Yore Detroit Tigers

Mar 26, 2003 at 12:00 am

It doesn’t seem so right
For me to call you mine
When every time you try to fly
It’s me who falls behind.
On a scale of one to 10
You’re nine point nine,
Cause when you are my superstar
You really make me shine.

—”Superstar,” a creepy ode to Alan Trammell by a combo from Pennsylvania called the Ken Simmons Band.

Spring training for the 2003 Detroit Tigers is a double helping of sun and sweat with a side order of nostalgia. As prospects vie for playing time or a spot on the team, players from the past dominate the spotlight. Al Kaline, Willie Horton and Bill Freehan kindle memories from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s teams.

But the arrival of new manager and former shortstop Alan Trammell — a stalwart on the championship Tigers team of 1984 — has taken memories of glory days to new heights.

Trammell, 45, the Most Valuable Player in the 1984 World Series, got the job on Oct. 9, 2002, after a dismal season in which the Tigers were 55-106.

Tram, used for one-syllable ease, brought in fellow heroes from that championship campaign and beyond — Kirk Gibson as bench coach, and Lance Parrish as bullpen coach, stealing them both away from the broadcast booth.

Whether the golden boys of ’84 can instill the current roster with the right stuff remains to be seen. Trammell is, after all, a manager, not a magician.

As a marketing ploy, however, it’s been a big hit. The Tigers’ spring training home, Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., is flooded with fans and press clamoring for the old Tiger greats.

Flashbacks occur as Tram, Gibby and Lance walk the field. As they approach, newly placed wrinkles appear, but no flab or beer guts. The boys that were blessed in 1984 are still in tremendous shape.

Even former manager Sparky Anderson is back at spring training for the first time since his retirement in 1995. In shape too, at least for a 69-year-old; he walks laps around the field each day. He’s not looking for a job, he’s just another ambassador welcoming his former players into managing and coaching. Or he could be their getaway driver.

The glamour of Tigers past overshadows the team’s current roster, which is loaded with players who would be reserves on contending teams.

While Trammell and Parrish are known for their stoic excellence, Gibson has the aura of a rock star. The rugged Pontiac native is best remembered for his clutch hitting. His two titanic home runs in game five of the 1984 World Series brought the house down and ignited car fires. His walk-off (or limp-off) pinch-hit homer for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of the 1988 World Series is one of the most dramatic hits in baseball history. He drilled the ball into the stands, then hobbled around the bases with a hamstring injury.

Gibby now struts around with his five o’clock shadow from cheekbone to throat, and is virtually unapproachable. But he also is usually the first to arrive at the stadium during spring training.

“I never heard of people being here at 7 o’clock,” Anderson marvels.

Then there is Kaline, a special assistant. The Hall of Famer is a legendary player, known as “Mr. Tiger.” He sure ain’t Mr. Cordial.

It’s a couple hours before an exhibition game, and Tiger fans congregate for autographs and photo opportunities with players current and past. Anderson and others happily sign baseballs and laugh and schmooze with the fans. A kid of 9 or 10 tries to get Kaline’s attention a couple times, calling him “Mr. Kaline.” Kaline turns while small-talking with the elites and bellows: “You’re rude! Can’t you see I’m talking? You’re rude!” The kid’s father consoles him while Kaline returns to his gabfest.

That unpleasant scene is compounded by the feather-ruffling appearance of Robert Fick, the Tigers’ only All-Star from last year. He’s now playing for the Atlanta Braves, the Tigers’ foe today. During batting practice, a Fick liner nails a pigeon in midflight. Then Fick nails the Tigers for two hits.

Sparky speaks

Sparky Anderson has never met a conversation he didn’t like. But his loquacity has never diminished his credibility. He’s acutely aware of what Alan Trammell’s in for.

“I never wanted him to manage,” Anderson says, “but for only one reason. He has been such a great player — and I mean a great player, not an average player. I never wanted to see him abused. He will be abused, I don’t care who you are, and I never want that.

“But … he has to do it. It’s there, that’s him. You can talk to him and you know he must do this.”

Anderson’s expectations are tempered.

“The thing I like about Tram is he’s not afraid of failure,” Anderson says. “He’s not afraid that this isn’t it for him. I wish players could be that way, never be afraid to lose.”

The team’s condition could strike fear in the stoutest optimist. In 2002, the novelty of a third year in Comerica Park could not overcome the team’s lackluster performance. Attendance plummeted 1 million from 2001.

The Tigers had the worst offense in the majors last season, scoring 575 runs, 52 behind the second-worst. At that rate, for the Tigers to have scored as many runs as the New York Yankees (879), the team would have had to endure 252 games.

To compound the dearth of offense, Randall Simon was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Tigers refused to grant salary arbitration to Fick. The loss of Simon and Fick cost the Tigers 29 percent of their home run total and 27 percent of their runs batted in.

