BAT MAN | MASTERFUL MAGGS’ PUSH FOR BATTING TITLE IS A JOY TO WATCH

At first, you said, “It’s way too early.”

Then you said, “He’s hitting really well.”

Then you said, “It’s still too early.”

Then you said, “But he’s hitting really well … “

At the risk of jinxing everything, may I point out the obvious? Today is the first day of July. That means April, May and June are over – and so is nearly half of the season.

And Magglio Ordonez is still hitting better than anyone in baseball.

As of Saturday morning, he was batting .375, which was 11 points ahead of the closest guy in the American League, and 27 points ahead of anyone in the National League.

So I went down to the stadium, and there was Magglio, by his locker, in his long-sleeved white T-shirt and long-but-shorter-than-last-year hair. And I said, “Do you give any thought to the fact that you might win the batting title?”

And he grinned.

And he said, “Too early.”

And I said, “When isn’t it too early?”

And he grinned.

And he said, “Last two days of the season.”

OK. So July isn’t October. You’ll forgive us a little excitement. After all, Detroit is not a haven for batting champions. Boston has batting champions. Seattle has batting champions. The Yankees, on occasion. San Diego when Tony Gwynn was around. But not Detroit. Not in recent years, anyhow.

We’ve had a home run leader (Cecil Fielder, 1990). A stolen base leader (Brian Hunter, 1997). We led the league in losses (2003).

But the last time a Tiger won the batting title? Are you ready? Forty-six years ago. Norm Cash, in 1961.

Forty-six years?

“Did you know that?” I asked Magglio.

“No,” he admitted.

“Do you get superstitious?”

“Not really,” he said. “I try not to see the newspapers. But then you are watching TV and they show something. And then your friends from back home call and say, ‘You’re leading the league!’ And I say, ‘I know, I know, OK.’

“I try not to have it in my head. For me, as long as I am hitting over .300, I can be comfortable.”

‘Something different’

Ordonez has done that before, hit over .300. Numerous times. Hey, his career batting average is .309.

But this year is different. This year, he is in lofty territory. This year, the ball must seem bigger and the pitches slower. At 33, Ordonez is on pace for career bests in average, hits, runs, doubles and walks. He’s having his best season yet in slugging percentage and on-base percentage. And his teammates have taken notice.

“I’m not really surprised,” said Brandon Inge, “because when I was a catcher facing him when he played for Chicago, there weren’t too many balls I actually got the opportunity to catch. He usually hit it out of the park. I knew then he was a special type of hitter.

“This year, he’s doing something different than I’ve ever seen. He’s letting the ball get so deep, taking his base hits to rightfield, his doubles to right-center, and then, maybe a slow change or curveball, he’s pulling for home runs to left.”

What Inge is pointing out is patience. Waiting on pitches. Other Tigers say the same thing. For whatever reason, Ordonez this year is more selective, more willing to see the ball, to wait for the right pitch, and to be satisfied with getting a hit – not necessarily putting it over the wall.

And so April came and went, and Maggs was on fire.

May came and went, Maggs still on fire.

June came and went, Maggs still on fire.

And wouldn’t it be something if this went on through July and August and into September? And fans grabbed box scores every day to see him battle Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter in the statistical wars that baseball does best?

I know they’re just numbers. But after a home run chase, few things are as much fun come autumn as a close race for the batting title. We just don’t remember it, because, well, be honest, how much can you remember from 46 years ago?

Tigers say he can do it

I asked around the clubhouse if the Tigers thought Ordonez actually can win the title.

“Yeah, he could win it,” Pudge Rodriguez said. “He’s very smart, he’s a great hitter and he waits for a good pitch. … If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to win the batting title easy.”

“I think, if he continues the way he’s hitting now, yes,” manager Jim Leyland said. “The biggest thing he’s done is get a lot of hits recently to rightfield. He’s just taking what’s there and not trying to do too much.”

Inge, who said it’s too early to make a prediction, did make a point about just how hard this is.

“It’s near impossible. … For perspective, I say that I’m an average big-league baseball player, OK? And still, out of everyone in the world, there’s not too many that’s as good as me. And at the same time, what he’s doing is better than anyone on the planet.”

Wow. Nothing like a little pressure. And yet someone wins it every year. Wade Boggs. He won batting titles. Gwynn won batting titles. Larry Walker. George Brett. Carl Yastrzemski. Batting titles always seemed to be for someplace else. Fenway Park. Yankee Stadium. The rare air of Colorado.

But Detroit? Well, maybe once. Ty Cobb actually won 11 batting titles in 13 years. Harry Heilmann won four in seven years. But unless you’re in your 90s, you can’t remember any of that.

Ordonez doesn’t. In fact, the whole thing is a little stunning for him.

“If I thought I would lead the league in something one day, maybe it would be RBIs,” he said. “To win a batting title would be a privilege. Like, a big privilege.”

