Ex-Tiger Inge loves coaching at Michigan

Detroit Tigers

The voice on the other end of the phone is familiar. So is the enthusiasm. If anybody in Michigan can be hyped for baseball in the middle of winter, it’s Brandon Inge.

It’s right around freezing, a tad warm for Michigan in February. The sky is so thoroughly gray that it’s hard to make out clouds, let alone find sunshine. But on this afternoon, Inge is on his way to throw batting practice to players at the University of Michigan, where he’s a volunteer assistant coach. Though Inge had his share of shoulder problems as a player, his 44-year-old arm is holding up.

After BP, Inge will take part in their regular practice, then stick around and work with players. It can be a long day, especially for a volunteer coach with teenagers at home, but he loves it.

“Literally, I’m just there for the guys,” he said. “Anything they need, anything they want to talk about, anything they want to learn, that’s what I’m there for.”

The Wolverines open their season next weekend at Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers, in a tournament against Texas Tech, Kansas State and Oklahoma. When Inge steps into the first-base coaching box, it’ll be his first time on a Major League field for a game since his playing days ended in 2013.

Inge says he hadn’t really thought about it. The college environment, Inge says, is where he belongs.

“When you think about college, you have young minds that are eager,” he explained. “They want to win, they want to play and it’s the easiest spot to teach baseball. And if you want to keep baseball on the right path, the game that I played, that’s the level you have to go to teach.”

He isn’t the first former Major Leaguer to think that way. Several have jumped into the college game in recent years. Just last summer, Chip Hale and José Cruz Jr. left the Tigers coaching staff for head coaching opportunities at their respective alma maters, Arizona and Rice.

Inge wasn’t looking for a coaching job. He was happy working at a sports complex in Brighton, Mich., and on staff at Detroit Country Day, where his son Tyler was just starting. He was involved at Michigan in the ChadTough Defeat DIPG Foundation, which works to fund research into pediatric brain tumors following the death of former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr’s grandson Chad.

The foundation is where Inge and Michigan baseball head coach Erik Bakich connected. When Bakich lost a couple coaches from his staff after the 2020 season, including Chris Fetter to the Tigers, he asked Inge if he’d be interested.

“He must have called me on a good day when I was bored,” Inge joked.

It was a fascinating challenge. Inge is almost a folk hero to a generation of Detroit fans who remember his 12-year Tiger tenure, including his All-Star season in 2009. But many college kids weren’t even teenagers when Inge retired.

“There’s still a few that are left at the college level,” he said. “But once you get out of the college level to the high-school level, you mention my name and it’s like, ‘Who the hell is that?’”

Then there’s the nature of the job. The college game was tech-savvy in many ways before the pro game caught on. Inge, however, was a more instinctive learner as a hitter. Seeing his own swing on video or on a computer didn’t work as well for him as trial and error in the cage.

The key, Inge said, is knowing that there isn’t a cookie-cutter way to teach players.

“I have the common sense to know that the way that I tick isn’t the way Miguel Cabrera ticks,” he said. “I was one who just wanted to have fun and play like it was my last game. Everybody’s just different. But I think me understanding that is what makes me a different coach, actually. I do understand the technology and there are kids that like it, so I’m able to give that too.

“It’s one thing I’ve learned from good or bad managers over the years. Some have wanted their players to be robots, and others like Jim Leyland wanted players to do their thing as long as they produce. It’s understanding people’s personalities and what makes them produce the best way they can.”

Inge jumped in. The Wolverines went 27-19 and returned to the NCAA regionals. Inge enjoyed the entire journey. Players would find his highlights on YouTube and poke fun at him. He’d poke fun back. It was like being in a clubhouse again.

More importantly, Inge found he could make a difference. When he wanted to teach catchers the importance of blocking pitches and not just pitch framing, he had former MLB umpire Jim Wolf talk to them about how umps see pitches and what catchers do with them.

“I love the college level because it’s all about team, but what I took from last year more than anything is the impact you can make on a player,” he said. “You never forget your college years. It’s about making it fun and making it memorable and teaching them how to go 100 percent every day and try to demolish the other team. You’re instilling what it takes to become great men.”

That’s a different impact than Inge thinks he could have in the pros. Though several ex-teammates are coaching in the Majors, including Tigers third-base coach Ramon Santiago and Pirates bench coach Don Kelly, Inge has no pull to follow their path.

“It’s just a much better fit for me,” Inge said of the college game, “and I absolutely love it. I love these guys.”

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