DETROIT — A.J. Hinch didn’t have a ton of honors from his catching career, but the Tigers’ manager has this: He’s the only Major League catcher who was a Minor League teammate of a six-time majors-champion golfer.
Eighteen years before Phil Mickelson became the oldest golfer to win a major with his PGA Championship title on Sunday, he was at the top of his game in his early 30s but was also an avid baseball fan. He was also accustomed to throwing the ball, having incorporated it into his workout routine to keep his rotator cuff healthy.
His swing coach at the time lived just outside of Toledo and had connections with a board member of the Toledo Mud Hens. The Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate was wrapping up its season, and Mickelson was just coming off a PGA Tour event in Akron. The idea came together to have Mickelson work out with the team in hopes of pitching in one of the Mud Hens’ final games of 2003.
That’s where Hinch, a backup catcher with the Tigers that year, comes in.
“I was down in Toledo, actually, on rehab,” Hinch recalled Monday. “I pulled my groin, so I was on the DL. … I was down in Triple-A with those guys. Larry Parrish, our manager, wouldn’t let the position players take batting practice against him, so he made the pitchers do it.”
Among the pitchers to take their hacks against Lefty, who actually throws right-handed, were future Major League closer Fernando Rodney and former Braves great Steve Avery, who had enough experience hitting from his National League days to make some solid contact. Cody Ross, who made his big league debut with the Tigers that summer and eventually spent a decade in the Majors, also reportedly stepped into the cage.
So what was Mickelson’s arsenal like?
“Pretty soft,” Hinch said with a smile. “Pretty soft, a little light. Intent was really good, competitiveness was really good, but a little below the hitting speed of what we were used to. …
“I don’t think you could really tell the difference between his primary and secondary pitches. He gave a valiant effort, though. I’ll give him that.”
The Tigers, who suffered their 100th loss on Aug. 30, 2003, against the White Sox on their way to an AL-record 43-119 season, opted against signing Mickelson to a Minor League contract for a day. But they complimented the athlete on his professionalism through the tryout and invited him to hang out in the dugout.
“He kind of lived a childhood dream of being a pseudo-professional baseball player,” Hinch said. “Well, we all had a million golf questions. I didn’t like golfing. I didn’t golf as much as I do now. I wish I could go back in time and revisit that time. But he was fun to be around for that day in Toledo.”