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Card Corner Plus: Tom Brookens and Kevin Russo

With that fully formed mustache, Tom Brookens looks like a throwback to one of those tough Irish players of the 19th century. He also looks as ready as any infielder could possibly be on his 1990 Upper Deck card. As it turned out, Brookens had to be readier than most. He didn’t have much natural talent; he lacked a smooth swing, possessed little power, and had only average speed. In the absence of superior skills, Brookens compensated with an extraordinary work ethic and a high level of intelligence. Those qualities allowed him to last 12 seasons in the big leagues, while preparing him well for a second life as a coach and manager.

Originally drafted and signed by the Tigers’ organization, Brookens made it to the major leagues shortly after the arrival of Sweet Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, two fellow infielders who had come up through the Bengal system. Prized as prospects, they had far more ability than Brookens, forming one of the game’s best double play combinations for about a decade and a half. So Brookens settled for a role as a combination of semi-regular third baseman and utility infielder. He would play most of his games at third, but also be available to relieve Whitaker or Trammell at either of the up-the-middle positions.

Young third basemen often challenged Brookens along the way. There was Barbaro Garbey, who was once called the “next Roberto Clemente” by manager Sparky Anderson. Other prospects, like Howard Johnson and Darnell Coles, also received shots at the hot corner. They all had more talent than the incumbent, but Brookens outlasted all of them in a Tigers uniform. Even by the late 1980s, Brookens remained the Tigers’ No. 1 third basemen on the depth chart.

As far as third basemen go, Brookens was considered a subpar player, because of his inability to hit for either high average or power. But as a utility infielder, Brookens was regarded as one of the most accomplished role players in the game. Never complaining about his irregular role, the surehanded Brookens became a reliable defender, usually hit about .250, smacked an occasional home run, stole the odd base here and there, and gave Anderson the kind of versatility that every manager craves. By the end of his career, Brookens had played at least one game at every position, with the exception of left field and pitcher. If given the chance, he probably could have filled those slots, too.

Brookens remained with the Tigers through the end of the 1988 season. Now 34, Brookens had hit the crossroads. With the Tigers committed to younger infielders like Chris Brown, Torey Lovullo, and Rick Schu (none of whom would distinguish himself in Tiger colors), the numbers game now threatened Brookens’ roster spot. In the meantime, the 1989 Yankees needed everything, from power hitters to infielders to right-handed batters. Brookens fit the latter two descriptions. So during the final days of spring training, the Yankees sent failed pitching project Charles Hudson to the Motor City for Brookens, who became Mike Pagliarulo’s platoon partner at third base and a backup to middle infielders Willie Randolph and Rafael Santana.

Unfortunately, Brookens played about as well as the rest of the 1989 Yankees, which is to say horribly. He batted .226 (his lowest average in six seasons), posted a career low on-base percentage of .274, and stole one base in four attempts. Even Brookens’ steady defensive hand fell by the wayside, as he committed seven errors in only 94 chances at third base. Brookens played so poorly in his lone season in pinstripes that the Yankees released him that November, simply content to clear his spot on the 40-man roster. From there, Brookens signed a free agent contract with the Indians. He played better for the Tribe in 1990, but a second straight winter of free agency translated into the end of his major league career.

Given Brookens’ less-than-stellar legacy as a Yankee, some readers might wonder why I’m bothering to devote an entire “Card Corner” to him. It’s a good question, which I will try to explain… with an answer. I first met Brookens a few years back, when he managed the Oneonta Tigers, Detroit’s affiliate in the New York-Penn League. I wanted to interview him, principally for a chapter in a book centered on unusual characters like his former Tigers teammate, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Prior to the interview, I asked John Horne, a friend of mine who worked as the PA announcer for Oneonta, what Brookens was like. Well, John absolutely raved about Brookens, from his knowledge to his preparation to his preeminent people skills.

The interview with Brookens did not disappoint. Not only did he provide me with useful and specific information about The Bird, but he also came across as thoroughly organized and prepared, while still maintaining a down-home quality to his conversational style. Just that quickly, I became a fan of Tom Brookens.

Over the last five years, Brookens has moved up quickly through the Tiger system. Others have taken notice of him, just like we did here in central New York. He has won 54 per cent of his games as a minor league manager, with his conquests including a division and league championship. In 2007, Baseball America voted him the top managing prospect in the Midwest League.

Over the winter, Brookens was promoted to the Tigers’ major league coaching staff, where he will work as Jim Leyland’s first base coach in 2010. When Leyland decides to retire–after all, he is 66 years old in a profession that demands a ridiculously long work week–the Tigers will likely look within their system for his successor.

Do not be at all surprised if that man is Tom Brookens–that is, unless a team like the Yankees snaps him up first.


The Yankees’ 2010 version of Tom Brookens will be Ramiro Pena, who has beaten out Kevin Russo for the utility infield spot on the Opening Day roster. I think this is a mistake by the Yankees. It’s a small error, and one that is correctable, but a mistake nonetheless.

Given the amazing durability of Derek Jeter, the Yankees don’t need their backup infielder to play many innings at shortstop, the one position where Russo is the most questionable. Their utility infielder will probably be more valuable if he can hit, especially on a bench that lacks offensive thump. Russo is a much better hitter than Pena, a fact that he reinforced with a terrific offensive spring. Russo’s hitting has made a stark impression on the YES Network’s Ken Singleton, who praised the prospect’s approach at the plate and declared him major league ready. Of all the YES announcers, there is none whose opinion I respect more than Singleton. If Singleton says that a youngster can hit in the big leagues, that’s plenty of endorsement for me.

Keeping Russo and demoting Pena would have made sense on another front. Russo has already played nearly a full season at Triple-A; he doesn’t need additional development. But Pena has played only 43 games at the highest minor league level, and his hitting remains a work in progress. I believe he would benefit from playing every day at Triple-A, rather than picking up sporadic at-bats as an occasional backup to the three starting infielders. Hopefully, the Yankees will reverse the roles of Pena and Russo sometime this season.

Bruce Markusen lives and works in Cooperstown, NY.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Bruce Markusen

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1 Raf   ~  Mar 27, 2010 7:41 am

I always did like the 1990 UD card series. The photo quality and card stock was better than anything I had seen before.

There were a lot of head scratching moves made by the Yankees going forward the 1988 offseason.

2 The Mick536   ~  Mar 27, 2010 8:30 am

You do us a great service reminding of us some of the men who played in the past. Many did not follow the Yankees until the most recent glory years. Some, the few left, followed from the original ones.

As for 1989, Dallas Green and Bucky Dent. They went 74 and 87 (what happened to the other game). Andy Hawkins. Eric Plunk. Dave Eiland went 1-3. Tommy Johns last year, 2-7. Al Leiter was 1-2. DH Balboni batted 237 with homers.

it was a dreadful year, topped somewhat in its horribleness by the following year. I remember Brookens and all the other Stick Drek on the team. Donny Baseball was all alone.

[1] What were the head scratching moves?

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