Promising young pitchers Jeff Weaver and Mark Redman were traded away as well. Both are young talents with peculiar personalities, but the Boys of the Summer of ’84 will not get an opportunity to mold them into stars. Knuckleballer Steve Sparks, who was 8-16 last season with a 5.52 earned run average, might be the No. 1 starter.

Remarkably unlike the Red Wings, the Ilitch family’s other pro team, which regularly pays top dollar to field a virtual all-star squad, the tight Tigers budget precludes the signing of any star free agents or a blockbuster trade.

Dave Dombroski, Tigers president and general manager, made his options abundantly clear last July during luncheon remarks to a group of season-ticket holders. A tape of his critique was subsequently aired on Detroit radio station WDFN-AM 1130.

“I love Dean Palmer ... if you can trade him tomorrow, give me a call,” Dombrowski said on the tape. “Damion Easley — I love him. ... He’s been hot. He’s still not hitting .200. ... Matt Anderson. Pretty good closer when he’s healthy. Can you trade Matt Anderson tomorrow? I’d love to see you try. Again, give me a call. ... Bobby Higginson, who’s a solid player, he’s going to make $11.85 million next year. You try to trade him. … Craig Paquette — if you can trade him, call me tomorrow — is making $2.75 million next year.”

Dombrowski’s abject apology cannot erase the fact that about $40 million is due this season to these five players, plus Sparks and Danny Patterson. That’s about 75 percent of the $55 million payroll.

The hope is that the confirmed winners Tram, Gibby and Lance can get the well-paid veterans to produce.

Problems the organization has endured for a decade won’t make Trammell’s reunion easy, but his straightforward, honest attitude is a refreshing change. Hall of Fame manager Anderson senses it.

“First of all, professionalism is back in the clubhouse, it has to be,” Anderson says. “If you don’t have that, you have nothing. Then, know how to play, and they’re going to get that. After that, ability comes in.

“I, myself, look at five years [for Trammell to build a contender]. When I came to Detroit, I had more available to me. I had some pretty good players. They had some talent. He’s going to have a bigger job on his hands, but in the long run he’ll have as much fun as I did.”

Trammell listens intently to his old skipper. Both have one thing in common, and Anderson pinpoints it.

“I think our only similarity is we’re honest,” Anderson says. “I can outtalk him, no question about that. That doesn’t win any awards, but I didn’t lie and he ain’t gonna lie.

“That, I think, is probably what’s going to make us the most [alike], that, and the fact that we love the game so much.”

Trammell sits back, arms folded, with a big smile as he listens to Anderson ramble. Finally, Trammell speaks up.

“His honesty is what I believe in. I was very fortunate to grow up with a good upbringing,” says Trammell, who refers to Anderson as family. “He [Anderson] was an extension [of family] when I first got into professional ball. I met Sparky at a young, impressionable age along with the group that we had. I don’t think we understood it then — in fact, I know we didn’t — but now as I’ve gotten older and I’m a parent and had my own children, I understand. Now I have the advantage that I know it works.”

As Anderson attests, Trammell is not about talk. He is all business.

“When I got a uniform on, I’m busy,” Trammell says.

And when the uniform is off and interviews are over, he goes right to the weight room.

“I’m going to get a workout here to get my mind clear, to get ready for the next day,” he says. “Get something to eat, go to bed and do it all over again.”

Work ethic

Alan Stuart Trammell was born on Feb. 21, 1958, in Garden Grove, Calif.

“Ever since I can remember, everything I’ve ever done in life involves sports,” he says.

In his early teens, he worked at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium selling pop during Chargers football games and pro soccer games.

“I had a friend who was a couple of years older and at the time they weren’t union, so it was a way for a young person to make some money,” Trammell recalls. “I was in junior high and you got a certain percentage and got paid cost at the end of the game.

“The Chargers drew pretty well, so I would vend for those games, be in the upper deck, sell sodas, make $15 to $20.”

He was a gym rat, always looking for a pick-up game.

“I first met him when he was around 10 years old, he lived a couple blocks away,” Jesse Martinez remembers. “I was friends with his older sister, Lynn, and got to coach him in Little League.”

Martinez attended Kearny High School, as did Trammell, and was a good athlete who held many records at the school outside San Diego.

“Yeah, he broke all my records,” Martinez says with a laugh. “But baseball was not his first love. Like Tony Gwynn, his first love was basketball.”

Gwynn, who has a guaranteed spot in Cooperstown, was drafted out of San Diego State by the National Basketball Association’s San Diego Clippers. Of course, he opted to play baseball for the San Diego Padres. Gwynn and Trammell have played together at events that raise money for athletic departments in San Diego.

“Tram is a good athlete. He surprised a lot of people with his good shooting, good defense,” Gwynn says.

All the coaches at Kearny looked forward to Trammell’s arrival from Montgomery Junior High.

