The world is looking rosier to the Detroit Tigers. With an effort, the frustration of last year's fourth-place finish can almost be forgotten—a finish, incidentally, which from a certain point of view might have been something to cherish. After all, it was the first time in six dismal years that the Tigers had lifted themselves out of the second division. But when your club boasts four .300 hitters and two 20-game winners, as Detroit did in 1956, you feel you can expect richer rewards from life. The Tigers certainly did. When the long season ended, though, their fourth-place spot was only a game and a half better than sixth place, and 20 full games behind the champion Yankees. Instead of four .300 hitters there were none; and there was only one 20-game winner around.
Now Manager Jack Tighe claims with disarming unsophistication that lessons have been absorbed: "I think we'll be a better club for it this season. I know I've learned a lot in the past year. Last year at this time in spring training, I couldn't see anything wrong with the club. You might say I was lulled to sleep by all that proven talent out there. And I was feeling pretty good about managing in the big leagues for the first time.
"I've learned a little more about handling the men. How to keep them in the right frame of mind. I've learned that when a big leaguer does something wrong, he feels worse than I do. Some react differently, that's all."
More alarmingly, Jack Tighe also discovered that .300 hitters are not automatically and permanently attached to that dizzy eminence; they can sometimes hit .270. And that two 20-game pitchers can wind up another season winning only that many between them. That's what happened when the Tigers, the widely touted dark horses of the spring, limped into the fall as a mediocre .500 ball club.
"We thought we'd do better last year after analyzing the potential of some of our guys," continued Tighe frankly. "We didn't look for any of the eventualities that did happen to us. We didn't concentrate enough on defense. When you get right down to it, it was the defense that hurt us the most. When our hitting and pitching didn't live up to their advance notice, we didn't have anything else to fall back on. [The Tigers ranked last in the league in double plays, seventh in assists and total chances.] This year I know where this club can be weak. Last season I fooled myself on that. All our thinking has been to make moves so that if those guys don't hit again, we won't be so badly off. We didn't do that last year."
The Tigers have done just that. They picked up Jim Hegan, a 37-year-old veteran who is rated one of the best defensive catchers in the majors. They picked up reserve outfield and pinch-hitting strength with Gus Zernial, Bill Taylor, Jim Greengrass and Lou Skizas (now trying to make the team at third). They got Gail Harris from the Giants to give Ray Boone a rest at first base. But most of all, the Tigers outmaneuvered veteran player-grabber Frank Lane and came up with Billy Martin in the off season's biggest player trade.
"We got Martin to play shortstop, and Harvey Kuenn is moving to center field," the Detroit front office announced calmly—and the protests flared. How could the Tigers move the American League's All-Star shortstop to a position he's never played before, to accommodate a second baseman who has only played a handful of games at short? Martin can't play shortstop! Kuenn can't play center field!
It sounded like a bold experiment and it is—probably one of the boldest ever made in a spring training camp. And it's certainly the biggest baseball news to come out of Florida or Arizona this year.
"We didn't move Kuenn because we think he's a lousy shortstop," explains Tighe generously. "Granted he was never a cat out there, but he was adequate. We simply think Martin will be better. Kuenn started to lose his quickness after he broke a small bone in his foot late in the 1956 season. Another thing that has hurt him is his size. He's a big man and his bending isn't quick. He lost some of his agility around the bag and going to his right. He's always had fast hands, but his size, more than anything, has been against him at short."
Coach Billy Hitchcock, a former infielder by trade, says, "I have a feeling Harvey always wanted to play in the outfield. In past years he was always going out there to shag flies. You don't see infielders doing that. He's always had good hands. You should see him out there scooping grounders one-handed—like Willie Mays—and whipping the ball in. He likes it in center field."