Inge hopes Pirates can channel spirit of '06 Tigers
Veteran sees parallels between addition of Martin and Detroit's acquisition of Pudge
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The team two years removed from a season in which it lost more than 100 games approaches Spring Training with the World Series dream to which everyone is entitled -- and believes that delusion is made more credible by the presence of an All-Star catcher, whose purpose in signing as a free agent with the also-rans flabbergasted everyone.
But the team hopes this big-ticket catcher's championship pedigree will help bring fun times to its ballpark that bears the name of a local bank.
Today's Pirates, who lost 105 games in 2010, and newly signed Russell Martin are trying to jazz up PNC Park, right?
Guess again: The 2006 Detroit Tigers, who four months after their last of 119 losses in 2003 had brought Ivan Rodriguez into Comerica Park.
How did that turn out for those '06 Tigers? Well, they went to the World Series.
Brandon Inge was there, when Woodward Avenue was paved with yellow gold bricks. So was Jason Grilli, who this winter re-signed with the Pirates for the same reasons that had drawn him to Detroit as a free agent prior to the 2005 season. Can there be a Miracle on Mazeroski Way?
"It's always fun to speculate, right? A lot of variables in this game are unexplainable," Grilli said.
Why not, believes Inge, the man who was displaced as Detroit catcher and nudged to third base by Rodriguez.
"Yeah, lightning could strike again," said Inge, who considers the Bucs "ahead of the curve" since they lost "only" 105 at their low point. "You need that presence in the clubhouse and on the field, just a few key players -- then after that it's just confidence.
"Because everyone is capable of winning a World Series. It's just a matter of putting it all together at the right time in the right year."
That is what those '06 Tigers did to make a genius out of Rodriguez, whose sanity had been questioned when he left the Marlins -- after they'd won a World Series in 2003 -- to join the Tigers, who had those 119 losses the same season.
"I know they had a bad season last year," Rodriguez said at the time, "but I think it's going to be completely different."
"This is how it starts. This is how we get better," said then-Detroit manager Alan Trammell, despite the fact that it was Jim Leyland who would ultimately see the turnaround through.
That is what Martin is expected to bring to the Pirates, a club already more accomplished and taking higher realistic expectations into Spring Training than those '06 Tigers. Martin's preseason visibility has been relatively low, with some upper-body soreness keeping him away from early Grapefruit League action.
If the Pirates want to retrace rags-to-riches footsteps, there's another set to follow. Until their own 2011-12 misadventures, the only team in the post-1995 Wild Card era to own a playoff position on July 25 in consecutive seasons yet finish with a losing record each time were the 2005-06 D-backs -- who in 2007 won the National League West.
But the 2003-06 Tigers seem to offer a better paradigm. Martin can help guide the Pirates through the dog-days wilderness, as Pudge did the Tigers.
"Basically, it's a mindset -- an attitude change," Inge said, recalling the impact of Rodriguez. "You bring in something that's different from what you had in the past, and it changes the dynamic of your mentality when you go on the field. If you come from a winning organization to a losing organization and if things don't feel right to you, you'll change it around.
"You might lead the guys by example, or by telling them what it's like. Guys who don't have the experience of having gotten to the postseason ask guys who do, 'What's it like? How'd you get there?'"
Now Inge -- trying to make the team as a utility man on a non-roster invitation to camp -- is one of those who can lend the voice of experience. If asked, the first point he will make is that, no, there is no "Aha!" moment when you realize you're legit. It just evolves, from being shortsighted.
"If there's one thing I've noticed, every good team I've been on, we never, ever thought about a game further away than the one we're playing tonight," Inge said. "You put every bit of effort into today's game, and when that's over with you wipe it away, win or lose. That's how you do it. Stick to short-term goals and you accomplish big things."
A catcher's capacity for disproportionate impact was only reinforced by Buster Posey's National League Most Valuable Player Award with last season's Giants, of course. Likewise, Martin's influence could extend way beyond a stat line.
"You need that presence in the clubhouse and on the field to anchor down a pitching staff," Inge said. "He's as good as anyone I've ever seen. And he's just a good all-around guy."
"It starts there," continued Inge, inadvertently sounding just like Trammell nine years ago.
Martin's mere choice to come to Pittsburgh is viewed as an encouraging sign by Grilli.
"Russ can see what's taking place. A lot of people like what's happening," Grilli said. "You like to go where you can contend, where you have a shot to win. If you can re-write history ... in Detroit we were part of something, and the city got so jacked up about it. We don't know what Pittsburgh would do if we won."
So maybe Martin wants to find out, and contribute to it. Or, maybe, he'd just heard that Grilli had chosen to return to the Bucs. The reliever is pretty good at these things.
"Back in '05, my choices were here, Minnesota and the Tigers," Grilli said of his options after his release by the White Sox in late January. "I happened to be lucky enough to pick the right one."
He wouldn't mind that lightning striking twice, too.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.