| The Detroit News
Detroit — Gene Roof can remember the first time he laid eyes on Christin Stewart. It was on the backfields at the Tigers’ training complex in Lakeland, shortly after the Tigers drafted Stewart in the first round in 2015.
It became instantly clear the powerfully-built kid from Tennessee was drafted for his bat and not his glove.
“I kept wondering why he wouldn’t move until the ball got on top of him,” Roof said.
Since 2001, Roof, who retired earlier this month, has been the organization’s roving minor league outfield and base running coach. Over the years he’d helped develop players like Curtis Granderson, Marcus Thames, Milt Cuyler and Craig Monroe. He was instrumental in helping Nick Castellanos’ successful transition from third base to the outfield in 2017. Recently he’s been working with Riley Greene, Parker Meadows and Brock Deatherage.
But few players over the years came to him as raw as Stewart.
“I don’t think anybody understands how much time I put in with him,” Roof said.
As Stewart himself recalled, Roof was with him so much early on, he was like his personal coach.
“When I first got drafted, everywhere I went, he pretty much went,” Stewart said, chuckling. “Me and Geno were always together those first two years, in fall league and minor league camp, we were always out there working together.
“He set the baseline. Because once I learned all the things he taught me, at that point I knew what to do and I could expound on it and make it my own.”
Nobody made Stewart do more bizarre and awkward drills than Roof. Before games at UPMC Park in Erie (Double-A), Roof would position Stewart about 90 feet away and facing the big wall in left field. On the padding beneath the wall, he’d position a target.
“He’d toss me a ball, then have me close my eyes and try to throw to the target — with my eyes closed,” Stewart said. “It was the most awkward drill ever. But it was all about feel. Feel the release point, feel what your body is doing.
“It’s hard to do. With your eyes open you can throw the ball right to it. With your eyes closed you have to make sure your body is in sync. You get the feel of knowing where your body is and where it needs to be to release the ball at the target.”
Roof was with him again, early in spring training three years ago, working with Stewart on one of the back fields. This time, Roof stood outside the left field fence with his iPad while Stewart tracked and chased fly ball after fly ball.
“I had to see it from his point of view so I could understand why he wasn’t getting a jump on the baseball, why he ran his routes the way he did,” Roof said. “We did a lot of things with him. Sometimes early in his career it didn’t show. But he got better.”
Stewart may never be a great outfielder, but in his three years playing left field in Detroit, his defensive runs saved improved from minus-4 to zero and his runs above average (per 1,200 innings) improved from minus-30 to plus-21.
“He’s such a funny guy and thing is, I just didn’t mind being around him all the time getting my work in,” Stewart said. “Even if we butted heads, we all wanted the same thing — for me to be a better player and person.
“That’s all you could ask for, just someone to push you the way he did. He pushed me the right way and it definitely paid off.”
One could argue, in that sense, that Stewart was one of the greatest success stories of Roof’s long and distinguished coaching career. Which is saying something about a baseball life that spanned 44 years, the last 34 in the Tigers’ organization.
“It was time,” Roof said Tuesday from his home in Paducah, Kentucky, where he’s lived all his life. “My wife’s health, she had a stroke a couple of years ago and she has some physical stuff we’re dealing with. I’ve been doing this (baseball) since I was 18 years old. It was time to come home and be with her and not be gone so much.”
What a career, though. Drafted by the Cardinals in 1976, he played parts of three seasons in the big leagues and has a ring from the 1982 World Series.
“I remember my first big-league game, I got a hit left-handed and a hit right-handed,” the switch-hitting former outfielder said. “To be part of that World Series team, to be around (manager) Whitey Herzog and (Hall of Fame shortstop) Ozzie Smith, that was special.”
His playing career ended in the Tigers’ organization after the 1986 season. The day after he was released, he was invited to stay on as a “coach” at Double-A Nashville.
“I have to thank Joe McDonald,” said Roof of former Cardinals and Tigers general manager. “Jim Campbell was the GM of the Tigers and Joe was in charge of the farm system. Jim Campbell had said no more coaches could be hired, so Joe signed me to a player’s contract for two years.”
