Placido Polanco was the Detroit Tigers’ first Dominican-born impact player (Part 1)

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: A detail of a Detroit Tigers hat and glove are seen during warm ups against the New York Yankees during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 6, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: A detail of a Detroit Tigers hat and glove are seen during warm ups against the New York Yankees during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 6, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

Ozzie Virgil, a former Tiger, became the first major leaguer born in the Dominican Republic when he debuted with the New York Giants in 1956. The country has been a tremendous pipeline of talent for the majors ever since, but the first Dominican-born player to really make an impact as a Detroit Tiger didn’t come along until 2005. That player was second baseman Placido Polanco.

The Placido Polanco for Ugueth Urbina (and Ramon Martinez) trade with the Phillies on June 8, 2005 was one of the best trades that Dave Dombrowski made in his years as Tigers President and General Manager. He described Polanco as someone who “knows how to handle the bat” and was “a good all around player”.

Polanco may not have been a familiar name to fans that hadn’t watched much National League baseball, but longtime Philadelphia sportswriter Jim Salisbury knew what kind of building block Dombrowski had acquired. Possibly sending Tigers fans a glimpse of the future, Salisbury wrote,

"“His bat and glove seldom get stale, and it’s nice to have those guys on teams with championship aspirations.”"

The Phillies dealt Polanco to give more playing time to young Chase Utley. Omar Infante had been the Tigers’ regular second baseman, but was struggling at the plate. The trade would work out pretty well for both teams.

Polanco came into Detroit hot. He had hits in each of his last nine games with the Phillies. He stayed hot once he arrived, getting hits in his first five games as a Tiger (and 10 of his first 11). Batting right-handed, Polanco was an excellent contact hitter who didn’t strike out much. That was by design. He explained,

"“Since I started playing ball, I knew I wasn’t going to be a home run hitter. I figured I had to make contact and make something happen – and get good at it. Something that has worked out for me through the years is, put the ball in play and give myself and the team a chance to make something happen.”"

He made things happen, even without putting the ball in play, on June 19. The Tigers hosted the Giants, and Polanco led off the second with a walk. The run that he later scored tied the game at 2-2. He walked and scored again in the fourth as the Tigers took a 4-2 lead. The Giants broke a 5-5 tie in the ninth with three runs, which the Tigers matched in the bottom of the inning. The game continued on.

Luckily for the Tigers, Polanco wasn’t done making things happen. With one on and one out in the tenth, he drove Scott Eyre’s high and inside fastball, a 1-0 fastball that he was waiting for, deep to left-center for a walk-off home run. Polly’s first home run as a Tiger sealed a 10-8 win.

After just 22 games in the two-hole, Tigers manager Alan Trammell made Polanco the leadoff hitter. In his first game hitting first, on July 5, Polanco flied out in the first. He led off the third with a single and also scored the first run of the game. The Tigers added two more runs that inning and squeaked out a 3-2 win over the Indians.

It didn’t take for Dombrowski long to decide that Polanco was going to be a big part of the Tigers’ future. He signed Polly, who could’ve become a free agent after the season, to a four-year extension in early August. An equally optimistic Polanco saw “a very good team here” and said that he wouldn’t have signed if he didn’t think the Tigers had a chance to win.

Polanco continued to rack up base hits after inking his new deal. He also had a stretch in which he went 79 straight plate appearances without striking out. He hit .338 with the Tigers (and .316 with the Phillies). His .331 overall average was the second best in the majors (NL batting champ Derrek Lee of the Cubs hit .335).

Trammell had come to appreciate the skillset that Polanco brought to the team. He remarked,

"“He’s just what I call a good baseball player. He can do a little bit of everything – swing the bat, run the bases, he’s smart and attentive with good instincts and is a very good fielder.”"

Trammell had also come to appreciate how well Polanco fit in with the Tigers. He remarked,

"“His style is doing whatever it takes to help a team win. This is an individual game within a team concept, and he understands that.”"

Trammell wasn’t Polanco’s manager for very long, however. Dombrowski replaced him with Jim Leyland after the season. As Leyland started getting familiar with his first Tigers team early in spring training in 2006, one of his first decisions was to move Polanco back down to second in the lineup. He said that Polly was “the perfect number two hitter”.

Polanco took some time away from the Tigers that March to represent the Dominican Republic in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. He helped his team get into the semifinals. Hitting leadoff and playing second base, Polanco had two hits in the Dominicans’ semifinal game against Cuba, but the Cubans prevailed 3-1.

The 2006 season got off to a promising start for the Tigers, who won their first five games. Polanco hit safely in each of them, notching eight singles. He enjoyed a big day at the plate on April 19 and achieved a career milestone.

