Monroe's mom inspires on, off field

Monroe's mom inspires on, off field

How far has Craig Monroe emerged as a Major League slugger? Last year, he took Marilyn Monroe on the town.

When Monroe wanted to give a thank-you to his mother for all she has done for him, he didn't just send a card or flowers, or do the typical pro athlete thing and buy his mom a house or a car. Monroe wanted to let his mom know what it's like traveling around as a professional athlete. So he brought her to New York when the Tigers were in town last August to face the Yankees.

They went to a Broadway musical together one night. They took in some of the sights around Manhattan after the first game of the series was rained out. Then, with a day-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, she had her first chance to watch her son play outside of Detroit or Texas.

It was like he was back on the youth fields of Texarkana, Texas. Craig, hoping to do something big with his mom watching, went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the first game of the doubleheader. When he saw her between games, she gave him a simple instruction: "You'd better do something while I'm here."

When the ninth inning of the nightcap came around, he had his chance. A two-out walk from Curtis Granderson put the go-ahead run on base and extended the game for him, and all he could do was look in the stands at his mom.

"I have that problem," he said at the time. "When she'd come to my basketball games or my baseball games, I would always see her. That's what she told me. 'You're staring, watching me. You can't be watching me. You've got to concentrate.' But it's such a great feeling to look up and see her standing on her feet and nodding her head at me. And I had a long stare at her and I honestly felt like we were in agreement that I was going to get it done."

Monroe turned on the first pitch he saw and put it over the left-field fence. And as he came around third base and back to the plate, he was looking in the stands.

"When I crossed the plate," he said, "all I could do was just point at her and tell her that was for her."

It wasn't simply the feeling of a son giving thanks to his mom for all the sacrifice. For the Monroes, it's the case of a son trying to live up to his mother.

When most players talk about following in footsteps, it's often the son following the father. But while Monroe has emerged as one of the game's more underrated hitters, he has always considered his mom the athlete in the family.

Marilyn Monroe was a standout in softball and basketball growing up in Texarkana. When she had Craig as a teenager, however, she gave up a chance at collegiate sports to raise her son. Instead of a star athlete looking at another level of competition, she was a single parent staring at the challenge of making a living out of high school and raising a boy.

It's a choice Craig Monroe has never forgotten.

"She had me at a young age, and she had to grow up," Monroe said. "She had to be an adult. She had to be a parent instead of going off to college and fulfilling her dream. So for me, my desire to be better than she was when I was younger, my joy of sharing these moments up here in the big leagues, she goes through it with me."

They both went through the challenges. His athletic ability wasn't simply a blessing on the field. It was a way to stay out of trouble in a city where it wasn't hard to find. Instead of being on the streets, he was always going somewhere -- to practice, to play, to the Boys & Girls Club, to friends. He was so occupied with sports, he looks back now, that he thinks it probably saved his life.

"It gave me a chance to change my environment, to change my mind-set, everything," he said. "As a kid, I just decided I wanted something different for myself."

The older he grew, the more organized sports in which he competed. His athletic career growing up was her career -- sometimes intentional, but usually not.

"She would never push," he said, "but she set the bar. When you have a parent that was good in sports, that's what you hear, how good they were. And to be honest, it's just God-given ability, good genes. But at the same time, that's something that I wanted to do. It was something that I made my mind that I wanted to be. I heard it so many times, 'You're going to be this,' and, 'You're going to be that.' Well, I listened, but I didn't hear. I wanted to make it happen for myself."

Monroe couldn't beat his mom at basketball until he was a sophomore in high school. Once he cleared that hurdle, beating high school competition was comparatively easy. An All-State shooting guard at Texas High, he set a record for most three-pointers in a game. On the football field, he was a standout wide receiver and cornerback who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same contest.

At that point, baseball was actually a sidelight. He was never a star player in high school, but he was better during summer leagues. He never dreamed of the Major Leagues, never imagined a baseball career at all until injuries cut short his senior seasons on the gridiron and the basketball court.

A dislocated shoulder the basketball season also cost him half the baseball season and forced him to wear a sling on his glove arm once he came back. He finished out the season, signed to play at Texarkana Junior College and was readying to finally focus on one sport when the Texas Rangers called on draft day and took him in the eighth round.

With that, he had the opportunity his mom couldn't take when she became a parent. He calls himself a late bloomer because it took him so long to focus on baseball, and his career reflects it. It was still slow progress, but it was steady. He'd work in the minors, then he'd work in winter ball. And every so often when Monroe grew frustrated, he thought of what his mom gave up for him.

For the past four years, the work has paid off. He proved he could stick in the big leagues in 2003, then proved he could be a Major League hitter in 2004. His 2005 season showed he could be an everyday hitter. In 2006, he became one of the best clutch home-run hitters in the game.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland likes to say that Monroe has only started to tap his potential. Now that he's beginning to reach it, he wants his mom to enjoy it with him. Because they're so close in his age, he sees her as a best friend and an older sister as much as a mom.

By the time last season was over, she took one more trip to see her son -- this time to the World Series.

"I think my success is also her success," he said. "It makes it that much more special. That's why I'm so humble to my situation. This is not just for me. This is for her, too."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.