Published May 18, 2010
Like a lot of you, I was watching on television Monday night as Marcus Thames won an epic Red Sox-Yankees game with a walk-off home run.
You might have been surprised.
Thames' tenure with the Tigers (2004 to 2009) correlated roughly with my time as a baseball writer at the Detroit Free Press . And I can tell you something from experience.
He does stuff like this all the time.
It's just that many fans might not have noticed.
Maybe it's because he hasn't spent much time in big markets or played many games on national television. Maybe it's because he entered Monday with a .246 lifetime average. Maybe it's because, with a few exceptions, he has spent his career as a reserve player.
But he has, to borrow the phrase, a great sense for the moment. He is Robert Horry with a baseball bat. The guy makes his living on big hits.
And he doesn't just hit home runs. He hits home runs that stick with you. Not surprising, considering he went deep against Randy Johnson on his first swing in the majors -- as a Yankees rookie in 2002.
Willie Horton, the Tigers legend, nicknamed him "Gates Junior" -- in honor of the prolific pinch hitter Gates Brown.
"Marcus is Marcus," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said once. "He's a big-time hitter."
Thames (pronounced "timms") is also one of the most likeable players in baseball. He overcame childhood tragedy -- his mother, Veterine, was paralyzed in a car accident when Marcus was 5 -- and has shown a quiet determination throughout his career.
He's fondly remembered in Detroit as the journeyman who clubbed 26 home runs for the charmed 2006 team. That season, he averaged one home run for every 14 at-bats -- a staggering clip.
In one of that summer's most memorable games, he socked a two-run, game-tying home run off Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen. (Detroit won in 10 innings.)
Similar homers followed in later seasons. It seemed Thames was good for a big moment every couple months.
I remember a two-out, two-run, game-tying, ninth-inning home run against David Aardsma in April 2007.
I remember an eighth-inning home run off Scott Baker to account for the only run in a 2007 win over the Twins on national TV.
I remember Thames hitting perhaps the longest home run I have ever seen: a shot off the center-field camera well at Comerica Park, high above the 420-foot marker. (Daisuke Matsuzaka was the pitcher.)
And I remember this fascinating statistic: At one point in the 2008 season, the Tigers were 12-1 when Thames hit a home run.
The only loss? A game in which Thames homered twice against eventual National League Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum.
Thames produced 35 homers per 162 games over the past four seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com. But he was considered to be too streaky, too strikeout-prone and too iffy in the field for everyday duty. So, the Tigers let him go after last season.
Now he is back with the Yankees, his original organization. He is getting a lot of playing time now, because some of the team's higher-profile players are banged up. He's actually hitting .365.
And so it was only a matter of time before he did something like this -- crush a home run against Jonathan Papelbon, in a nationally televised game, to establish himself as a True Yankee for 2010.
It might have shocked you. I believe it was bound to happen.