Former Hens reflect on time in Toledo, minor leaguesWritten by David Panian | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Jan. 18 visit to Toledo by members of the Detroit Tigers — the 2006 American League champion Detroit Tigers — stirred memories in fans of the wonders of last season.
For some, it might have been Jeremy Bonderman mowing down the Yankees in the division series. For others, it was probably Nate Robertson and the “Gum Time” that seemed to spur so many late-inning rallies. And, based on the loudest cheers when the players were introduced at the 2007 Fandemonium Jan. 18, the best memories were of Kenny Rogers’ postseason dominance and Magglio Ordonez’s home run to win Game 4 of the American League Championship Series and send the Tigers to their first World Series in 22 years.
But the visit to Toledo also stirred memories in some of the visiting players and coaches who made Toledo their last stop up the minor-league ladder on their way to the majors. Former Toledo Mud Hens Curtis Granderson, Mike Maroth and Robertson — who each helped the Tigers win 95 games last year — and former Hens pitching coach Jeff Jones, now the Tigers’ bullpen coach, were part of the entourage the Tigers brought to Toledo as part of their winter caravan throughout Michigan and Northwest Ohio.
Jones was the most veteran Mud Hen in the group, having spent part or all of the past 12 seasons with Toledo. When he reflects on those seasons, his best memory is of the 2005 International League championship.
“I know Toledo hadn’t won a championship in a long time. They hadn’t won a playoff game in a long time. Winning that first championship was one of the most special moments I’ve ever had in baseball and life probably,” Jones said. “Then to repeat it last year when it didn’t look like we were going to be able to repeat.
“We at times really struggled last year, but the guys really banded together at the end of the season, and that team was not going to be denied, I guess. When we got into the playoffs, I knew we were going to win.”
And win they did, blasting through Charlotte and Rochester to retain the Governors’ Cup.
On the other hand, center fielder Granderson and pitcher Robertson spent less than a season each with the Hens. Robertson’s first experience in the Tigers’ system was at Toledo in 2003 after he was acquired in an off-season trade with Florida.
“It’s a great place to play,” Robertson said. “Unfortunately, the year I was here we didn’t do so well. We were contending late into the year, but then we kind of faded. The fans were great, and the front office was good to us. But as much as I liked playing here, my ultimate goal is to get out of here.”
And that he did when he was promoted late that summer. He made 23 starts for the Hens in 2003, going 9-7 before being called up to Detroit and he hasn’t looked back.
Granderson is one of what the Tigers hope will be a long line of position player prospects that have success in the majors. A Chicago native, he enjoyed his all-star season with the Hens in 2005.
“Toledo is a sleeper town,” Granderson said. “A lot of people don’t know how great of a city it is. It’s a lot bigger than I expected it to be when I came here. … And there’s a lot of stuff to do on and off the field as well. It’s a great city to be a part of, one of my favorite minor league cities to play in.”
Maroth has the most varied memories of Toledo because his year and a half with the Hens ended the Ned Skeldon Stadium era and opened Fifth Third Field.
“I got to experience the old stadium and the new stadium,” Maroth, a pitcher, said. “I was right during that transition. … When I hear Toledo, the first thing I think of is the Mud Hens and playing and being a part of this city and the team.”
Maroth played all of 2001 in Toledo, which was the Hens’ last season at the Ned, then advanced to Detroit in 2002 after two months at Fifth Third Field and an 8-1 record in 11 starts. The only time he’s been back to Toledo was for four rehabilitation starts last season after he had bone chips removed from his left elbow.
Playing at the past two Hen houses allowed him to experience high points and, well, not-so-high points with the franchise. The 2001 team went 65-79 before sparse crowds, but the 2002 team finished 81-63 and made the playoffs, selling out frequently.
“You go from the Ned where there wasn’t much excitement about the Mud Hens and you go to a facility that’s a top-notch, minor league stadium, the fans are there supporting you. There was a lot of excitement in the city,” Maroth said. “It totally changed Toledo. It brought a lot of excitement about baseball. It was really neat to experience that.”