Niyo: Tigers’ rookie Akil Baddoo has a blast in his big-league debut

The 22-year-old outfielder hit the first pitch he saw for a home run,…

Niyo: Tigers' rookie Akil Baddoo has a blast in his big-league debut 1

The best part about a moment like this is sharing it, and Akil Baddoo would be the first to tell you so.

But that’s also another way in which fortune smiled on the Tigers’ rookie on a sun-splashed Easter Sunday at Comerica Park, where he made a smashing major-league debut against the Cleveland Indians. There were witnesses who can fill him in on some of the details.

Because if you ask Baddoo, the 22-year-old outfielder who’d never played above Class A ball before this season, to describe the scene and his emotions as he rounded the bases after belting the first pitch he saw in the first at-bat of his MLB career, you’ll just get a laugh and a shake of the head.

“I cannot tell you,” he said. “I literally can’t tell you. Like, it was just … I don’t know. I was just so happy I was able to put a good swing on the ball and hit a home run.”

And the rest? Well, it’s a lot like Baddoo’s trip to the ballpark Sunday, knowing he’d be in the lineup for the first time, three games into a career no one expected to take this kind of turn this spring.

“It was all kind of a blur,” Baddoo said, smiling again.

Good thing the cameras were rolling, I guess. Even better, there were fans allowed in the stadium, most especially his family, who’d made the trip up from their home in suburban Atlanta for this debut.

And kudos to Tigers manager AJ Hinch, who took some of the drama out of the wait for Baddoo this weekend, telling him prior to Thursday’s Opening Day that he’d be in the lineup at some point in this first series with Cleveland.

On Saturday, he gave the rookie a heads-up — “Let your family know you’re getting your first start on Sunday,” Hinch told him — and then nearly inserted him in the game as a pinch-hitter that same afternoon when Miguel Cabrera started cramping up in the late innings.

His teammates, most of whom he’d only just met a couple months ago at the start of spring training — the Tigers plucked Baddoo from the Minnesota Twins’ farm system in December’s Rule 5 draft — were razzing him about that in the dugout, too.

“A lot of guys were joking about how good I look in the on-deck circle,” he said. “But I was glad I was finally able to get up there. That dream I’ve been living ever since I was kid — to see it all come true is just a beautiful blessing.”

Still, the anticipation did have his mother fidgeting as she waited for the ninth spot in the order to come up to the plate Sunday. A trip to the concession stand for a pretzel would have to wait, she said. It took until the bottom of the third inning, and as Baddoo stepped into the box to lead things off for the Tigers, his parents, John and Akilah, stood up from their seats in Section 129 directly behind home plate. They said a quick prayer first.

“Then I grabbed her hand so we could throw him some good energy,” his father explained during an in-game TV interview with Bally Sports Detroit. “And before we could blink our eyes, there it was. He didn’t even give us a chance to be nervous over here.”

Nerves? What nerves? Baddoo has been like this ever since joining the Tigers, forcing his way onto the 26-man MLB roster with an impressive spring, batting .325 (13-for-40) and flashing some power with five home runs and 11 RBIs. He also drew 10 walks, stole four bases and confirmed much of what the Tigers’ scouting reports had suggested Hinch and his staff might see if they gave him an opportunity.

Baddoo, a 2016 second-round draft pick of the Twins, hadn’t played above A-ball before this season, and he hadn’t played at all in a couple years. Not since an elbow injury required Tommy John surgery in May 2019, ending his season with the Fort Myers Miracle in High A ball. That’s why he was so surprised to hear his name called by Detroit with the third overall pick in the Rule 5 draft this offseason.

Tigers general manager Al Avila called it “a little bit of a gamble,” yet it really was just a $100,000 flier his scouting department felt was worth taking. (He must remain on the Tigers’ active roster all season or be offered back to the Twins.) And after a spring that “exceeded even the best of expectations,” according to Hinch, the reasons why were there for all to see. Not just in Baddoo’s relaxed approach at the plate, or his athletic profile as a 6-foot-1, 210-pound prospect. It was also his self-confidence.

“Quite frankly, part of the thing about being in the big leagues is feeling that you belong,” Avila said, “and having no fear.”

And there it was Sunday, on full display, as Baddoo jumped on an 89 mph fastball from Indians starter Aaron Civale and sent it screaming 372 feet into the Tigers’ bullpen in left field, flipping his bat as he started toward first base and watched it clear the fence.

Akilah Baddoo called it a “surreal” feeling, watching her son round the bases as the family — Akil’s two younger brothers, Amir and Hassan, also were on hand — all celebrated with fist pumps, hugs and even a “Can-you-believe-that?” shove she gave her husband. They’d debated where his first homer might land, and mom was right. He went opposite field with it.

“It was almost like when he hit one out when he was 6 years old, his first home run when he was playing travel ball or something,” John said. “It’s like we re-lived it again.”

That they’ll get to again and again, of course, is why Baddoo couldn’t wipe the smile off his face Sunday, even after the 9-3 loss to Cleveland denied the Tigers a season-opening series sweep.

“I was able hit it in front of my family and everyone,” said Baddoo, whose homer was one of just two Tigers hits in the game. “I’m glad I was able to make everyone proud. … I mean, my mom, dad, brothers — I could name a whole bunch of people — they’ve been next to me every step of the way.”

This latest step was one for the record books, though. Baddoo is only the ninth player in Tigers history to homer in his first at-bat, joining an eclectic list of names that range from Gates Brown to Gene Lamont to Daniel Norris, who took the loss Sunday after a rough relief outing out of the bullpen. And according to MLB.com, Baddoo is just the 31st player in league history to homer on the first pitch he saw in the majors, and the first since the Cubs’ Wilson Contreras did it in 2016.

All that was enough to convince his teammates to bypass the traditional silent treatment rookies typically get in the dugout after a milestone like this, too. There were plenty of high-fives and back slaps waiting for him as soon as he reached the top step.

“He had a big smile on his face,” Hinch said. “Let him enjoy the moment. …You only have one first game in your whole career. These are gonna get very routine for him when he starts playing more and more and the newness of being a big-leaguer is gonna wear off a little bit. But that emotion he felt is gonna last him a lifetime.”


john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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