Tigers’ pitcher was assisted in college by coaches, catcher, athletic department personnel
|Photo Courtesy of Mark Cunningham and the Detroit Tigers
By David Driver/Special Correspondent
Lakeland, Florida - Melissa Grau is the long-time head softball coach at Lake Michigan but she is also the assistant athletic director at the school. “I see every student-athlete who comes through here,” she said.
Not many of them – very few in fact – play at the professional level after leaving Benton Harbor. But one of them who did was former baseball pitcher Duane Below, who made his Major League debut for the Detroit Tigers in 2011.
The left-hander pitched in 27 games with the Tigers the next season and with the Miami Marlins in 2013 before he signed back with the Tigers in December as a free agent.
“He has always been humble and polite,” Grau said. “He was always cordial. He was always polite. He was one of the stellar kids you wanted to go out in the community and recruit for us. He always made everybody laugh. He was goofy in his own right. He had a big heart; he would give the shirt off his back to anyone.”
“She was a big impact of us,” Below, 28, said of Grau. “She kept us accountable, she kept us on track. We were very close to her.” He also said then-athletic director Doug Schafer was a big supporter.
Below said another important person during his two seasons at Lake Michigan was Brock Doud, his former catcher who is now the assistant baseball coach at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Doud hit .370 with four homers as he started all 45 games for Lake Michigan College in 2006, as he was named second team all-MCCAA.
“The friends you meet are important. They are still a part of your life,” said Below, who grew up in Britton.
The 6-foot-2 lefty was drafted in the 19th round out of LMC in 2006 by the Tigers at the recommendation of Detroit scout Tom Osowski. "I saw him at a tournament in the fall of 2005. He was a lefty pitcher, an athletic kid with a pretty good delivery," said Osowski.
Last season Below pitched for Triple-A Toledo in the Detroit system before he was acquired by the Marlins. The lefty pitched for New Orleans, the top farm club of Miami, and in two games for the Marlins. His contract was then sold to a team in Korea, where he played from August to October.
“It was a great experience. I am glad I got to do it,” he said during spring training. “It took a little bit to get used to.”
One difference between baseball in Korea and North America is that there are doubleheaders in Korea to help make up for rainouts. That means the season lasted until late October for several teams.
After the season Below returned to his apartment in Toledo, where he lived with his wife, Amanda, who studied business at Lake Michigan. In early January they headed to Lakeland, the long-time spring training home of the Tigers, as Below got ready for spring training.
Below was invited to major league training camp as a non-roster player (which means he was not on the protected 40-man roster of Detroit) and was able to catch the eye of Brad Ausmus, the new first-year manager of the club. “I am excited to see Ausmus as a manger. He seems like a great guy,” Below said of the man who replaced the retired Jim Leyland.
Below began his pro career in 2006 in the rookie Gulf Coast League in Florida and with Oneonta in the New York-Penn League. Below moved up to the low Class A Midwest League in 2007 with West Michigan and had a breakout season, as he went 13-5 with an ERA of 2.97 in 26 starts. That led to a promotion to the high Class A Florida State League with Lakeland in 2008, when he was 8-7 with an ERA of 4.46 in 27 games, with 26 starts.
Below had Tommy John surgery on his left arm during the 2009 season and saw limited action that year. He was 1-4 with an ERA of 3.14 in six starts with Lakeland and in his first showing at the Class AA level he was 1-0 in two starts with an ERA of 1.59. Below did rehab work at the Tigers' facility in Lakeland after his arm surgery and came back strong in 2010, when he was 7-12 with an ERA of 4.93 in 28 starts with Erie in 2010.
Below had some arm problems and was eventually sent to the minor league camp in Lakeland. As March came to a close he was hoping to head north with Toledo, where he hopes to be part of the starting pitching rotation. “It is not the spring I expected,” he said. “My arm has been bothering me a little bit. It was a frustrating spring because of the arm issue.”
Editor’s note: David Driver, a former college baseball player, is a free-lance baseball writer who covers the Washington Nationals for The Sports Xchange. He can be reached at www.davidsdriver.com.