DETROIT — The Tigers might have found their new center fielder.
Austin Jackson is still sidelined with a abdominal strain, but a prospect named Calvin Johnson showed some promise in a pregame workout Friday.
The Pro Bowl wide receiver took an afternoon off from his day job with the Lions to take batting practice, and after a shaky start launched a home run into the Tigers bullpen in left field.
“I told Delmon Young that if I didn’t hit a homer today, I was going to keep coming back,” Johnson joked after taking three turns in the cage. “I hit one out today, but I’m still going to come back and do this again.”
Johnson played baseball in high school, and said he had some contact with at least one major league team before going to Georgia Tech to play football.
“I know I had some history with the Cincinnati Reds, but I don’t know if they drafted me or if they just contacted me about a tryout,” said Johnson, who also threw out the first pitch before Friday’s Tigers-Pirates game. “By that point, though, football had pretty much taken over my life.”
Tigers manager Jim Leyland came out to watch the end of Johnson’s session and was impressed.
“He can hit,” Leyland said, after giving Johnson a few tips and getting an autographed ball. “That kid is a great athlete, no matter what he’s doing.”
Johnson was joined by fellow wide receiver Nate Burleson, who also briefly got into the cage and hit one ball to the warning track in right.
“There’s a brotherhood among the receivers, and we all wanted to come out and support the Tigers,” said Johnson, who was also scheduled to throw out the first pitch. “We came to some games last season — we were here in the playoffs — and we’ll be back this year.”
Between his homer and his center-field experience, Johnson was quick to volunteer himself to fill in for Jackson.
“I told him that I was down for anything he needed,” Johnson said after his chat with Leyland. “I just want to support the cause.”
Some of the other Tigers had been impressed even before Johnson got into the cage. At 6-foot-6 and 234 pounds, he dwarfs most baseball players.
“That’s a big guy,” Ramon Santiago said. “He sat down in a chair to take a picture with my son, and I wanted him to stay in the chair when he took a picture with me.”