After singling in the first, Polanco added an RBI single in the fourth and a two-run single in the fifth. His seventh inning single was the 1000th hit of his career. Congratulations were in order, but Polly took it all in stride. A respectable player in Philadelphia, he had quickly established himself in Detroit. Polanco credited the effect that stability had on his mindset and his approach. He stated,

"“I felt really relaxed when I came over here and I was given the second base job. And then signing for four years made it even better.This is a game where you have to be relaxed and not put pressure on yourself. It’s already hard. When you’re hitting, you need a loose grip and loose hands.”"

May was excellent for the Tigers, who roared through a 15-1 stretch to take over first place in the AL Central. Polanco had a 10-game hitting streak, included back-to-back three-hit games, during that run. In the midst of it, he became the hero of the day at home on May 21 against the Reds. Leyland had given him a rest, so Polanco sat and watched a game that was still scoreless in the top of the eighth.

With runners on the corners and one out, Leyland had the perfect pinch hitter in mind for the situation, someone that he knew would put the ball in play. He chose Placido Polanco. Polly delivered an RBI single through the right side of the infield, and the Tigers held on for a 1-0 win.

Polanco had even bigger heroics in store for Tigers fans on June 24. There was a standing room only crowd of over 42,000 at Comerica Park for a Saturday night game with Polanco’s original big league team, the Cardinals. The Tigers had been in first place for over a month by that point. It was Comerica Park’s seventh season, and the 2006 Tigers had become the best team to call that ballpark home.

The game was tied 6-6 after nine innings. Tigers rookie fireballer Joel Zumaya set the Cardinals down in order in the top of the tenth. With two out in the bottom half, Curtis Granderson walked. Polanco followed by ripping a 3-1 pitch into the spacious right-center gap. The ball rolled to the wall. Polanco headed for second, and Granderson sped around the basepaths to score the winning run. “And the magic continues at Comerica!”, Tigers TV announcer Mario Impemba exclaimed.

Fittingly, the next day was Placido Polanco bobblehead day. Another crowd of over 40,000 saw the Tigers wrap up a sweep of the Cardinals. Polanco doubled and scored during a three-run eighth inning rally that gave the Tigers a 4-1 win.

The Tigers maintained a grip on first place throughout July and into August. Hard times hit them in Fenway Park on August 15. The Tigers held a 2-1 lead over the Red Sox in the bottom of seventh. With two out and the potential tying run on second, Polanco dove to catch a blooper off the bat of Boston’s Doug Mirabelli. He made the play, but separated his left shoulder when he hit the ground.

Polanco was disappointed about the injury, but proud that he’d held on to the ball to make a run-saving catch in a tight game. The Tigers ended up winning 3-2, but paid dearly for it. Like Alan Trammell before him, it didn’t take Leyland long to realize how much Polanco meant to the team. He said,

"“He does every little thing for this ballclub that a manager wants. He’s steady on every routine ground ball. He turns every routine double play. If you ask him to hit-and-run, he can hit-and-run. If you need a fly ball, he can hit a fly ball. If you need a two-out base hit, he can get a two-out base hit…We’re going to miss him.”"

When Polanco went down, the Tigers had a 6.5 game lead in the AL Central. Their biggest lead had been 10 games on August 7, and so a slide had already begun. Polanco’s 35-game absence made it worse. When he returned on September 23, the Tigers’ lead was down to 1.5 games.

In Polanco’s first game back, in Kansas CIty, Leyland had him batting ninth instead of second. Supposedly it was a way to let Polly ease back in, but he ended hitting in the first inning anyway. The Tigers had jumped out to a 4-0 lead. With only one out, Pudge Rodriguez on third and Brandon Inge on second, Polanco stepped in for his first at-bat since being activated.

He worked the count full, fouling off three pitches in the process. Polanco then laced one down the first base line. It was a 2-run double that turned the lineup over. Curtis Granderson, who homered to lead off the game, tripled Polanco in. It was all part of a 10-run first inning rally. Polly added two more singles later before Leyland took him out after five innings. The Tigers won 15-4.

Afterward, Polanco admitted that the shoulder still bothered him a bit, but said that he felt like he’d passed a test. At the plate, he said that he accomplished what he wanted to by being able to take some pitches in his first at-bat. In the field, he was involved in all three outs in the bottom of the first (fielding a grounder, catching a pop fly, and getting an assist on a force play).

Leyland gave Polanco a rest the next day, but he was able to celebrate with teammates after the game, as they clinched a playoff berth with an 11-4 win over the Royals.

