DETROIT -- Chris Shelton remembers the game when it got a little crazy. It wasn’t the two-homer games he put up during Opening Week 2006, or any of the American League-record nine home runs he hit in the first 13 games of that season. It was a two-triple game in Texas on April 8.
Long before playing for manager Jim Leyland, Shelton was taught to run the bases on doubles like he always had a chance to take third. Still, he hit 18 triples over his 10-year pro career. On a warm Saturday night in Arlington, after five homers in his first four games, he tripled twice.
Shelton was 14-for-20 with nine extra-base hits through five games.
“At that point, I was like, ‘Wow, this is something I wasn't expecting,’” Shelton recalled a few years ago. “But I was enjoying it.”
So were Tigers fans, who were looking for reasons to believe after a dozen consecutive losing seasons and two decades without postseason baseball. Leyland was the headline arrival, hired to manage Detroit to the next level, but Shelton became the sudden star.
“I really didn't know what to think,” Leyland said earlier this month. “Obviously, we were just taking advantage of it. What a start he got off to. It was great. It was kind of a total surprise out of nowhere.”
The seasons that have passed hit Shelton this year, as he continues his work as a hitting instructor and assistant coach at Cottonwood High School in Utah.
“I'm just now starting to get guys that were born when I broke into the big leagues in 2004,” Shelton said last week. “They're freshmen. It's harder and harder to find guys that remember my playing career. I'm kind of OK with that, because now they just look at me as a coach and they'll just listen to what I'm saying, as opposed to my first couple years here when they remembered.”
The players' parents often still remember the meteoric rise Shelton enjoyed 13 years ago, then the sudden disappearance. The years haven’t changed Shelton’s view on his career much.
“The only outlook it has given me is I wish I knew how the game worked when I was playing,” Shelton said. “While I knew how to hit and I knew some of the basic mechanics, I wish I knew how to apply the mechanics like I know now. I feel like I would've been a way better player. Because I felt like the work ethic was there and I had an idea.”
A decade before the Tigers signed free-agent J.D. Martinez in 2014, Detroit -- then coming off a 119-loss season -- thought it might have a hitter in Shelton, a stocky first baseman in the Pirates' system who was left unprotected coming off a .336 average and 1.008 OPS over 130 games at Class A Advanced and Double-A. The Tigers had Carlos Pena, but they needed all the talent they could find.
“He was really an unknown,” said Al Avila, then an assistant general manager. “The main thing I can remember is our scouting reports said he was a pure hitter who could hit to all fields, had a good eye. Really, we kind of rolled the dice on him.”
The Tigers used the first pick in the Rule 5 Draft on Shelton, and they carried him on their bench for a year. A strong start to the 2005 season for Triple-A Toledo earned him a shot in Detroit, where he fell a hit shy of .300 with 18 homers and 59 RBIs in 107 games.
Shelton hit well enough the next spring that the Tigers released Pena, who enjoyed a 46-homer season for the Rays the following year. But nobody saw Shelton’s start coming.
Shelton opened the 2006 season on a spring afternoon in Kansas City with a single, then broke out against Royals starter Scott Elarton. He lined a hanging slider into the left-field seats, then kept a ball just inside the right-field foul pole for his first career multi-homer game. Three days later, he sent a pair of R.A. Dickey pitches out in Texas. He homered again the next day off rookie John Koronka.
“He hit knuckleballs, fastballs, curveballs, he hit sliders,” teammate Carlos Guillen said. “He hit balls in the dirt for base hits, home runs, everything that first week.”
Shelton came back to Detroit a hero, hit two-run homers in back-to-back games against the White Sox, then took Cleveland’s Cliff Lee deep for the only run in a 1-0 win a few days later. When Shelton homered again the next afternoon, he was the fourth-fastest Major Leaguer to nine homers in a season, beating everyone but Mike Schmidt, Luis Gonzalez and Larry Walker.
Shelton was an unknown outside Detroit. In the Motor City, the redhead became known as "Red Pop," a twist of the Michigan-born Faygo soda.
“We were almost numb, to be honest with you,” Leyland said. “We couldn't believe what was gong on as far as Chris was concerned. We had no idea something like that was going to happen.”
The instant fame came despite the fact that Shelton wasn’t trying to swing for the fences.
“There may have been individual at-bats where I would take a shot,” Shelton said, “but I don't think my approach ever changed. I knew what kind of hitter I was. I knew I wasn't the hitter that I had shown for the first month, but I knew I wasn't an awful hitter.”
Shelton knew what kind of hitter he was, even if most of his fans didn’t. Though his 26 homers between Detroit and Toledo easily pushed his slugging percentage over .500 in 2005, he was more likely to hit 30 doubles than 30 homers.
Shelton's power tear to begin 2006 put his slugging percentage at .783 for April. He didn’t slug .400 in any other month for the rest of the season. As pitchers adjusted, he struggled to adjust back.
“That's what made me a good-to-average hitter,” Shelton said, “because I feel like great hitters were able to make adjustments pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat. Guys like myself, it was game to game, day to day. If I knew what I know now, I would've been able to make adjustments.”
Shelton’s average finally dropped below .300 in June. He kept it around .275 through July, but when the Tigers saw a chance to add a veteran hitter, they acquired Sean Casey at the Trade Deadline.
“He was struggling, obviously,” Leyland said, “and we knew we had a shot, and we knew we were getting a veteran guy. It's always tough to send somebody down, but that's part of the business. And Chris Shelton was a great guy. He just never really resurfaced.”
Shelton went back to Toledo, an April sensation who became a Mud Hen in August.
“Even though I only played for him for a year, people always ask me what it was like playing for Jim Leyland, 'Are you mad at him?'” Shelton said. “Why would I be mad at him? If he asked me to run through a wall for him today, I would do it.”
Shelton made it back as a September callup, but he played sparingly. He made it back to Detroit for the AL championship ring ceremony the next Opening Day, but he spent the entire 2007 season in Toledo. The Tigers traded him the next year to Texas, where he hit .216 with two home runs over 41 games as a part-time player. After a brief stint with Seattle in 2009, a knee injury in the Astros' farm system in '10 and a Spring Training cut from the Mets in '11, he was out of pro ball.
In the end, the crazy month was just that. Still, Shelton is grateful for it. He takes the lessons he learned from Leyland and Kirk Gibson and tries to apply them in his coaching. He’d love a chance to apply it at the college or pro level.
“I find myself gravitating to players who want to learn and are willing to grind, because I feel like that’s the way I played,” Shelton said. “I wasn't someone overly talented, but I felt like I was prepared. Those are the type of players that I like coaching. I like players that are willing to learn and are open to communication.
“I'm having a blast coaching. I just would like to start to challenge myself a little bit differently and get into the college game.”