Niko Goodrum is Detroit Tigers’ trash-talking, fun-loving unicorn. But one thing riles him

Detroit Free Press

Jeff Seidel
 
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — A machine shot a baseball high into the air.

The Detroit Tigers were doing pop-up drills on a back field behind Joker Marchant Stadium on Tuesday morning and Daz Cameron called for it: “I got it! I got it!”

Only his voice cracked, and it sounded like he was singing.

Niko Goodrum pounced, teasing Cameron while throwing down some good-natured, fun lovin’ trash talk.

“I try to keep everything fun,” Goodrum said. “Oh, I want to trash talk to you regardless. And it’s either I’m joking with you, or I’m for real about it, and I’m just trying to make you understand how much better you can be, or how good of a player that you can be, and I’m trying to get you there, or help you on the path to that.”

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AJ Hinch, the new Tigers manager, loved it. “One of the things I wanted to establish when I first got here is we’re gonna have fun and we can have big personalities and fun personalities,” Hinch said. “I mean, attention to detail is going to be off the charts important.”

But you can have fun while still working on the small things. Because doing pop-up drills during spring training can be, well, downright boring.

“He’s got a good way about him,” Hinch said of Goodrum, “and I want him to enjoy being him on this team.”

‘How are you going to count me out?’

In many ways, Goodrum is the prototype of what Hinch is trying to develop. Goodrum is a ridiculously versatile player with a burning desire to win.

No, that might be an understatement. Preview stories tick him off, especially the ones that say the Tigers aren’t going to be very good, which has been the norm over the last few years.

“I haven’t told Hinch this but we went into Houston and they were talking about the Astros,” Goodrum said. “They were giving them the nod already. They were talking that Detroit has no chance. That, right there, pisses me off.” 

Because Goodrum believes, deep in his soul, that he can kick your butt. Just give him a chance. Nothing ticks him off more than someone who is given something without earning it. Because he’s never been given anything in his life.

 “I don’t care,” he said. “You brush your teeth the same way I brush my teeth every morning. You put your socks on the same way. You drive to the stadium, just like I drive to the stadium. So when someone is crowned or anointed, and they are predicting stuff, how are you going to count me out? And that’s the attitude that I bring every day. I guess it’s just my upbringing, where I’m from.

“I don’t put anyone ahead of anyone. You guys see me on that field every day, day in and day out, for nine innings. That’s what I come with every day. You know, no matter who we play, no matter who we facing, I’m not scared of you. I’m very passionate about that. Because I never back down from from things like that. I’m competing.”

This, too, is what Hinch is trying to develop. In fact, it probably sums up the winning attitude that he is trying to instill.

“He has a positive chip on his shoulder, trying to get better and establish himself as a real dude in this league,” Hinch said. “He’s got ability to change the game.”

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Nobody quite like him

One other thing happened Tuesday. Something that said everything.

Goodrum was doing a baserunning drill — another one of those spring training exercises that is vitally important but also terribly boring. But Goodrum turned it into a thing of beauty.

“I told Niko today, ‘You might be the most graceful athlete that we have on our group,’ ” Hinch said. “Getting up close to him, he’s put together, a great looking athlete and it’s gonna translate on the field when when we get him into games.”

Yes, Goodrum is working on his hitting, after posting a .184 average last season — in just 43 games — and don’t get him started on those who have written him off.

Right now, it appears that Goodrum will be a utility player for the Tigers, even though he was a Gold Glove finalist at shortstop last season.

“He hasn’t given up hope that he’s an everyday shortstop and I know that’s important to him,” Hinch said.

Goodrum is a defensive unicorn — someone who can play anywhere on the field and look good doing it. “There aren’t more than a handful of guys in the entire league that can do that,” Hinch said.

There was a time when Goodrum didn’t like the versatile tag. He felt like he was less than other players. “The way they label you, and the way they make it seem as if that isn’t as valuable,” he said.

But then, he looked around and figured out, “wow, I really don’t see anyone out here like me.”

No, there is nobody quite like Goodrum. Not with his swag. And his gracefulness. And his versatility. And his burning desire to win. And that wonderful, fun-lovin’ trash talk.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.

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