As you enter the Detroit Tigers locker room at Comerica Park, the first locker you run into belongs to Brandon Inge and that's just a coincidence.
Inge is finishing his 11th season with the organization and has become a popular fan choice around the Motor City because of his hustle and passion for the game.
If any year best exhibits his passion for the game and loyalty to the Tigers, it would be this year. As the former VCU standout put it, this season has been "frustrating as hell for all parties involved."
Entering this past Spring Training, Inge felt pretty comfortable offensively after putting up 40 home runs and 154 RBIs over the past two seasons, as well as being regarded as one of the game's best defensive third basemen.
However, he felt like he could do a little more if he tried to fine tune some mechanical things in his swing. He headed to Florida with the goal of cutting down on the strikeouts and lining the ball to all fields instead of his typical power game.
"You're always looking to improve your game every time you go to Spring Training," Inge said. "The issue came when I started having success with it and got completely away from who I am as a hitter. At this level, once it starts going wrong, it's easy for the snowball effect to come in to play and that's what happened to me."
That snowball effect happened in June and July of this past year, when the Lynchburg, Va. native went a combined 4-for-57 and saw his batting average drop to a career-low .177.
"At that point, you have so many people giving you advice that you find yourself over thinking at the plate," he said. "You get up there and you're just so frustrated that you can't concentrate and the next thing you know you're grounding out or popping up again."
What happened next is yet another shining example of what type of player and person Inge is.
It was the night of July 20th and Inge's agent showed up to tell him that the Tigers had designated him for assignment to Triple-A Toledo. He had the choice of either going to Toledo to work out the kinks or get released and sign with another team.
"I knew I had plenty of options to choose from at the big league level, but I'm not that type of person," Inge said. "I want to be an example to my kids that when something tough happens, you have to stay loyal and not just give up and go somewhere else. I wouldn't be practicing what I preach to them if I just took the easy way out, I've worked too hard to get where I'm at today to just quit and go somewhere else."
So the 11-year MLB veteran packed his bags and headed to Toledo, where he spent just over a month. For Inge, it was one of the best things that ever happened to him.
"I finally got back to just playing the game I love," he said. "I didn't have to think, I just went out there and played. I got back to hitting the ball for power and cranking it the way I knew how."
In 29 games with Toledo, he had seven jacks, 19 RBIs and a near .300 batting average. He had finally found his swing again and he's not sure he would have if he hadn't taken the gig in Toledo.
"My time down there really was a rejuvenation in a way," Inge said. "It was like I was back at VCU, just playing the game I love with a bunch of guys just having fun and trying to get better. At the big league level, everything is so business like that you find yourself just trying to hold onto your job instead of just having fun sometimes. For the type of player that I am, I have to be having fun when I'm playing this game."
The fun-loving Inge was recalled to Detroit in late August and in his first game back, cranked out two hits, including a home run.
"That first game back was something I'll never forget," he said. "It was no one's fault but my own what happened early this year, so to be able to get back to where I knew I belonged was almost a relief. The game was finally fun again."
While he isn't playing every day for the playoff-bound Tigers, Inge serves as a very solid back-up to current third baseman Wilson Betemit.
"I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me not playing every day, but bottom line, I'll do whatever needs to be done to help this team and organization win," Inge said. "But don't' be fooled, this sitting on the sidelines isn't for me and I'm going to do everything in my power to be back on that field on a nightly basis as soon as possible."
With a statement like that, there's no wonder why Inge is the first player you see entering the locker room.