Unfortunate timing: The Career of Bobby Higginson

In an 11-year career in Detroit, Bobby Higginson hit 187 home runs.

Usually when someone is really good at something, they have great timing. Talent seems to lead to opportunity. But sometimes an individual is caught in a series of events that almost seem doomed.

Tiger outfielder Bobby Higginson was cursed with poor timing despite being a good ballplayer in Detroit for 11 years.

When Higginson finally scratched his way up the Tigers minor league system to reach Detroit in 1995, he arrived to a team in transition. After the success of the 1980s (only the Yankees won more games), Detroit was an aging team when 24-year old Higginson came on the scene. Sparky Anderson was in his final season, soon to be followed by Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, and Phil Garner in the ensuing years. Mainstays Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker, the last connections to the glory of the 1980s, were hanging up their spikes, or soon would. Higginson stepped into the void, earning an outfield spot on a club that was trying to get younger but didn’t have the prospects on the farm to do so. Tinkering with player pieces in the mid-1990s, the Tigers sank like a car battery in a pond. The result was the worst period in Tigers history, an era of losing season after losing season after losing season.

Meanwhile, Higginson acclimated himself to big league pitching and matured into one of the only bright spots on dismal Detroit ball clubs. Though never a superstar, the undersized Higginson, a left-handed hitter with a compact swing built for Tiger Stadium, topped 25 homers in each of the seasons from 1996-1998, while batting as high as .320. In the outfield, “Higgy” was armed with one of the strongest wings in the league, though opposing runners never seemed to tire of testing him. The Tiger left fielder led the American League in outfield assists four times (with a career-high of 20 in 1997) and finished second on two other occasions.

When the Tigers moved to Comerica Park in 2000, Higginson enjoyed one last great season, hitting 30 homers with 102 RBI and a .300 batting mark. Nevertheless, the Tigers finished at 79-83 – their sixth straight losing season with Higginson. The next season the Tigers began a five-year stretch where they averaged 102 losses per. Higginson toiled and suffered as he entered the downslide of his career. After his 30th birthday, Higgy had a .402 SLG, whereas prior to his 30th, he had posted a .489 mark. The nadir came in 2003, when the team, now managed by Trammell, lost 119 games in an embarrassing performance. That year, Higginson hit just .235 with little pop in his once potent bat. Two years later, after a knee injury forced him to have his second surgery in less than 14 months, Higginson retired after playing just 10 games in 2005. Showing some class, he took out a two-page ad in both of the Detroit newspapers to thank the fans for their support over the years.

In his 11 seasons as a Tiger, Higginson had never been on a winning team. That was bad enough, but he had suffered far longer than that. In three minor league season on four different teams, Higginson had never been on a winning club. Going back to his college career at Temple University in Philadelphia, Higginson was part of four more losing clubs. That meant that Higginson had never been on a team with a winning record, from his freshman year in college through his 11 years in the major leagues.

With a history of losing like that, Higginson couldn’t have blamed for wearing a scowl. But he didn’t. He was a good teammate and played hard on the diamond. Unfortunately for him, his legacy is that of being the best player for a decade of losing by the Tigers.

A year after his retirement, almost as if to rub salt in Higginson’s wounds, the Tigers not only became winners – they won the pennant in 2006. For Higginson it was the final snub on what otherwise had been a very solid career in Detroit.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.