Between the years 1995-2005 the Detroit Tigers were the laughing-stock of the MLB with an overall 712-1050 record. The team however did not lack an icon, that icon was none other than Bobby Higginson.
Born in Philadelphia, Higginson was the grandson of a former boxer. That background would make him a hard-nosed player, which never went unnoticed by Tiger greats, including Al Kaline.
His tenure with the Tigers began in 1992 when the team drafted in him the 12th round, prior to his drafting Higginson had flunked out of Temple University. After attending a community college, he would later return to Temple.
Higginson spent three years in the minor leagues before he made his debut with the Tigers in 1995.
The left-handed batter wouldn’t impress much in his rookie campaign; in 131 games he posted a lowly .224 BA and only accumulated 43 RBI’s. However, he would receive mentoring from baseball legend Kirk Gibson.
“Gibby taught me how to think in the outfield, on the base paths and in the on-deck circle,” Higginson says. “He was in my ear all season.” (Sports Illustrated)
For Gibson, 1995 would be his last year as a pro, but his advice to Higginson would not fall on deaf ears. Higginson would increase his average to .320 and knocked in 26 HR’s.
The ’97 season would start slow for Higginson, and in a desperate move for help he reached out to Gibson. Kirk’s advice to the slumping Higginson was similar to the style we attribute to Gibson to this day.
“Shut up and stop the negativity. Visualize how you felt in ’96 when you were really rakin’. You’ve got to feel the feel.”
The outfielder would eventually break out of the slump with a .299 BA along with an increase in HR’s (27) and RBI’s (101). His power climaxed with four home runs in four plate appearances, tying a major league record. The Detroit chapter of the BBWAA named him “Tiger of the Year”.
The connection to Gibson would continue in the ’98 season. Sports Illustrated considered Higginson the “heir apparent” of Gibson. Bobby would find himself struggling at the mid-season point, and again sought Kirk’s stern wisdom.
“Think of the last time you crushed an inside heater over the wall.”
His power numbers would dip from 1997, but he was considered a fan favorite for his blue-collar attitude. With the team being as bad as it was, he would be a much needed face on the lowly franchise.
Between 1999-2000 it was Jekyll and Hyde for Higginson, in 1999 his season he only played in 107 games and his numbers were nowhere close to what Detroit fans expected. In 2000 his numbers would jump again, and he again was named “Tiger of the Year” to this day he is one of ten Tigers to win the award multiple times.
As the Detroit Tigers progressed into the new millennium, Higginson would digress.
Owner Mike Illitch would re-sign Higginson to a contract, which would later live in infamy among Tiger fans. Instead of letting him walk the team signed him to a 4-year $35 million dollar contract. At 30-years-old he would never live up to that contract.
Higginson’s BA would never reach over .300, and he would not hit over 20 homeruns in a single season.
In 2002 his relations with the team would become strained after the team dealt pitcher Jeff Weaver to the Yankees. Higginson would call out general manager Dave Dombrowski in the press.
“We just traded a No.1 starter who’s 25 years old and wanted to stay here. For baseball fans in Detroit, this is a bad day. I think he will win a Cy Young with New York, a couple of them,” (Toledo Blade)
Likewise, the once beloved Higginson would fall out of favor with the Tigers’ faithful. His poor offensive production, and the Tigers just being awful year in and year out was starting to take a toll. He would become the scape goat for the Tigers troubles. The 2003 season would not help Bobby’s cause, as the team went 43-119, the worst in American League history.
The road wasn’t kind for Higginson either, chants of “Bobby! Bobby!” would sound from opposing fans, mocking the once offensive ace. However a glimmer of hope emerged in 2004. On opening day Higginson would lead the offense and the Tigers to a victory, Bobby felt like it was all coming back to him.
“For me it was big,” he said, “because the last couple years have been pretty tough. I almost feel like I have to try to go out and win the fans back a little bit. I didn’t really do the things I’m capable of doing the last couple years, and obviously my injuries played a part in it. I feel I owe it to them to go out and show them what I’m capable of doing when I’m healthy.”
“Right now I feel as good as I’ve felt in 2000, I know that,” Higginson said. “I haven’t felt like this in a long time. I can run around out there. I’ve got some bounce in my step. I can drive the ball now. Got my fingers crossed that it stays like this the whole year. I think if it does, I can have a big year and help this team win a lot of games. ” (Jason Beck)
However, that was not the case. The Tigers would finish in 4th place (72-90), and Higginson would appear in 131 games; batting only .246.
The Higginson era would end in 2005. He would only appear in 10 games due to injury, and would retire after the season.
Injuries and his falling-out with Tigers’ fans would shadow a career that looked very promising in the late-90′s. Higginson retired with a .272 BA, 187 HR’s, and 709 RBI’s. He would never make an All-Star team, or win any defensive awards.
Higginson is eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but given the nature of his career it is highly unlikely he will ever make Cooperstown. Bobby’s exact whereabouts are a bit uncertain too.
According to Wikipedia Higginson is a partner in a limousine company, after an extensive search there was nothing noting that outside of forums and blog postings. Whatever he is doing now one thing remains certain; Higginson is cautionary tale of long contracts, and an icon of the poor Detroit squads of years past.