How we remember him
Although primarily a third baseman, for 10 years with the Tigers from 1979-88 he proved to be a gritty, invaluable utility player who played every position except pitcher and left field.
The year after helping the Tigers win the 1984 World Series, he caught five innings in an extra-inning victory even though he had never played the position professionally.
He was selected in the 1975 supplemental MLB draft by Detroit after his junior season playing shortstop for Mansfield State College in his native Pennsylvania.
Brookens played four-and-a-half years in the minors, batting .306 with 14 homers for manager Jim Leyland at Triple-A Evansville before joining the Tigers on July 10, 1979. In his first MLB at-bat, he singled off of Minnesota’s Geoff Zahn.
In 1980 as Detroit’s regular third baseman, he posted his best season when he hit .275 with 10 homers, 25 doubles, nine triples and 66 RBIs. On Aug. 20 he went 5-for-5 against the Milwaukee Brewers and started the Tigers’ first triple play in 11 years. His seventh-inning homer against Milwaukee on Sept. 18, 1984 helped Detroit clinch the division title. In his 10 seasons with the Tigers, he batted .246 (.297 OBP, .665 OPS) with 66 homers and 397 RBIs.
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After playing for the Tigers
During spring training in 1989, he was traded to the Yankees for pitcher Charlie Hudson. After one year in New York, he signed as a free agent with Cleveland and retired at the end of the 1990 season.
He returned to the Tiger organization in 2005 where he managed their short-season A-ball affiliate in Oneonta, New York, for two seasons before managing the West Michigan White Caps in 2007 to the Midwest League title.
In 2008 and 2009 he managed the Double-A Erie Seawolves and then joined Leyland’s staff in Detroit as first base coach in 2010. After the Tigers won the American League pennant in 2012, he became the third base coach in 2013. When Leyland retired at the end of the season, Brookens left the majors. In 2017 he served as bench coach for Leyland as he managed Team USA to a World Baseball Classic title.
Brookens, 68, has been married 44 years to his wife Christa and lives in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania. They have three daughters, Lacey, Maggie, and Molly and grandson Gage. He enjoys golfing, hunting, fishing, helping coach his grandson’s travel baseball team, and “putzing around” his 70-acre farm.
“I grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and even though we were 80 miles from Baltimore, I was a Yankees fan and Mickey Mantle was my idol. We were baseball-oriented people and our annual family vacation consisted of going to Baltimore to see the Yankees in a twi-night doubleheader, stay overnight at a hotel and attend another ballgame the next day.
“Once when I was playing for the Tigers and we were in Arlington, Texas there was an old-timers’ game and I met Mickey. I sat next to him and we were just shooting the breeze. It was a real thrill for me.”
Debut with the Tigers
“I was having a really good year playing third base for Jim Leyland in Evansville when he called me to his hotel room. He had on his poker face on and said, ‘Brookie, we’re going to have to get rid of your contract.’ I said, ‘Wow, I thought I was doing pretty good here.’
“He said, ‘Here’s the deal, Detroit just bought your contract and you’re going to the major leagues.’ Oh man, any kid whoever hears that is thrilled beyond belief. The Tigers had Jim scouting Jim Morrison and they were going to deal for him but Leyland convinced them to bring me up instead. When I got to Tiger Stadium, Sparky Anderson stopped by my locker and said, ‘You must be Brookens, how do you feel?’ I said ‘pretty good.’
“He said, ‘Well good, get yourself together because you’re playing third base tonight.’ I thought, ‘OK man, here we go.’ In my first at-bat, if I could have gotten my bat moving as fast as my shaking back leg I could have hit it a long way. I hit a single to left off of Geoff Zahn which was great because it took a little pressure off.
“I didn’t feel out of place because I had played in the minors with a bunch of my Tiger teammates. I just had to get use to playing in front of 30,000 people. It’s a little different from playing in Evansville.”
Playing for Sparky Anderson
“Sparky was a great man and we had a very good relationship. He wasn’t a motivator like Jim Leyland. Sparky had a quieter tone but you knew he was the boss and if you didn’t like it, he’d get you out of there. He had a way of putting guys into the right spots to be successful.
“We were mostly a bunch of young guys and he taught us how to approach and respect the game, play hard and be professional. He told me, ‘If you give me 100% every day, you and I will never have a problem.’ I said, ‘Sir, that will never be an issue.’ If you played hard for Sparky, he’d be there for you.”
Becoming a platoon player
“In 1980 I was the regular third baseman and it was my best season. It helps when you can play every day and get into a groove. You don’t have to worry about bad stretches.
“The next year my bat lacked a little bit. The organization expected a little more offensive production at third base. I never felt slighted when I became more of a platoon player. I had played all the infield positions in the minors and that greatly helped me when I got to the big leagues.
“I was able to move around, play third, spell Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and even pinch fill in the outfield. I also had good speed and Sparky used me to pinch-run. I think a manager likes to have a player who can do all of that.
“It’s a mental thing to platoon. When you go to the ballpark and your name isn’t in the lineup you can’t just take a day off. I took extra ground balls at the different positions and took batting practice against left-handed pitching. I knew Sparky would be inserting me late in the game and before he called my name, I had already been in the runway stretching and getting loose.”
