With Yankees In Detroit, MVP Candidate DJ LeMahieu Revels In Return To 'Backyard'

Once upon a time, he could have been a Tiger.

Will Burchfield
September 10, 2019 - 7:42 pm

© Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

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DJ LeMahieu pulled on his cap, laid his bat on his shoulder and headed for his backyard. 

The American League MVP candidate is back at Comerica Park this week to help the Yankees take on the Tigers, and on Tuesday in the visiting clubhouse he paused at this intersection of his life and his career.

"A lot of memories here as a fan as a kid," LeMahieu said. "It’s a special place for me, for sure." 

Born in California, LeMahieu bounced around with his family growing up. They moved to Bloomfield Hills just before he entered high school, and LeMaheiu, who enrolled at Brother Rice, quickly latched onto the Tigers. 

The 2003 Tigers. 

"My first year I really started coming to a lot of games was the worst-record season," he said with a laugh. "Then they got Pudge and then all these guys started coming in. To see where they were and where they went from there was pretty cool." 

As the Tigers began their renaissance, LeMahieu set out on a rise of his own. He starred on the baseball team at Brother Rice as both a shortstop and a pitcher. He was named Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Michigan in 2006. Then again in 2007. As a senior, LeMahieu hit .574 and struck out just twice in 92 at-bats, sharpening the tools that would one day help him win a big-league batting title. 

Throughout those years, the Tigers and their ballpark remained a big part of his life. As LeMahieu sifts through the memories, all the games and players he watched from these stands, he points to the 2006 team that made the World Series. He mentions he was on hand for Justin Verlander's first no-hitter in 2007. 

But the experience that stands out the most?

"Honestly, I just really liked buying the $5 tickets and sitting in the outfield," he said. "That was my thing."

And when he's asked to name his favorite player, LeMahieu brings up the team's old slogan, smiling like it was yesterday. 

"Who’s my Tiger? I liked Carlos Guillen a lot," he said. "I liked his swing."

Guillen would make sense, an athletic, versatile infielder who constantly hit for average. In fact, Guillen was to the 2006 Tigers what LeMahieu has been to this year's Yankees -- maybe not the team's flashiest player, but certainly its most valuable. 

In the most impressive season of his nine-year career, LeMahieu, who signed a two-year, $24 million deal with New York last winter, is hitting .328 (second in the majors) and leads the best team in baseball in WAR (5.3). Guillen finished 10th in AL MVP voting in 2006. LeMahieu has a legitimate case to finish this year in the top three. 

If this makes his return to Comerica all the more special, LeMahieu wouldn't say. It's not his way to think about himself. 

"It’s been a good year for us as a team," he said. "I guess just coming in here, knowing we’ve had a good year and hopefully a lot more to go, it’s definitely a good feeling." 

For LeMahieu, 31, Detroit's still home. He lives in Bloomfield Hills with his wife. There was a time when Detroit could have been home to his career, when Comerica could have been the park he played in 81 times a year. In the 41st round of the 2007 draft, the Tigers chose LeMahieu. 

LeMahieu, who had committed to LSU, chose college. He helped those Tigers win the College World Series in 2009, hitting .444 in the final stage of tournament. The Cubs drafted him in the second round that year, and this time LeMahieu turned pro. 

Two years later, he was traded to the Rockies, where he'd soon establish himself as one of the steadiest all-around players in baseball. He played his first game at Comerica in 2012, getting a brief cameo as a pinch-runner. Colorado returned to Detroit in 2014, and LeMahieu was held hitless in six at-bats. 

This is his first time back since, still searching for that first hit, and LeMahieu, now a three-time All-Star, was expecting a crowd of close to 50 friends and family Tuesday night. 

"Quite a few of them have been out to New York for a series," he said, "but to be in the backyard is cool." 

Expensive, huh? 

"I’m not leaving tickets, no," he quipped. 

Okay, he might have left a few. 

He can tell the rest of the group to sit in the outfield. Maybe it's still five bucks a pop.