For tigers rightfielder Bobby Higginson, batting against Roger Clemens is a lot like taking college calculus. "The difference is I only failed calculus three times," says Higginson, who flunked out of Temple in 1989. "I've failed Clemens 22 times and counting."
Though he can't seem to pass Rocket Science (he's 6 for 28 lifetime), the 28-year-old Higginson has still aced plenty of other aces. In fact, lately he has been doing some of the best math in the American League: At week's end he had a .308 batting average, 20 homers and 31 doubles. He had also made the dean's list in fielding, by leading the American League in outfield assists (13 through Sunday) for the second straight year. "I'd rather throw out a guy at home than hit a home run," says Higginson, who has done that seven times in the last two seasons. "Nail a guy at the plate, and all the momentum swings to your side."
The son of a Philadelphia machinist father and a typesetter mother, Higginson was a freshman walk-on at Temple in 1989. In his college debut, Higginson, then a runty (5'8", 160 pounds) rightfielder, pinch-hit a grand slam. The Owls lost the game, but he won a starting spot. "Fastballs were never my problem," he says. Books were. He was put on academic probation after his first semester and again following the second term. Strike three came the following semester. "I had four grades," he says. "The highest was an F." The other three: I (incomplete), R (repeat) and W (withdrew). "I was an idiot," he says, "with no idea where to go." He went to a Philadelphia-area community college, where he studied harder. Three A's and a B later, Temple took him back.
After spurning a $6,000 offer from the Phillies following his junior year, in 1991, Higginson took the $10,000 that Detroit dangled a year later to its 12th-round draft choice. After just three seasons in the majors—including stellar years in '96, when he hit .320 with 26 home runs, and '97, when he batted .299 with 27 dingers—the Tigers gave him a four-year, $16 million contract.
Higginson credits former Detroit star Kirk Gibson for much of his success. Gibson was in his final season when Higginson was a rookie in 1995, and they had adjoining lockers. "Gibby taught me how to think in the outfield, on the base paths and in the on-deck circle," Higginson says. "He was in my ear all season." He still is. While in an early-season slump a year ago, Higginson left a message on Gibson's answering machine: "It's me, Higgy. I'm terrible. I'm hitting .230." Gibson's advice: "Shut up and stop the negativity. Visualize how you felt in '96 when you were really rakin'. You've got to feel the feel."
After watching a video of his greatest hits, Higginson felt it. The next game he swatted a homer off the third deck of Tiger Stadium. A day later he hit three doubles, and he never looked back.
Following this year's All-Star break, Higginson started feeling a little sluggish at the plate. So before a series in New York in late July, he sought out Gibson, now a Tigers TV analyst, who told him, "Think of the last time you crushed an inside heater over the wall." Higginson listened and got hits in all four games.
"Hitting is all muscle memory," says Higginson. "Your mind absorbs things and transmits them to your muscles." He thinks he may have learned that in Psych 101. "It definitely wasn't in calculus," he says.