, here he is, he’s come up to the big league level, he’s had a chance to shine. Has been in spot where, again, he’s not intimidated. He brings a great energy level to the club. I think fans love him.”

Even now, four months after his initial call-up, the whirlwind ride isn’t something Berry has had much time to contemplate.

“Not really. I’ve tried to, but ... it’s kind of like a roller-coaster ride that never goes down. Things are just coming up and being more exciting and more more exciting,” Berry said after the Tigers finished off a sweep in the American League Championship Series Thursday, earning themselves five days off before the start of the World Series. “I’m trying to soak it in now. We’ve got a couple of days off, so me and the family can kind of sit back and reflect on everything that’s happened. But it’s amazing, and this experience is only going to get better.”

It’s been pretty good in Detroit, though.

Berry has become a fan favorite, popular enough to have his own jersey sold at the team apparel store.

And that’s not the only place he’s got people clamoring to wear a shirt with his number on the back.

“My son plays Little League baseball, and we played one team, and they had a bunch of shorter guys. One of the mothers came up, and — she didn’t know, she just knew I was one of the fathers — she said, ‘Is your son on that team?’ I said yeah. She said, ‘Gosh, they’re big!’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, they’re a little bigger than the guys on the team over there.’ And she said, ‘Everybody on our team wanted to be 52.’ They all wanted to be Quintin Berry’s number,” Dombrowski said.

“That’s the popularity aspect of it: The team could all relate to this young guy coming up, and overachieving this year, from his past history. I think fans absolutely love him. It’s a great story.”

———

Sometimes the great stories have a potentially sad ending.

Don Kelly, in his own right as much of an underdog and popular figure as Berry, had just as much to fear that he’d never make it to this point, either.

After spending the better part of four seasons as the Tigers’ utility man, Kelly was unceremoniously designated for assignment on Aug. 3, to make room for Andy Dirks’ return from the disabled list. Despite his versatility, Kelly struggled with a season-long hitting slump, failing to get his average over .200.

There was no guarantee, after the DFA, that he’d be claimed off waivers. Even if he cleared waivers, there was no guarantee — despite his popularity with the coaching staff — that he’d be brought back to the organization.

When he was assigned to Toledo after clearing waivers, there was no guarantee he’d come back up when the rosters expanded in September. And if he did, there was no guarantee he’d make the playoff roster for a team that was expected to make a postseason run.

So what do you do, keep your fingers permanently crossed?

“Yeah,” Kelly admitted. “Yeah. ... Yeah, I didn’t know. There was nothing guaranteed. But in this game, you learn a long time ago, you just keep grinding it out. You don’t take it personally. I was hitting .170-something, so you don’t really — I know I bring a lot to the team, as far as versatility, but we needed a spark. So you don’t take it personally, you just keep trying to do your job, and go down there and keep playing.”

Despite the lack of guarantees, it worked out in the end for Kelly.

He made it back with the roster expansions in September, scoring the game-winning runs on back-to-back nights, as the Tigers finally opened a fraction of a divisional lead at the very end of the regular season.

A postseason hero with a Game 5 AL Division Series home run in Yankee Stadium a year ago, this time around, Kelly would get the walk-off sacrifice fly in Game 2 of the ALDS against Oakland.

Now, he’s headed to the World Series with his teammates, all the uncertainty in the past.

“This is why you play the game. This is what you dream about as a kid,” Kelly said. “This is unbelievable. It’s a long road to get to the big leagues. You’ve got to keep battling. This is why you do it.”

———

Even when you continue to battle, though, occasionally, you’re just fighting the numbers.

Reserve infielder Danny Worth would come north with the big league squad, in part because one of the regular infielders at the time — Brandon Inge — was not ready to start the season.

But Worth would be sent down on April 14, as soon as Inge was ready to come off the 15-day disabled list.

It would hardly be the last time Worth would be sent either up or down the I-75 shuttle to Triple-A Toledo. In all, he’d be optioned out or recalled a combined total of nine times before being recalled a final time when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1. At one point, he made the trip to Detroit to join the team for a single day before being sent back down again.

That uncertainty took a toll on him after a while.

“I had a lot of nights I couldn’t sleep this year, just because you’re going up and down, and it was so stressful,” said the easygoing Worth, who also made the postseason roster because of his versatility. “It makes it all worth it. We’re going to the World Series. ...

“It just makes it that much sweeter.”




Email Matthew B. Mowery at matt.mowery@oakpress.com and follow him on Twitter @matthewbmowery. Text keyword “Tigers” to 22700 to get updates sent to your phone. Msg & data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.

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