Catching five innings
“Lance Parrish was hurt, someone had pinch-hit for Bob Melvin and I was standing on first base in the 11th inning when Johnny Grubb pinch-hit for our third-string catcher Marty Castillo and tied the score. I said to Dick Tracewski coaching at first that we didn’t have any more catchers. He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, someone’s going to have to catch,’ and I thought he was thinking of me.
“Sure enough, Sparky asked me if I would do it and I said ‘let’s go.’ I had warmed up pitchers between innings but I had never played the position, not even in Little League. When I walked to the plate the umpire Ken Kaiser said, ‘What are you doing back here? Have you ever caught before?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ He said, ‘I don’t feel so good.’ I said, ‘Well Kenny, that makes two of us.’ Lance’s shin guards were a little big on me, I borrowed Marty’s glove and got a crash course on catching.
“I was extremely nervous that I might flinch and blink, but when I caught a couple of pitches after some swings, I realized it wasn’t going to be as bad as I thought it could be. We ended up winning the game in the 15th. It was kind of fun looking back at it now.”
The 1984 Tigers’ championship
“Baltimore had beat us out in 1983, and we came into spring training with a little chip on our shoulders. Picking up Willie Hernandez for the bullpen and Darrell Evans were obviously huge acquisitions. With our 35-5 start we knew we were the team to beat. It seemed like we always took the lead in the first couple of innings and then it was like, ‘See you later man.’
“Unfortunately, I had pulled a hamstring about two weeks before the end of the season. Sparky kept me on the roster and I got into a few games. He really did me a favor. It was bittersweet for me not to be able to start in the World Series games. The parade downtown was awesome with thousands of people lining the streets.
“We’re all disappointed that we didn’t win at least a couple of more titles because we didn’t achieve as much as we should have.”
Trade to Yankees
“I was sitting in the locker room in Lakeland during spring training and Dick Tracewski told me in a serious tone that Sparky wanted to talk to me. I went to his office, he closed the door and told me to sit down. He said, ‘We just traded you to the Yankees for Charlie Hudson. You’ve been one of my favorite guys here and you’ve done everything I ever asked of you. It’s just part of the game.’
“He then thanked me for playing so hard for him and wished me good luck. It came as quite a shock. I didn’t want to leave but at least I was going to the team I rooted for as a kid. I told him that I enjoyed playing for him and said ‘I hope you guys have a good year but finish one game behind the Yankees.’ He laughed and then walked out to tell my teammates, which was kind of tough.
“When I first put on the Yankee pinstripes, I walked past a full-length mirror and did a double-take. It was kind of neat but also very odd at the same time.”
Minor league manager
“I enjoyed going back home and being with my wife and daughters for the next 14 years after I retired. Every year I participated at the Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp in Lakeland and Al Kaline often came up to me and said that I should get back into the game and that the Tigers could use me.
“Finally, when my daughters were close to college age, I spoke with the minor league coordinator Glenn Ezell and became the manager of the Class A Oneonta Tigers in New York for two seasons before managing West Michigan, where we won a title. I then did two years at Double-A Erie. I really enjoyed helping the young kids and had absolutely no intention of getting back to the big leagues.
“But when Jim Leyland offered me the opportunity to coach for him in Detroit it was hard to turn down. He did more for me in my career than anyone because he helped me get to the big leagues as a player and then as a coach.”
Coaching for the Tigers
“I had a great time coaching for Jim Leyland. The first three years I coached first base, base running and the outfield. For coaching first base I studied video of opposing pitchers to watch how they held runners. Not a lot of our guys ran on their own; it usually came from the bench.
“I would remind the runners about the pitchers, the number of outs and the strength of the outfield arms. I moved to third base in my last year in 2013. The biggest challenge was deciding whether to hold the runner at third or send them in. I needed to know how fast the runner was and the strength of the outfielder’s arms. You don’t get a pat on the back when a runner makes it home but you hear about it if he doesn’t. You have to have a thick skin coaching at third.
“The Tigers had one of the best teams in their history and it was disappointing not winning the World Series in 2012. We had swept the Yankees to win the pennant and then sat around for six days playing simulated games with minor league players. We were favored to win it and probably had a better team but we just never cranked it up offensively.
“When Jim retired, I told Dave Dombrowski that I was interested in managing the Tigers but I was never given an interview. I would have loved the challenge. I could have pursued a position at another organization but decided to go home. I’ve never looked back and I haven’t missed it.”
On Miguel Cabrera
“Miggy is a wonderful guy and he was a treat to be around day in and day out. He was the greatest right-handed hitter I’ve ever seen. George Brett was maybe the best left-handed hitter that I saw. Miggy could take any pitch in any location and hit a bullet.
“I’d see pitchers throw a slider down and away and most of us would hit a weak grounder to second. He would drive it over the right field wall. They would then try to bust him inside and he would sit on it and hit a rocket somewhere. The year he won the Triple Crown, down the stretch he just kicked it in. It didn’t matter what the pitchers did, he could handle everything.
“If you gave him analytics about the pitcher pitching that night he would kind of look at you and smile. It was like, ‘I don’t need this stuff. He’s going to throw it up there and I’m going to whack it.’”
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