<
>

Monroe jumpstarts Tigers' offense with early homer

DETROIT -- A cursory background check on Craig Monroe reveals some interesting tidbits, other than the fact that the Detroit Tigers claimed him off waivers from the Texas Rangers in February 2002.

His mother's name is Marilyn Monroe. He's a disciple of Detroit special assistant Willie Horton, a formidable power hitter with the Tigers in the 1960s and '70s. And he learned to speak Spanish in the minor leagues because he had a Latin roommate and figured it would be a nice way to bridge the communications gap.

Monroe also has a pretty good flair for the English language. During the American League Championship Series, when baseball writers were dwelling on the Tigers' collective lack of patience at the plate, Monroe quipped, "If I wanted to walk, I'd be a mailman."

True, Monroe's .301 on-base percentage this season doesn't inspire much confidence in his ability to work the count or tax a pitcher's workload. But he did rank second in the American League in 2006 with 14 homers in the seventh inning or later.

Perfect timing doesn't always mean waiting to provide dramatics. In Detroit's 3-1 victory in Game 2 of the World Series, Monroe provided the exclamation point at the beginning rather than the end.

If ever a team needed a pick-me-up, it was the Tigers, who looked sorry and out of sync in the World Series opener. Monroe made an immediate statement, turning on a Jeff Weaver fastball and driving it 421 feet over the bullpen in left center field to give Detroit a 1-0 lead with one out in the first. Carlos Guillen followed with an RBI double, and Tigers starter Kenny Rogers was on his way.

Monroe continues to be a force in October. He batted a mere .188 against New York in the Division Series, but two of his three hits were home runs. Then he busted out by hitting .429 with another homer in the ALCS against Oakland.

Now, with two homers in two games against St. Louis, Monroe has tied the Tigers' career postseason record of five set by Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg over 23 World Series games in the 1930s and '40s. And he's three shy of the record of eight longballs in a single postseason, shared by Barry Bonds of the 2002 Giants and Carlos Beltran of the 2004 Astros.

Monroe, the understated type, feels about as comfortable being compared to Greenberg and Bonds as Kenny Rogers does being mentioned in the same sentence as Christy Mathewson. Still, as he told reporters the other day, he's as focused now as he's been in a long time.

"I'm not getting caught up in all the things that are going on around me," Monroe said. "I'm staying focused on one thing, and that's trying to be a good player."

Mission accomplished. After Monroe crossed home plate in the first inning, no one even checked to see if his hands were clean.

Monroe's bust-out October has justified the decision by Detroit management to keep its outfield intact. In July, when rumors swirled that the Tigers might assemble a package of young talent in an effort to acquire, say, Alfonso Soriano, general manager David Dombrowski's only trade deadline acquisition of note was trading for first baseman Sean Casey.

Monroe learned something about perseverance down the stretch. He hit .186 in September, when the Tigers were on the verge of a free fall. But no one in the Detroit clubhouse will soon forget his game-winning, three-run shot off Scott Proctor in the ninth inning that saved the Tigers from a three-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees in late August.

"He's been such a big part of this club this season," Casey said. "Big hits. Late hits. Setting-the-tone hits. Everyone in Detroit knows who Craig Monroe is, and the American League does, too. But it's still nice to see him doing the same stuff on a national stage like this."

"He's been such a big part of this club this season. Big hits. Late hits. Setting-the-tone hits. Everyone in Detroit knows who Craig Monroe is."
-- Sean Casey

Before Game 2, Detroit hitters held a meeting and talked about coming out strong and not losing their aggressiveness, even though they were panned for swinging so freely and indiscriminately in the series opener against Cardinals rookie Anthony Reyes.

Monroe, in locked-and-loaded mode, was perfectly fine with staying aggressive. Outfielder Marcus Thames, one of his closest friends on the team, points out that Monroe has absolutely been raking in batting practice.

When Monroe crossed home plate after going deep against Weaver, he showed the kind of emotion one normally sees from an NFL special teams player who has just delivered a jarring hit.

"He's had a lot of battles in his career, and all that stuff comes out when you do something like this on the big stage," Thames said. "He's showing he's an emotional guy."

The two friends have plenty in common. Thames spent six years in the Yankees system and was going nowhere in the Texas organization when Detroit signed him as a minor-league free agent in 2003. He and Monroe have spent a lot of time talking about how rejection strengthened their character, and helped serve as motivational fuel.

Thames, who hit 26 homers in 348 at-bats this year, has spent most of the postseason in the dugout watching his buddy go off, then shaking his hand after the return trip.

"I'm proud of him," Thames said.

A lot of people in Detroit can say the same thing these days.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.