“I kept trying to get him out for football, but he was too smart,” says Brad Griffith, a former junior varsity football and baseball coach at Kearny. “We all knew of this kid and we all wanted to service him. He was a great athlete, but he was always humble, didn’t go around projecting himself as the big man on campus. He wasn’t a blowhard or had an ego. He has lots of buddies in San Diego rooting for the Tigers.”

Trammell’s father was an insurance salesman. His parents divorced when he was a teenager. He wore long locks that were in style in the ’70s, and he was known to be very independent.

“He was kind of a rebel then,” says Tiger pitching coach Bob Cluck, who has known Trammell since he was a teenager.

Trammell’s high school baseball coach, Jack Taylor, a former Marine who hated Tram’s hairdo, would bring in scouts to watch his players.

“They thought that he [Trammell] wouldn’t ever make it in the majors because he couldn’t hit,” former Kearny football coach and athletic director Tom Barnett says. “That’s what made him work harder.”

“Most scouts were probably right with their assessment of me,” says Trammell. “I was real skinny then.”

But his work ethic was rewarded. The Tigers took a chance and selected the wiry Kearny Komets senior in the second round of the amateur draft in June 1976.

The 165-pounder held out on the Tigers farm team in Bristol, Va., for a couple of weeks so he could graduate and play in California’s high school baseball all-star game.

“I graduated from high school on a Friday, played the game on Saturday and the season began that Tuesday,” Trammell remembers.

Although he had offers to play college baseball at Arizona State or UCLA, he chose to sign with the Tigers for $35,000.

“Once I signed, I was committed. I wasn’t going to be stopped, nothing could stop me in my mind,” Trammell says. “I was going to work and do whatever it took.”

His minor league career was quick and remarkable. He played in the Appalachian League All-Star game while at Bristol, and played in the Instructional League at St. Petersburg, Fla., where he first met Lou Whitaker. They ended up playing together with the Montgomery Rebels in Alabama in the Class AA Southern League.

“And the next year we made the club,” Trammell says.

Whitaker and Trammell served up double plays quicker than a Lafayette Coney. In 1995, they became the longest-running double-play combo in the American League, with 1,918 games together.

Before his first, full season with the Tigers, Trammell married Barbara Leverett, on his birthday. He met her his sophomore year, but they didn’t start dating until his senior year. They just celebrated their 25th anniversary. They have three children, Lance, 21, Kyle, 19, and Jade Lynn, 15. They live north of San Diego in Del Mar.

The scrawny kid with the suspect stick got a hit in his first major league at-bat, on Sept. 9, 1977. He was 19. The pitcher was Boston Red Sox right-hander Reggie Cleveland.

He took the Tigers to arbitration in 1980 and signed a seven-year contract valued at $2.8 million. He promptly batted .300, 24 points higher than the year before. In 1983, his contract was extended to 1989, which doubled his pay.

In the 1984 World Series, he hit .450 on nine hits, and his two homers drove in all four runs in a Game 4 victory versus his hometown Padres.

Trammell won four Gold Gloves and was a six-time All-Star. He batted cleanup in 1987 and had a career-high .343 average, with 205 hits, 28 home runs and 105 RBI in the season when the Tigers won the American League East title. Toronto’s George Bell robbed him of the American League’s MVP title. The lanky kid bulked up to 185 pounds and won Silver Slugger Awards in 1987, 1988 and 1990.

Age and a nagging elbow injury suffered in 1983 caught up with him, and in 1992 he only played 29 games. He bounced back the next year to hit .329.

He retired after the 1996 season, in which he hit in 12 consecutive games. Ty Cobb and Kaline are the only other Tigers to play 20 seasons for the organization.

Tram’s statistics are Hall of Fame caliber. In 2,293 games, he batted .285, with 2,365 hits, 185 homers and 1,003 RBI. His fielding percentage was a whopping .977, but the shortstop elected in Trammell’s first year of eligibility was Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals. Maybe Tram should have learned how to do back flips, but that’s not his style. He remains on the ballot, but there are doubts he will be ever be inducted.

He was, however, good enough for the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame and Museum located on Gallagher in Hamtramck — Trammell was inducted into it in 1990. He is also in the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and San Diego Hall of Champions’ Breitbard Hall of Fame.

After retiring as a player, he served two years as special assistant to then-Tigers general manager Randy Smith, helping in scouting and player instruction. He revisited the field the next year as hitting coach under manager Larry Parrish, but wasn’t retained by incoming manager Phil Garner. He rejected a job offer in the broadcast booth and returned to San Diego for two years as the first-base coach.

Trammell is the 35th manager in the team’s history and the ninth to have played with the franchise, not including interim managers. The mercurial Billy Martin, who was often seen at the Lindell A.C. drinking his face off, was the last former Tiger to manage, from 1971-73. Only Cobb, Kaline, Whitaker and Charlie Gehringer played more games in a Tiger uniform than Trammell.