With the division title still up for grabs, Polanco was able to play each of the Tigers’ last six games. Sadly, they only won one of them and lost the division lead to the Twins on the season’s last day after a 10-8 loss to the Royals in 12 innings. The Tigers would enter the playoffs as the American League’s wild card team.

In Game 1 of the American League Division Series in Yankee Stadium, Polanco’s RBI double and subsequent run were part of a three-run fifth inning rally, but the Tigers lost 8-4. They bounced back for a 4-3 win in Game 2. Polanco chipped in a single, but wasn’t involved in the scoring. The series moved to Detroit for Game 3.

With the tough lefty Randy Johnson on the mound for the Yankees, Leyland decided to bump Polanco up to the leadoff spot, instead of the left-handed hitting Granderson. Johnson had handled left-handers pretty well during the season.

Polanco singled in the first, but was stranded. In the second, with two out, Polly got another shot at “The Big Unit”. Granderson (the ninth-place hitter) was on second. Polanco was down to his last strike when he shot one back up the middle, underneath Johnson’s glove, and into center. Granderson scored to cap a 3-run rally. The Tigers cruised to a 6-0 win in front of an ecstatic home crowd.

The mood would be even more festive the next day. Polanco singled twice and scored twice in Game 4, as the Tigers thumped the Yankees 8-3 to advance to the American League Championship Series. The game ended when Robinson Cano, another fine Dominican-born second baseman, grounded out to Polanco.

In the 1972 ALCS, the Tigers lost to Oakland A’s. The 2006 Tigers would have a chance to avenge their elimination. The ALCS began in Oakland on October 10, Polanco’s 31st birthday. The Tigers made a party of Game 1, winning 5-1. Polanco walked and scored in a two-run third inning rally and drove in a run with a single in a three-run fourth inning rally.

The Tigers had to make a lineup change prior to the next game. Sean Casey, who hit third in the lineup, injured his calf in Game 1 and would miss the rest of the ALCS. Leyland decided to move Polanco down to the three-hole. He felt that Polanco’s approach would be consistent wherever he hit, and that made him a better choice than someone else who might try to hit for more power to compensate for Casey’s loss.

Polanco kept all three Oakland outfielders busy in Game 2. In the first inning, he singled to left. He led off the fourth with a single into center and went on to score the first run of a four-run Tigers rally. Finally, he singled to right in the fifth. The A’s intentionally walked Polanco in the seventh before Huston Street managed to strike him out in the ninth. The Tigers won 8-5.

With two road wins under their belts, it was the Tigers’ turn to play host in Game 3. On a cold Friday the 13th afternoon, Polanco would be unlucky for the A’s. His first inning line drive single to center scored Granderson. He added a sharp double into the left field corner to lead off the third.

FOX commentator Steve Lyons appreciated what he saw when Polly was at the plate. He noted that Polanco “works himself into counts where he gets good pitches to hit.” The Tigers’ 3-0 win gave them a 3-0 lead in the ALCS.

Polanco had three more singles in Game 4, again using the entire outfield. With Craig Monroe already aboard and two out in a 3-3 tie, Polanco singled to right center in the ninth off the first pitch he saw from A’s closer Street. That kept the inning going and set up an iconic moment when Magglio Ordonez hit his unforgettable pennant-clinching home run.

Years later, Polanco reminisced about the jubilation that he felt as he rounded the bases on that special night at Comerica Park and the feeling that permeated the ballpark afterward. He recalled,

"“I was so happy. I don’t think I’d call that running. I was jumping around the bases. To watch the fans having that much fun, and carrying Jim Leyland around the field, it was a special moment”"

Amidst the post-game celebration, Polanco was named the ALCS Most Valuable Player. The series showcased the abilities of a player who hadn’t generated a lot of hype, but Polly’s nine hits, .529 batting average, and .579 on-base percentage quietly led the way for the brand new American League champions. He humbly called winning the award the best moment of his career,

If only the World Series had gone so well. The Tigers’ offense was almost nonexistent. Polanco struggled the most. He went 0 for 17 with only one walk against St. Louis Cardinals pitching. The walk came with two down in the top of the ninth inning of the decisive Game 5. He was stranded on first as the game ended and the Cardinals won the Series.

Despite Polanco’s unfortunate showing, he still had the respect of one opponent in particular. His good friend, former teammate, and fellow Dominican, Albert Pujols observed,

"“He didn’t get any hits in the World Series, but he always gave you a tough, competitive at-bat. That’s what I love about him. He was always the toughest out.”"

In 2007, opposing pitchers would find out how tough it could be to get Placido Polanco out.

(To be continued.)