Robertson looks back on Detroit
Nate Robertson was on the Florida Marlins team bus when he returned a call from a reporter Friday morning. He was heading from the Marlins’ Spring Training home in Jupiter, Fla. up the state to Jacksonville for an exhibition game. From there, they had have another exhibition in Greensboro, North Carolina, then flew to New York for Opening Day against the Mets. Before all that, Robertson had to pack up his things in Lakeland, Fla., his old Spring Training home, drop off his car in Fort Lauderdale, then pitch in Jupiter for the Marlins Thursday.
All the while, there’s a good part of his heart that’s still in Detroit.
“It’s kind of a crazy, abrupt goodbye to Detroit,” Robertson said. “I still have a home there. It’s still home to us, but it’s not home with the Tigers.”
It was his home and his office through the rise of the Tigers from 119 losses in 2003 to perennial contender now. But when the Tigers put Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis in their rotation and put Robertson on the trade market, Florida went from being a Spring Training stop to a regular-season job for him.
He’s back with his original organization, seven years after the Marlins traded him to the Tigers on the day after his wedding. But while he’s coming back home, he still feels like he’s leaving home. He knew this was possible well before he arrived at Tigers camp two months ago, but it did little to cushion the shock.
Robertson came to Spring Training with Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis as three comeback attempts trying to squeeze into two starting spots. All three not only had injury-shortened seasons in 2009, they battled issues the year before, too. All three, moreover, were under guaranteed contracts for 2010.
In Robertson’s case, he proved that surgeries on his elbow and groin allowed him to regain the flexibility to pitch effectively. It was a bittersweet outcome, but he’s happy for Bonderman and Willis all the same. They pulled for one another all through camp, and Robertson maintained that outlook Friday as he looked in at Tigers camp from the outside. No hard feelings.
“All of us wanted the very best for each other. There was no doubt about it,” Robertson said. “Truth be told, with my situation, I probably pitched myself into this situation. I anticipated from my standpoint. I wanted to see how I felt with the elbow.
“From the get-go I felt really, really good. All spring long, I just consistent threw the ball well. We all put ourselves in a position to start the season out in a rotation. Two of them are with the Tigers, and one is somewhere else. It just happened to be me.”
When the Tigers made the deal last week, manager Jim Leyland said Robertson “probably would’ve not been a happy camper” pitching out of the bullpen, based off his reaction last year. Robertson, by contrast, said he would’ve handled it.
“I think last year when I went through that, it was more the shock of being in [a starting] position for a while,” Robertson said. “I was hoping last year I could have maybe a mulligan and get that shot out of the gate. What was rewarding to me was that I had the surgery and I came back and I got myself back in the rotation at the end of the year in a pennant run.
“If it would’ve happen again this year, I think I would’ve been able to handle it a lot better with the assurance that I could be a guy who could be in that. I don’t think it would’ve been something that would’ve been as frustrating this year. I really had my mind open for anything — maybe being traded, maybe being released, maybe going to the bullpen, maybe starting. I didn’t really worry about a lot of stuff. I think if that decision was made, I would’ve gotten right on board and been positive about it and felt my very best.”
Robertson had been on the Tigers’ roster ever since August 2003, when Detroit called him up to give him a shot in their rotation down the stretch of the worst season loss-wise in American League history. He was one of three Tigers who had been part of the team since then, along with Bonderman and third baseman Brandon Inge. He not only saw the Tigers’ rise from those depths to the American League pennant in three years, he played a big part in it.
“What I feel good about is I was here when it was as bad as baseball gets really, and it turned into a winning organization, a team that now has the expectations to get to the postseason every year,” Robertson said. “When I was here early on, it was like, ‘Gosh, where are we going?’ Mr. [Mike] Ilitch and Dave [Dombrowski] had a plan. It took some time. I was glad I was part of that plan.
“It was a really rewarding moment to celebrate out there on that field when Magglio hit that walkoff and just stand out there and think about three seasons prior, we were fending off the Twins to avoid 120 losses. And there we were, going to the World Series. There was the turmaround, there was the pinnacle, and now the bar has been set for this team to return to the World Series. It’s a pretty cool thing to go through. And they’re set up for a while. There’s a lot of good talent there, from what I see.”
Robertson not only has been a critical part of the Tigers, but also of Detroit. He and his wife moved to suburban Canton, Mich. soon after he joined the organization, and they bought a house shortly after. It’s the only place they’ve known as a family, which now includes their young son Wyatt.
“Not only did I play with the team the last seven-plus seasons, I lived there,” Robertson said. “It’s not just my baseball home. It’s friends and relationships. I’ve had a chance to respond to a lot of the people that have left a message or phone call.
“It was a good run. I had a lot of fun with it, and I grew to really love the city of Detroit and it’s definitely going to remain a big part of me and my family.”