Big numbers, big privilege. Still, unless something pretty drastic happens, it is likely that Ordonez will lead all hitters at the halfway mark of the season, which comes this week. So he already has that going for him.

One half down, one half to go. It would be remarkable, wouldn’t it? And amazing? And totally fun for this city – a Tiger outhitting everyone in baseball?

I just hope my asking Maggs didn’t put some sort of jinx on the whole thing.

Then again, I didn’t ask about hitting .400.

“If I thought I would lead the league in something one day, maybe it would be RBIs. To win a batting title would be a privilege. Like, a big privilege.”Magglio Ordonez, on leading the American League in batting average nearly halfway through the season.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

MEET MAGLIO Who: Tigers rightfielder. Age: 33. From: Caracas, Venezuela. Ht/wt: 6-0, 215. Bats: Right. Experience: 11 years. 2007 salary: $13.2 million.

THE ROLE: The Tigers’ power-hitting cleanup man and leading run producer. Quiet, but dangerous.

DID YOU KNOW? Father Maglio gave his son an extra ‘g’ for good luck. Magglio also named two of his three children after himself: Magglio Jr. and Maggliana.

STATS, ENTERING SATURDAY

R H 2B HR RBI BA OBP Season 65 108 34 13 68 .375 .450 AL rank 4 T-2 1 T-13 3 1 1 Projected 137 225 72 27 143 .375 .450

HE’S A HIT Magglio Ordonez had the best batting average in the American League entering Saturday:

PLAYER TM R HR RBI BA Magglio Ordonez DET 65 13 68 .375 Ichiro Suzuki SEA 56 5 39 .364 Derek Jeter NYY 53 5 38 .340 Orlando Cabrera LAA 52 5 47 .339 Jorge Posada NYY 41 9 45 .339

GOOG COMPANY If Ordonez wins the batting title, he’ll be the nineighth Tiger to do so. The other batting champs:

Year Player Avg. 1961 Norm Cash .361 1959 Harvey Kuenn .353 1955 Al Kaline .340 1949 George Kell .343 1937 Charlie Gehringer .371 1927 Harry Heilmann .398 1926 Heinie Manush .378 1925 Harry Heilmann .393 1923 Harry Heilmann .403 1921 Harry Heilmann .394 1919 Ty Cobb .384 1918 Ty Cobb .382 1917 Ty Cobb .383 1915 Ty Cobb .369 1914 Ty Cobb .368 1913 Ty Cobb .390 1912 Ty Cobb .409 1911 Ty Cobb .420 1909 Ty Cobb .377 1908 Ty Cobb .324 1907 Ty Cobb .350 SOURCE: Baseball-reference.com

WHO’S THE MVP? MAGGS OR A-ROD? The American League MVP race has two main candidates – the Tigers’ Magglio Ordonez and the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez. How they compare (through Friday):

BY THE NUMBERS

Ordonez Rodriguez Batting Average .375 .330 Home Runs 13 28 Hits 108 96 Doubles 34 20 RBIs 68 79 Walks 41 43 Strikeouts 36 62 On-base percentage .450 .425 Slugging percentage .628 .687 Stolen bases 2 9 Fielding percentage .993 .975

BEYOND THE NUMBERS Still pretty deadlocked? Free Press special writer Kyle O’Neill judges Maggs vs. A-Rod in other categories:

Google.com hits (estimate) Ordonez: 435,000 Rodriguez:. 1,470,000 Edge: Rodriguez. Though he has some work to do to catch tabloid pal Paris Hilton (74,900,000).

Nickname Ordonez: Maggs Rodriguez: A-Rod Edge: Rodriguez can be confused with other A-Rods like Andy Roddick.

Famous fued Ordonez: Ozzie Guillen Rodriguez: Derek Jeter Edge: Ordonez. At least Guillen called Maggs a “(bleep)” in 2005. Jeter didn’t really care about the A-Rod feud.

Physical feature Ordonez: Mullet Rodriguez: Adonis-like looks Edge: Ordonez. Anything that reminds us of MacGyver is a clear winner.

Best value Ordonez: $75 million for five years Rodriguez: $252 million for 10 years Edge: Ordonez. A-Rod is more expensive than the iPhone

Most memorable moment in the ALCS Ordonez: The shot heard ’round the world in 2006 Game.4 Rodriguez: The slap heard ’round the world in 2004 Game.6. Edge: Ordonez. Even Little Leaguers find more manly ways to avoid a tag.

What women think … Ordonez: The ladies love the flowing locks Rodriguez: Check Page 1A of the New York Post Edge: Jeter. Ordonez and Rodriguez can’t compete with baseball’s biggest heartthrob.

Impact on team’s success Ordonez: Tigers’ Mr. October has Detroit near first place. Rodriguez: Yankees’ Mr. April has New York under .500. Edge: Ordonez. Looks like another Magg-nificent summer.

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