What does Detroit Tigers’ Akil Baddoo do for encore? Go from surprise to everyday success

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — The best sports stories come out of nowhere. Well, that’s not entirely true, is it? Because somebody saw Akil Baddoo coming last spring.

Al Avila, for one, though even the Detroit Tigers general manager couldn’t have predicted the Baddoo-mania that swept through Detroit last April … and he drafted him.

Baddoo’s family, for another. What parents don’t believe in their kid as he chases his baseball dreams in the minor leagues?

Baddoo saw it, too. Envisioned it daily, actually. Said out loud the parts where fans would be wearing his jersey and saying hi to him on the street. Told his parents that last spring, after he’d made the team, and he was “chilling” in Detroit, and they were walking around the city embracing the downtown life spotting Tigers’ jerseys.

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“And I was like, ‘OK, next year they’re going to be wearing my jersey,’” said Baddoo. “Next year comes along like … boom, and you see people wearing my jersey. It’s a trip. It’s also a blessing.”

Baddoo sees lots of blessing in his life these days. Hears them, too. Like when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning Monday afternoon at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium and heard the crowd chanting his name:

“Baddoooooooo, Baddoooooo.”

He loves it. He draws energy from the love. Absorbs the atmosphere, as he says. For while he arrived in camp this year knowing he belonged, grateful for where he is and how quickly he got here is ever present.

But then the speed of his ascension to this stage is a matter of perspective, right? To those wearing his jerseys and chanting his name he arrived like a bolt of light, a longshot via the Rule 5 draft, a place where teams take flyers on other team’s players who couldn’t find a spot on a big-league roster.

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To him?

He’d been working his way through the Minnesota Twins’ minor league system for four years, one of which was lost to Tommy John surgery. So, yeah, he was ready for his moment last spring, even if so many others weren’t.

Here’s a sampling of some comments when news broke that the Tigers had drafted Baddoo a year ago in December:

“A non-story.”

“Avila just keeps (adding) stiffs.”

“What a waste of a pick.”

“A .214-hitting outfielder? Are you serious?”

“The only ground this guy will cover will be in the Armenian Slow Pitch League.”

Good thing Baddoo doesn’t worry about what others think. He credits his parents for raising him  that way.

“Goes back to your upbringing, your background,” he said. “I was raised to have fun and have that mentality that I don’t really care what people say.”

And while he understands why others thought he was a longshot; you’ll forgive him if he never did. The trick is to keep self-belief intact long enough to get to the places Baddoo got to last spring, and wants to get to this spring, and summer, and fall.

For that to happen, Baddoo understood he had to come back to Lakeland as he did a year ago, in spirit anyway, though not in skill. His skill still needs refining, particularly at the plate against left-handed pitchers. He’ll need to show he can hit lefties to be the team’s everyday leadoff hitter.

“Now that I have that role where they want me to be that leadoff bat, I prepared in the offseason,” he said. “Working (against) lefties. Getting those reps in so I can be familiar with it.”

Part of what made Baddoo so effective last season — and so mesmerizing to watch — was the ebullience and joy he showed. He didn’t want to lose that or forget that just because he wasn’t going to have to fight for a roster spot this spring.

“The energy that I had last year I had to bring it over to this year,” he said. “I took that into consideration. I worked a lot on that.”

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His manager, AJ Hinch, noticed the same vibe immediately.

“Quite honestly, it’s refreshing to have him come into camp this year — a year later — and have the same spirit, the same attitude, the same approach, the same friendliness,” he said. “There is no diva in him. He has not changed his preparation. He has not changed his attitude. His youthfulness is all really good. He doesn’t walk around here like he’s made it even though he’s on our team.”

Consider that the baseline. The next step is to adjust to a league that will absolutely adjust to him. Baddoo knows how he adjusts will determine not only how often he plays — he’s been the leadoff hitter so far this spring — but how often he succeeds at the plate.

“He’s not a secret anymore and the league is going to have a lot of information on him and they’re going to pitch him a little differently,” said Hinch. “Our roster could absorb him not hitting left-handed pitching. We have (Eric) Haase and a couple outfielders that could help him but if he wants to be an everyday player that’s going to be a big key.”

Yes, he wants to be an everyday player. He knows he will get there. Just like he knew last year walking around Detroit with his parents that the jerseys he saw would have his name on them one day.

“I like to speak things into existence,” he said.

Right now, he’s speaking the leadoff role into existence. He believes. His manager believes, too.

“As the expectations and the eyes get a little bit tougher on him, he’s going to have to respond accordingly and I have no doubt that he will,” said Hinch. “He could be as good as advertised.”

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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