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Mutka: Tigers family relishes Gary’s Big Mac

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Updated: October 18, 2012 6:22AM



CHICAGO — Standing behind the batting cage, his gleaming bald head setting him apart from cap-covered Tigers, Lloyd McClendon watched intently as Miguel Cabrera launched drive after drive into the deep recesses of hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.

On this particular night ominous clouds rumbled in, followed by rain just after batting practice ended. Before game four of the crucial series with the White Sox was postponed, the Detroit hitting coach clustered around the cage with restless manager Jim Leyland, relaxed third base coach Gene Lamont and general manager Dave Dombrowski. Presumably they weren’t discussing the Bears-Packers mismatch, which would eventually be shown on the jumbotron until umbrella-shrouded fans were dismissed.

McClendon, Lamont, Rafael Belliard, Jeff Jones and Leyland have been Motown fixtures up front for the last seven years. It’s doubtful whether any other franchise can match such stability in a sport notorious for the short shelf-life of its peerless leaders. Family atmosphere is an overworked cliche, but definitely applies here.

“Yeah, we like to think so,” agreed Big Mac, who managed Pittsburgh from 2001 until his dismissal in 2005. “We gel pretty good. We know how each other ticks.”

The Gary native played for four division-winning clubs, including Leyland’s Pirates from 1990-92. Mac is surrounded by nearly 50 years of pro baseball experience in Leyland and Lamont, whose eight years as manager included a stint with the White Sox. Exercising the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality, the Sox fired Lamont two years after he was named American League manager of the year in 1993.

If you consider McClendon the baby of the bunch, he’s a graduate student working his way toward a baseball Ph.D.

“They’ve been in the game a lot longer than I have,” he said, tipping his hat to the old pros. “It’s been a privilege and an honor to work with two guys who have been as successful as them. I learn something new every day.”

When Dombrowski brought first baseman Prince Fielder over from the Brewers during the offseason, baseball gurus assumed the Tigers were headed for the promised land. What these alleged wizards seemed to overlook was a shaky defense and the offseason injury that shelved Victor Martinez — a career .300 hitter — for the year. Making up his 40 doubles and 103 RBI offsets Fielder’s contribution.

Not to diss Fielder. He will deliver 30 homers and 110 RBI and help the Tigers reach three million home attendance for only the third time in franchise history. On the flip side, moving Cabrera to third base to make room for the overstuffed first baseman weakens the corner defense. They’re ranked nine places below the over-achieving White Sox, who are No. 2 (.988) in the majors.

Leyland was never lulled by preseason prognosticators who gave the Sox a resounding thumbs-down. Their dogged pursuit of the baseball’s Holy Grail confirmed his early warning.

“Surprised by the Sox?” McClendon frowned. “Not at all. Jim made a statement back in April, calling it B.S. The Sox are very capable, very talented.”

In his sixth year as hitting coach, Cabrera and Fielder make life easier for Mac.

Cabrera was considered a triple crown candidate until his batting average dipped below .330. He has exceeded 30 homers for six straight seasons and delivered 100-plus RBI for the ninth year in a row to strengthen his case for MVP honors. Amazingly, the native Venezuelan has never won that award despite his .310-plus career average.

Pitcher Justin Verlander is trying to correct that glaring oversight. The 2012 MVP recently mounted a Twitter mini-campaign for his teammate, including tee-shirts proclaiming “Keep the MVP in the D.” Cabrera’s competition would seem to be Josh Hamilton, the major league home run leader; Adrian Beltre, who will split the Rangers vote with Hamilton; and the Angels’ Mike Trout, who could win the batting title in his rookie season.

If Verlander cooked up a petition on Cabrera’s behalf, McClendon would be the first to sign.

“What he’s done is pretty special,” said the animated coach. “If you ask me, he should be looking at his third MVP. The voters saw it differently, but look at his numbers over the last three years. They’ve been phenomenal. He continues to sizzle and is always open to suggestions.”

How Cabrera fares in the ballot depends on the Tigers. McClendon doesn’t think it should matter, but if the Sox keep them out of the playoffs the odds suffer accordingly.

“Obviously winning (a division title) would help, but I don’t think that should be a prerequisite,” he said.

Hawk Harrelson, the often outrageous Sox TV apologist, considers Cabrera the best right-handed hitter since the prime of Frank Thomas. I’m on board with that, though Albert Pujols boosters make a serious case for their hero.

Blame the bottom half of Detroit’s lineup if they fall short. Dombrowski recently referred to the Tigers as “streaky ... very inconsistent ... bewildering.”

McClendon makes no attempt to dodge that critical bullet.

“Our lineup one through four is as good as any in baseball,” he said. “Five through nine we’ve been very streaky.”

What the former Valparaiso University star leaves unsaid is that his future may depend on the latter. Look no farther than both sides of town in Chicago to realize the fragile status of a MLB hitting coach. Just ask Greg Walker and Rudy Jaramillo, recent sacrificial lambs.

Put your hands together for ex-Cub Ryan Dempster, who was rescued from purgatory by the Rangers. Dempster has given up only seven earned runs in his last five starts, all victories. He’s gone at least six innings in each outing with a 1.91 ERA.

Sometimes nice guys do hit the jackpot.



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