LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland already has a good reason to like new reliever Collin Balester.
“He married a girl from Perrysburg, Ohio, my hometown,” Leyland said. “So he can’t be all bad.”
Balester agreed it was unusual that his wife, Ashley, already had that connection with his new manager.
“She went to Ohio State and I met her when I was playing in Columbus,” said Balester, who played there from 2007-08. “She’s from Perrysburg, Ohio, so it’s kind of weird.”
Although the California native had spent his entire career in the Montreal/Washington organization after being chosen by the Expos in the fourth round of the June 2004 draft, he actually welcomed the trade to Detroit in December. Ryan Perry went to the Nationals.
“I was pretty happy,” Balester said. “It was a good adjustment because I’ve been with the same team for eight years, just kind of a fresh start, coming to a great team like this it’s going to be a lot of fun, just learning a lot of things. I’m just excited for the season to start.”
Balester spent the earlier part of his career as a starter, but he transitioned the last couple of seasons to reliever. He said the Tigers have not discussed his role with him so far.
“I would rather kind of not really know, just kind of keep working — not saying even if I did know, I would stop working,” Balester said. “Just to keep that fire under you and keep on working hard. I feel like no matter what your role is, you could always do a little better. I just want to do anything I can for this team and help it win.”
Both team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski and Leyland have said they expect Balester, who is out of minor-league options, to make the big-league club and be a long reliever.
That’s not to say that Balester would be opposed to starting.
“At this point, if they said they wanted to test me out in that thing, then that would be good,” Balester said. “I think they’ve got some pretty good starters going for that spot. For me, I literally just would do anything to just make the team. Long man, starter, whatever they wanted.”
In 2010, Balester went 0-1 with a 2.57 ERA in 17 relief appearances with the Nationals. Last season was not quite as successful; he was 1-4 with a 4.54 ERA in 23 relief appearances.
But Balester is only 25 years old and still learning how to perform at the major league level on a consistent basis.
“I think the last couple years, I’ve felt like I could go out there and I know what I need to do instead of trying to do too much,” Balester said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I know when I’m doing everything I can do, that’s enough.
“Instead of when I was a lot younger, I was just trying to do some things I can’t do. And this year I’m just working on the things I can do, and I know it’s good enough. So I’m just going to go out there and just stay under control and show them what I have, and, hopefully, in the end, it’s enough.”
Of the Tigers, Balester knew only fellow reliever Phil Coke from when the two played in Taiwan, but he traveled with the Tigers during their Winter Caravan in January and got to know his teammates a little before he came to Lakeland for spring training.
“I could put some faces with names and they could see who I was instead of just coming into camp and being the different person, looking at me all weird,” Balester said. “I got to meet some guys and establish a little bit of a relationship, so that was nice.”
Balester said when they were on the caravan, fans kept asking whether the team was going to get Prince Fielder, which it eventually did. One thing is for sure. Balester is much happier being on the same team with Prince Fielder than having to pitch to him.
“I think he’s like 4 for 8 off me (actually 3 for 7), so it’s good to get him off the visiting team,” Balester said. “It was, obviously, a good addition to a great team. I’m excited to have this lineup, not just him but this whole lineup on the same team.”
Tigers fans who are on Twitter will be happy to know (if they don’t already) that Balester has an account, @ballystar40.
“I had Facebook for a long time and then someone just said, ‘Oh, try Twitter,'” Balester said. “I didn’t really know what it was and I just got on. I kind of liked it. Then I started getting a little bit of a following, just saying some one-liner things or whatever.
“I like to read a lot of stuff, read some stuff on some people and stuff like that on Twitter. Now I use it a little bit just to communicate with some fans here and there. I think it’s a good little tool.”
Balester said he was pleasantly surprised to find that Tigers fans are among the most devoted in baseball. He said his followers increased by nearly 2,500 since the trade. He also saw that firsthand during the caravan and also in Lakeland.
“Just seeing the caravan, packed everywhere we went,” Balester said. “Then the first couple of days before camp even started, there’s thousands of people out there. It’s crazy. In Washington, you would see it a little bit, but here it’s crazy, man. The fans really love it, it’s a sports town, and I’m excited to play in front of them.”
And while just playing in the majors is special, Balester realizes how much history there is with a team that’s been around since 1901.
“Just that Olde English D, everyone knows about that in all sports,” Balester said. “It’s cool to be a part of that history. It’s so deep with history. Now all of us want to be a part of a new history. We’re all in here for the same reason. We want to win a ring and be a part of a championship club.
“I get that vibe from all these guys, that everyone has that same goal and it’s kind of cool to be around it. Obviously, you’ve got Willie Horton every single day walking around, Al Kaline, it gives you some chills every once in a while, seeing those guys around. And they’re here every single day to help you out, so it’s a cool feeling.”