MVP candidateMagglio Ordo√±ez is proving to be well worth the rich investment the Tigers madein 2005
IN EARLY 2005,when Magglio Ordo√±ez was a free-agent outfielder, his meeting with Tigers ownerMike Ilitch was going so well that Ilitch pushed a pencil and a piece of papertoward him and asked him to name his price. Ordo√±ez, who had hit .306 in eightseasons with the White Sox but had played in only 52 games in '04 because of aknee ailment, had been virtually ignored by most clubs and didn't know what tomake of the surprise gesture. So he did what he would never do in the batter'sbox: He froze. "I got scared," says Ordo√±ez, who decided to let hisagent work out the details.
Ilitch, theLittle Caesars restaurant king who makes bold business decisions and wantedOrdo√±ez signed within the time it takes to make Pizza!Pizza!, eventually lockedup Ordo√±ez for a stunning $75 million guaranteed over five years with the dealpotentially growing to $105 million over seven depending on the player's healthand performance. Through Sunday neither could be better: Ordo√±ez, who hadmissed only eight games since the start of 2006, led the American League inbatting average (.362), runs (50), hits (75), doubles (28), total bases (142),slugging (.686) and RBIs (52) and is the early favorite for the AL MVP award."It almost seems like everyone else is a Little Leaguer," says Tigersfirst baseman Sean Casey. "He's homering to all parts of the park. Ifthere's an RBI out there, he's going to get it."
Ordo√±ez, 33, hadbeen suffering from bone marrow edema in his left knee, and after twosurgeries, including one done in Vienna, no front-office exec felt Ordo√±ez wasworth the gamble—including Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski. Ilitchrecalls that his G.M. told him the team doesn't give five-year contracts."He was trying to protect me," Ilitch says, "and I appreciatethat."
Last winterDetroit rolled the dice on another high-profile free agent, Gary Sheffield. Nowsandwiched at cleanup between Sheffield and shortstop Carlos Guillen, Ordo√±ezis having his best season by far. Yet he still ranked seventh among ALoutfielders in the latest All-Star balloting results, prompting Guillen to ask,"What are people thinking in this country?"
The publicity-shyOrdo√±ez has maintained a low profile despite being an excellent all-aroundplayer with a beautiful righthanded swing. He has gotten the most attention forhis curly and lush mane. "I've got to grow my hair long so my face doesn'tlook quite so round," he says. That self-deprecating manner was one of thethings about Ordo√±ez that impressed Ilitch. "He showed he was a humbleperson," the owner says.
Humbled himselfafter the Tigers lost 119 games in 2003, Ilitch pushed to sign such free agentsas catcher Ivan Rodriguez in '04, Ordo√±ez the next year and lefthander KennyRogers before the '06 season; at the same time Dombrowski was making impacttrades for righthander Jeremy Bonderman, Guillen and second baseman PlacidoPolanco.
After taking twoout of four from Cleveland last weekend, Detroit was 32--24 and 2 1/2 gamesbehind the Indians in the AL Central, in good position to make anotherpostseason run, particularly if Rogers (blood clot) and reliever Joel Zumaya(ruptured tendon in right middle finger) come back strong and if Ordo√±ez stayshot. Adjusting his swing so he can drive the ball to all fields (he has a .385average in spacious Comerica Park) is one of the steps Ordo√±ez has taken toimprove his hitting, but the key is his knee. "I'm healthy and feelinggood," says Ordo√±ez. "I never had any doubts about the knee."
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Touching 'Em All
If they don't turn their season around, the Rangerswill shop first baseman Mark Teixeira (right). Texas, 20--37 and 15 1/2 gamesbehind the AL West--leading Angels at week's end, will want a lot inreturn—such as outfielder Nick Markakis and lefthander Erik Bedard fromBaltimore, Teixeira's hometown.... One scout who watched Roger Clemens pitch inthe minors says the Yankees shouldn't expect him to be much more than a No. 3starter, and that's assuming he is not nagged by the groin injury that delayedhis first 2007 start in the majors.... At least one high-ranking Cubs officialis questioning whether righthander Carlos Zambrano, who fought with teammateMichael Barrett in the dugout last Friday, has No. 1 stuff. If the teamcontinues to play poorly, Zambrano could wind up traded.
TRIPLE THREAT At week's end Ordo√±ez was hitting .362 with 13 homers and 52 RBIs.
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (TEIXEIRA)