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Classy Magglio respected throughout game

Slugger set to call it a career Sunday at Comerica Park
DETROIT -- Twenty years ago, Magglio Ordonez trained in the same Venezuelan academy for the Houston Astros with Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, Melvin Mora and Richard Hidalgo. He was the one the Astros cut.

Ordonez was a great athlete -- a tremendous soccer player, but a raw baseball player. He's about to retire as one of the best players ever to come from Venezuela, one of the best pure hitters to wear a Detroit uniform, and one of the most respected players of his generation.

"Magglio was a great, silent teammate," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.

When Ordonez takes the field Sunday afternoon before what is expected to be a sellout crowd at Comerica Park, he'll get one of the loudest, most celebrated retirement parties a Tigers player has ever heard.

Not bad for somebody whose career might never have gotten started if not for a little faith, and whose career nearly ended at age 30.

To the White Sox, Ordonez was a triumph of international scouting. Though Chicago didn't find him out of the academy, the White Sox were ready to pounce when the Astros released him in 1991. One day after Ordonez was out of the academy, he was back in baseball. A year later, he was playing in the United States, an 18-year-old batting .180 in rookie ball while still learning the game.

Ordonez broke into the big leagues in the summer of 1997, then became a regular in 1998. A year later, he was a .300-hitting, 30-homer All-Star.

Ordonez and Paul Konerko became White Sox stars almost at the same time. Konerko told the Chicago Tribune this week that Ordonez was the best all-around player he ever played with.

"There was a period [when] he could do it all," Konerko told the paper. "Run, hit, throw -- you name it, he could do [it] on the field. I rarely saw him do anything wrong. He always did everything right. ... Those first few years, he was unbelievable. It seemed like he never made a mistake."

That wasn't just ability. Beyond Ordonez's physical skill, he had two traits that separated him from so many others. He combined a tremendous work ethic with intelligence. As Leyland likes to say, Ordonez not only worked hard, he worked smart.

"That's why he was so consistent," Tigers teammate Ramon Santiago said. "He stayed on every pitch."

From 1999-2003, Ordonez hit .312 while averaging 40 doubles, 32 homers and 118 RBIs per season, and he did it while averaging just 70 strikeouts a year. He was one of the toughest outs in the game for those five years, especially for pitchers in the American League Central. One was Santana, Ordonez's old Astros academy roommate and then a budding young starter in Minnesota, whom he owned as a hitter.

"We had some great matchups when I was with the Twins and him with the White Sox," Santana said. "He seemed to be one of the toughest outs in that lineup every time, and would always find ways to hurt us."

Ordonez was a Tigers nemesis back then. It took a freak injury and a twist of fate to change the course of his career.

Ordonez was chasing down an Omar Vizquel fly ball on May 19, 2004, when he collided with then-White Sox second baseman Willie Harris. Two weeks later, he had surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee. By year's end, Ordonez underwent experimental surgery in Austria.

Ordonez was poised to become a coveted free agent that winter, ready to demand a market-changing contract. Instead, he had to fight to show his injury wasn't career-threatening.

The White Sox passed after the second surgery, as did many other teams. By January 2005, Ordonez was the last major hitter on the market.

Enter the Tigers, who were the last team looking for a major hitter. Barely a year separated from a 119-loss season, they were looking for respectability.

The White Sox won a World Series title while Ordonez suffered a hernia-shortened opening season in Detroit. Ordonez spent the next six years getting the better end, all under Leyland.

"Magglio was a treat," Leyland said. "He wasn't a high-maintenance guy. He came in prepared every day."

Ordonez's .298 average, 24 homers and 104 RBIs in 2006 announced that he was truly back. One swing against Huston Street in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series took him someplace he'd never been -- the World Series.

"One of the huge home runs in Tiger history," Leyland said.

The following year, Ordonez posted of the greatest individual seasons for a hitter in Detroit history, and it made Ordonez into one of the game's true greats.

Not since Norm Cash in 1961 had a Tigers player won a batting title, and Andres Galarraga was the only previous Venezuelan-born player to do it (in 1993). But Ordonez's .363 batting average told just part of the story of his season.

Ordonez's 139 RBIs topped any season he had with the White Sox, but just 48 of them came on his 28 home runs. He batted .429 (82-for-191) with runners in scoring position. With a runner on third and less than two outs, Ordonez was 25-for-37.

Alex Rodriguez won the AL Most Valuable Player Award that year. Yet five years later, the numbers from Ordonez, the runner-up, are still stunning.

Jose Altuve, the Astros' speedy second baseman, was a teenager in Venezuela at the time.

"When I was a little kid, I used to play with my friends and make a perfect Venezuelan team," Altuve said, "and he was always my third hitter. For me, he was one of the best."

Said Santana: "He was big-time. Back then, he was big-time."

By then, Ordonez was clearly a Detroiter. He and his wife established a college scholarship fund for students from Detroit's Mexicantown area. A couple years later, Ordonez contributed money to help refurbish an inner-city ballfield in Detroit.

Ordonez never produced All-Star statistics for a full season again, but he had his moments. And when the Tigers needed a late-season boost for a postseason run, they knew where to turn.

No matter how slow Ordonez started, either due to health or family concerns, he had a fast finish left in him. Ordonez entered August 2009 with a .258 average, .685 OPS and his role in question, and he hit .415 over his final 45 games and became the best offensive threat Detroit had while it tried to hold onto its division lead.

Ordonez couldn't match that last year, but he wasn't far off. Ordonez batted just .200 through June as he tried to recover from his first ankle surgery, and entered mid-August hitting .224, as some fans called for his release. He batted .365 over 21 games down the stretch.

When Ordonez went 5-for-11 in the AL Division Series, including three hits in Game 5 to help upset the Yankees, he heartened Tigers fans who supported him. When he left Game 1 of the ALCS in Texas with a fractured ankle, it was heartbreaking.

Ordonez recovered from the ankle injury. He never recovered on the free-agent market.

"It's hard to see a friend go away like that," said Miguel Cabrera, whom Ordonez mentored when he joined the Tigers in 2008 and still calls regularly. "We know that he can still play at this level."

It'll be bittersweet for Cabrera to watch Ordonez retire. Still, Cabrera is looking forward to seeing the retiring slugger finally get the recognition he deserves. Just 115 players in Major League history with 3,000 plate appearances have a higher career average than Ordonez's .309 clip, and even fewer can match his .871 career OPS.

Among Venezuelan-born players, Cabrera said, Ordonez has to be in the top five hitters. All-around, Ordonez might be the best.

"I think people should appreciate what he did in baseball," Cabrera said, "what he did for the Tigers and White Sox."

On Sunday, they will.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

Detroit Tigers, Magglio Ordonez