BRADENTON, Fla. – Brandon Inge knows what it’s like to be ignored. Even worse, he knows what it’s like to be mocked.
The veteran third baseman spent the first half of his career in Detroit playing for some of worst teams in recent memory during the early 2000s. It didn’t exactly qualify as a good time.
“It started out, we were a laughingstock for awhile,” Inge said.
Then it got even worse. As the Tigers rebuilt, people stopped talking about them at all.
“If it’s quiet, it’s not really a good thing,” he said.
Detroit, however, eventually got itself together thanks in part to Inge’s relentless play. At 35 and recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Inge thinks he can still bring it. And he thinks the Pirates are on their way just like the Tigers were not so long ago.
“I can tell they’re in the transitioning stages right now,” Inge said. “It’s going to be fun to be a part of.”
Provided his right (throwing) shoulder cooperates. Inge battled the aching joint much of 2012, heading to the disabled list four times in all, the last time coming when the shoulder popped out of place on Sept. 1 while making a place at third for the Oakland Athletics.
The six-month recovery period is almost up and the Pirates felt good enough about Inge’s rehab to sign him last week hoping he can provide some depth as a utility player. Inge stuffed his equipment bag full of gloves before heading down to spring training from his home in Michigan. There’s a chance he might need every one in order to find a niche in Pittsburgh.
“If I started at a different position every day, I don’t care,” he said. “I love competing and being a part of a team I think I can help. It’s more fun.”
The Pirates are less concerned with fun and more interested in having someone who’s been through the grind to help a team learn how to win consistently. Pittsburgh is set at third, shortstop and second base and first appears to be a battle between Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez. Yet as Inge points outs, “everybody is going to need a day.”
It’s something Inge saw plenty of over the last two seasons as the 2009 All-Star’s role diminished in Detroit to the point where the Tigers let him go last spring. Inge insists he doesn’t hold a grudge for Detroit letting him walk after 11 seasons.
Besides, he landed on his feet in Oakland, where he helped the upstart A’s make the playoffs. Inge hit .226 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs in 74 games in Oakland before the shoulder ended his season. Watching is old team and his current one battle in the postseason was a little weird.
“I told (the Tigers) if I was playing against you in the playoffs you wouldn’t have made it (to the World Series),” Inge said with a laugh.
Inge spent the offseason focusing on trying to get healthy and keep his career afloat. The phone rang with several opportunities but he chose Pittsburgh based on fit.
“I’m a huge fan of a blue-collar team and over the years, no matter what the record that was reflected, this team at the end of the year is a blue-collar team,” Inge said. “They really play hard, go out there and give everything they have. It’s something I really wanted to be a part of.”
Even if Inge isn’t quite sure when the doctors will let him really cut loose. Though he insists he can throw just fine, Inge acknowledges he may not be 100 percent until April.
“There’s no pain, it’s just a matter of trying to be smart about it and that’s hard for me to do,” he said.
That should give him enough time to get acclimated. This is the first time in his career he didn’t start the season with the Tigers. This weekend marked his first steps inside Pirate City and he joked he felt like a rookie.
In some ways, he is, though he and manager Clint Hurdle shared a couple of laughs during a brief meeting shortly after Inge arrived.
“We’re just playing catch-up with him,” Hurdle said.
Something Inge can appreciate. He spent most of the last seven seasons playing for Jim Leyland, who knows a little something about what it takes to win in Pittsburgh. Though Leyland and Hurdle are very different, Inge sees a common trait that will pay dividends.
“He wants to win,” Inge said. “I’ve been around a lot of managers. I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot and there’s a difference. You can tell ones that just go through the motions and just want to make a mediocre season and he really honestly, truly, he wants to turn it around.”