LAKELAND, FLA — They keep coming, like ducks in a penny arcade. New rivals for Tom Brookens. Baseball in springtime is oh so poetic, the awakening of grass beneath a player’s feet and all that. Yeah. Unless you happen to be fighting for your job. And then the grass beneath your feet doesn’t feel so steady. That’s the other side of sports. Always someone before you, always someone right behind. Tom Brookens knows it. He’s lasted with the Tigers since he was called up in 1979 — while a half- dozen would-be third basemen have disappeared — and yet he still can’t walk out there and paint the bag his own.

He remains, at 32, a “utility” player, baseball’s way of saying sit down and wait.

On this day, Brookens is sitting outside the Tigers’ clubhouse in Joker Marchant Stadium. A cold March wind is blowing and he zips his jacket. As a free agent last fall he got interest but no offers. He signed again with the Tigers, and now it’s another struggle for the third-base job. No surprise.

“I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t put the numbers on the board to come waltzing in expecting the starting job,” he says.

“But I still think I could do it. I’m still fast. My arm is still strong. You know, there’s all this weight stuff now that I didn’t used to do . . . “

Inside the clubhouse, on the other side of the wall, is This Year’s Model for high hopes at third base: Darnell Coles, age 23. Brookens has nine years on the kid. He’s not sure if that’s good or bad. He simply does what he’s asked

Everybody wants to be a star. Some settle for a slightly lower orbit. Before becoming part of the Tigers’ “open mike” night at third base, Brookens spent nearly five years in the minor leagues. “You learn to be patient,” he says.

He had a good first season in 1980, batting .275 — “I probably had the most legitimate chance for the starter’s job after that” — but he pulled a hamstring the following April. And since then he honestly can’t remember which third base rival goes with which year. Was it Richie Hebner in 1981? Or was that 1982? Maybe it was Enos Cabell in 1982. And Glenn Wilson in 1983? And Howard Johnson. He was, uh, 1984? Yeah. And Chris Pittaro, the rookie sensation? He was last year, right? Last year?

Each time one of them fell, Brookens came in to pick up the pieces. And now only Brookens remains. Brookens and Coles, that is. “I introduced myself to Darnell the first day,” Brookens says. “I said, ‘I’m glad you’re here. It looks like it’s me and you.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, let’s just play.’ “

Another season at the penny arcade.

They make different impressions: Coles is young, his flesh smooth. He wears Mickey Mouse shirts and waves his fist for emphasis and he darts around the clubhouse and grins a lot.

Brookens, meanwhile, is developing the look of a weathered country and western singer. His mustache stretches across his face, his build is compact, as if each year of fighting off the comers has scraped him down to essential fighting form.

But he is a survivor, with a simple philosophy: If you can’t be phenomenal, be useful. Brookens plays where he’s asked, when he’s asked. He actually led the club in games played in 1985, thanks to late-inning substitutions. He even played catcher once.

“Let’s face it. If you’re going to replace a weakness on this club, where are you going to start? At third base. I tell Bill LaJoie, ‘If you can get a third baseman who’ll field and hit 20 home runs, go get him. But you better be prepared to offer him a million a year.’ “

His voice lowers. “And then I remind him, I’m not too bad a bargain, maybe.” Even veteran utility men dream

Inside the clubhouse, a second group of players, including Coles, is dressing for an afternoon workout. Brookens is already finished for the day. He watches the others trickle out. Wouldn’t he like to have one year in which there was no competition?

“Well,” he says, “if Coles wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be doing anything different.”

But you wouldn’t have to worry.

“I’m not worried,” he interrupts.

There are still dreams left. Even at 32. Brookens says starting at third base on Opening Day is a thrill. He hopes it will happen again. And maybe this will be the year, you know. . . .

And maybe not. Everybody wants to be a star. Some get almost there. Their honor to the game is that, in the end, almost is still OK.

How would you feel if you found out you’d always be a utility player? Always have to fight for the job. What would you say? Tom Brookens is asked.

From across the field comes the sound of hitting, like the clack of ducks at a penny arcade.

“I’d say all right,” he answers. “I accept.” CUTLINE Tom Brookens

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