Roof never left the organization.
He managed at Double-A Fayetteville in 1989 (team featured Gabe Kapler and Travis Fryman) and at London in 1991. Sparky Anderson brought him to Detroit as his first-base coach in 1992 and he stayed through 1995. From 1997-1999 he managed at Triple-A Toledo and since 2001 has worked with every outfielder (and base runner) the Tigers have signed.
“No regrets,” he said. “I got a chance to experience Opening Day in a Tigers uniform for four years and I got a chance to experience Opening Day in St. Louis as a player — those are special days. You go back to the first day you signed a professional contract and go back through how you got to the big leagues, play a little bit, but get to be around great players and coaches and see how they did it.
“I will always remember the way the players accepted me as their coach and the relationships that you built.”
So many memories, so many people to acknowledge and thank. Roof didn’t want to get started on the list for fear of leaving people out. But he couldn’t help himself.
It started with his first coach and mentor, the legendary Cardinals coach, manager and executive George Kissell, who also mentored Anderson, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa.
“All my teachings and all the stuff I do now comes back to George Kissell,” Roof said. “He gave me my foundation in baseball.”
Anderson, longtime Tigers coach Dick Tracewski, Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson — all greatly impacted Roof’s career.
“The chance for me to be around Al Kaline, who treated me as good as anybody could be treated, and Bill Freehan was the same way,” Roof said. “Willie Horton, those guys from that 1968 team were great people and they had so much knowledge of the game.
“Freehan … was the best catcher of his era in my opinion, and he should be in the Hall of Fame. I will never forget how I was treated by those players.”
After coaching Trammell and Gibson in the twilight of their careers, he got to coach and develop players with them over the last few years — both special advisers to general manager Al Avila.
“With Gibby, you always heard about his intensity and how he played the game,” Roof said. “But to see it in person, how he prepares himself, how he worked and went about his business, those are things you try to instill in young players.”
To this day, players like Granderson, Thames, Monroe, and Brandon Inge make it a point of staying in touch with Roof. Inge posted a congratulations message to Roof on Twitter on Monday night.
“I want to personally thank Coach Gene Roof of the Detroit Tigers on his retirement!” Inge tweeted. “You have made such an impact on me and many Tigers players in your 30+ years in the Tigers Organization. Enjoy some free time!”
“There have been a lot of great people in the Detroit Tigers organization over the years,” Roof said. “I’ve been fortunate to be around so many of them.”
One of his favorite stories comes from his days managing at Toledo in the late 1990s. The day in 1997 when Bubba Trammell hit four home runs.
“He’d told me before the game that he and his wife had gone out looking for cars,” Roof said. “His wife wanted a (Chevy) Tahoe but he didn’t want to spend that kind of money. He thought of a way to get her off his back. He said, ‘All right honey, if I hit four home runs tonight, you get a Tahoe.’”
Trammell hit a home run in the first inning, another in the third, then a two-run home run to tie the game in bottom of the ninth and, the capper, a walk-off in the 14th inning.
“His wife was standing outside the clubhouse saying, ‘I get a Tahoe, I get a Tahoe,’” Roof said laughing. “Bubba said, ‘Geno, there was no way that was going to happen.’”
Eugene Lawrence Roof, still a young 62, grew up in a family of 10 kids, nine boys and a girl. Five of the boys played professional baseball. Gene and brother Phil played in the big leagues. Gene and wife Marianne have three sons and a daughter.
All three sons were drafted and played professionally. Oldest son Shawn is now managing in the Diamondbacks organization. Middle son Eric is the head coach at Eastern Michigan University. Youngest son Jonathan is an assistant at Eastern.
And his daughter Jacqueline, in the high school hall of fame in Kentucky, coaches high school softball.
A baseball life, a baseball family. It’s been quite a ride for Gene Roof.
“That’s the amazing thing — that a little kid from Paducah, Kentucky, got a chance to be around the big boys,” Roof said, choking up. “That was pretty cool considering I grew up on a farm dreaming about playing in the big leagues.”