“You’re not looking at somebody who was legendary, he just worked so hard at what he did,” says Tyler Barnes, the Tigers’ former director of communications. “He’s a guy who lives and breathes Detroit baseball.”

Tiger pitching coach Bob Cluck, who first met Trammell when Tram was 18, echoes that sentiment.

“He’s a real inspiration ’cause he really believes everything he says about the Old English ‘D’,” Cluck says of Trammell. “None of it’s phony at all. He’s been telling me that for 20 years, so why would it be not true?”

Cluck, 57, is the award-winning author of “Play Better Baseball” and “Think Better Baseball,” and has written eight other books on the mechanics and fundamentals of the game. He has been an eyewitness to Trammell’s growth as player and individual. Trammell has served as an instructor at Cluck’s baseball school.

“His teaching skills are incredible, I’ve watched him teach a lot of years,” Cluck says. “Even though he hasn’t coached for very long, he’s been a teacher for over 20 years. When he was playing he was able to break things down — both in hitting and defense — that really made sense to kids, and we teach those same things every day.”

With their tricked-out SUVs, the kids Trammell will teach with the Tigers are a bit different from the ones in Cluck’s school.

“We’ll have a mix between having a good time and enjoying your job and being all business when the game starts,” Cluck says. “Preparing well and being serious about your job and at the same time going out of your way to enjoy and creating a light atmosphere.

“No manager does well in a militaristic atmosphere, especially now. Guys need to have a little fun and relax. There’s immense pressure on the players; you don’t need to add any more.

“All of us have one thing in common. We want Alan to succeed and, therefore, the Tigers to succeed.”

Parrish has embraced Trammell’s style and feels it can work to his advantage and to the players’.

“It’s an open-door policy and everyone’s got an opinion,” says Parrish. “At least I have something to say. It gives me freedom to say what I want. Trammell wants constructive criticism.

“Everyone welcomes it. They saw crazy things in the past. They wanted a change.”

Gwynn, who heads up San Diego State’s baseball program, is bullish on Trammell, whom he calls “a workaholic.”

People who don’t know Trammell might misjudge him, Gwynn says.

"Don't let that soft exterior fool you…he's hard on the inside. He doesn't like to lose. He's gonna do what he has to do to win. He may look like the guy next door, but inside he's a hard, passionate tiger."

Gwynn concludes that Trammell’s hiring of Gibson and Parrish should help him instill new values.

"They got passion, their job is to pass on that passion," Gwynn says. "It's a tough sell and Tram's gonna find that to his surprise. Guys aren't motivated these days, that's why he has to teach that passion, that you’d better be ready."

Trammell knows it could be a long season with what he’s seen in spring training.

“We’ve wanted some guys to step up,” he laments. “I want better. …We’ve been down for quite a while.”

Glory days

Trammell fondly recalls the glory days, the days when Tiger Stadium was filled, when fans didn’t mind sitting behind pillars, when smoke clouded over Chet Lemon’s head. The times were so good Tram and Whitaker had a cameo on “Magnum P.I.” The episode first aired on Dec. 1, 1983. The story had Roger E. Mosley as Theodore “T.C.” Calvin letting a friend persuade him to repay a debt of honor by substituting for him in a bare-knuckle boxing match in Detroit. Meanwhile, Tom Selleck as Thomas Sullivan Magnum III tries his best to catch a Tigers game.

“It was filmed in Hawaii,” Trammell says with a smile. “We flew over there and actually spent five days over there. It was only supposed to be three.

“They made it out to be that we were in a bar, establishment in Detroit, that Selleck was doing some case.”

Excerpts of the script exist on a Web site called tvtome.com:

Magnum (narration): “When you spend your every working day basking in the balmy breezes of paradise, when you play year round on the beautiful sunny beaches of the Pacific, where do you dream of going on a vacation? The answer is obvious: Detroit. Reason one: Detroit’s a fun city. Reason two: there’s a superior group of athletes there known as the Tigers. Reason three ...”

There is a superior group of athletes known as Tigers. But now they’re the coaches.

The deep well of respect for Trammell means he’s got a multitude pulling for him,

Former Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell opines that Trammell’s hiring “gave us a link to the past and, you know, a little link to the tradition. I think he’ll have a slightly longer honeymoon than someone from the outside.

“From a cosmetic standpoint I think it was a great move. I think the strength in Alan is that he’s such an honest guy, you know. He’ll listen to people and he has no ego at all.

“He’s not trying to make himself on the way to the Hall of Fame as a manager. He just wants to get the job done and he will listen to criticism and have a good plan and work hard, that’s about all there is to it.”

But Harwell concludes ominously that Trammell “can’t catch and throw and hit for them.”

Scott Harrison is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]