ROGER OVER ROOKIE

NEW YORK – Two nights earlier, he was sleeping at a hotel in Altoona, Pa., sharing a room with a minor league teammate.

Friday night, he had his own key at the Hilton in New York City.

And here he was now, Saturday afternoon, at the plate in Yankee Stadium, facing Roger Clemens, a future Hall of Fame pitcher who had already won 40 major league games before the kid was even born.

Cameron Maybin stepped in, his long body mostly legs, his young teeth still framed in braces -“I didn’t get my wisdom teeth until late” he would explain – and he came around on a 1-1 pitch, and – smack! – sent it over the wall in dead centerfield, well over 400 feet away.

There are moments, and there are moments. His first major league home run? On his second day in the big leagues? Off Roger Clemens? To centerfield? At Yankee Stadium?

“What did the other Tigers say to you when you got back to the dugout?” someone asked the new kid after the game.

“They told me it was OK to smile now,” he said.

“And did you?”

“Yeah. I did. Big.”

And he did again. Big.

Score one for the scouts. The can’t-miss kid from the mountains of Asheville, N.C., showed why baseball gurus have been salivating over him since his freshman year in high school and why the Tigers reportedly refused to trade him straight up for superstar Alfonso Soriano last year. Soriano went on to nab a $136-million contract from the Cubs.

By contrast, Maybin may be a steal.

The 6-foot-4 phenom, who two years ago was hitting massive home runs in high school batting practice that the freshmen had to retrieve, would finish Saturday 2-for-3 with his first major league hit (a single in the second inning), his first major league home run (in the fifth), his first major league RBI and his first major league hit-by-pitch (in the sixth).

More amazingly, he would still be 20 years old when it ended. With all that has happened, you’d expect he’d be 26 or 27.

“My first at-bat (Friday night) I was really jacked up,” Maybin said before Saturday’s game. “My adrenaline was off the roof. …

“Today, I’ll relax a little bit. Let the game come to me.”

If it comes to him any faster, he’ll have to duck.

It all happened so quickly

Can you imagine going from the bus to Altoona to home plate at Yankee Stadium? Can you imagine being awakened after midnight and told the big club wants you right now?

Can you imagine a five-hour car ride with your agent to New York, trying to sleep in the passenger’s seat, and before you can rub your eyes, you are seeing your name in the Tigers’ lineup, batting second, just ahead of Gary Sheffield?

That’s what has happened to Maybin this weekend. The Tigers had previously said they wouldn’t rush him up this year. And then four home runs in six minor league games changed their minds. The call went out.

And just like that, The Prospect is The Big Leaguer.

“He’s a special talent.” Jim Leyland said after Saturday’s game. The wizened manager knows better than to wax on about a kid under such a microscope – and he won’t. But even Leyland had to admit, “Today he had a heck of a day.”

Understand, this doesn’t happen often. It happens sometimes. And the special ones make it stick. Al Kaline won a batting title when he was 20. Bob Feller was in the major leagues before his high school graduation.

But even in this age of “sign ’em fast and play ’em young,” a 20-year-old starting in leftfield is a double-take. Maybin spent no time in Triple-A, less than a week in Double-A and before that was swinging for the Lakeland Flying Tigers in A ball.

Saturday he took Clemens deep. The ball smacked off the centerfield wall, not far from the plaques devoted to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.

Later, by his locker, his uniform stripped away, Maybin looked every bit the young man he is. His skin is clear and smooth, his eyes are without lines, his tongue swirls reflexively over his braces as he listens to questions. He has headphones around his neck, and one major league home run in the record books.

“Off of Roger Clemens,” he said. “I can tell my kids about that.”

His KIDS?

They grow up so fast, don’t they?

He’s just getting started

Now, it wasn’t all exclamation points for Maybin on Saturday. His fielding was barely ready for prime time. He flubbed communication with Brandon Inge on a pop fly by Jason Giambi, resulting in a drop and a generously scored double.

Maybin also had several chances to throw home to catch a runner; neither was impressive. The kid has been referred to as a “five-tool player”- akin to being a five-star hotel – and one of the stars is for throwing.

We’re told he has a big arm, so we’ll assume that comes with more polish, less nerves and an acclimation to playing leftfield versus center, where he played in the minors.

But one thing you cannot deny is Maybin’s speed. On the single he laced off Clemens in the second, he seemed to swallow the distance from home to first in three strides.

He took off numerous times on a hit-and-run – only to jog back due to foul balls – and each time, he reached second base so quickly, you wonder why Leyland didn’t send him with a steal sign. In the future, he will.

Leyland told reporters before the game he would empty his wallet to see Maybin hit a triple. Instead, he got to see him jog out a home run. He plans to play Maybin again today, not on Tuesday, and see where it goes from there.

“I just told him to ignore all the advice he was going to get,” the manager said. “People will be telling him do this when this happens, do that when this happens. Forget all that. Just play your game. Show us what you can do.”

Maybin began that process Saturday. And though he no doubt will continue to go fast, things around him will slow down. He is here to stay and the Tigers can use his speed and defense even if he’s not batting every day.

But no matter what happens, no one can take away his first game, his first hit – or his first home run. Saturday. Deep. At Yankee Stadium. Off Roger Clemens. There are moments and there are moments. This was merely the first.

Just wait until he gets his braces off.

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).

( sidebar: WILD CARD RACE )

The Central Division champion and wild-card winner make the playoffs:

CENTRAL W-L PCT GB Cleveland 68-54 .557 — Detroit 67-56 .545 1.5 WILD CARD W-L PCT GB Seattle 68-52 .567 — N.Y. Yankees 69-54 .561 0.5 Detroit 67-56 .545 2.5 Toronto 62-60 .508 7 Minnesota 61-61 .500 8

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