Gaye Bykers on acid top the bill this night at Detroit's St. Andrew's Hall, but Jim Walewander insists he's there to check out the crowd, not the band. The Tiger infielder says his own tastes in music are far more sedate. "My favorite group is the Dead Milkmen," he says.
As the crowd straggles in, one spiky-haired lad spies Walewander. "I can't believe it's really you!" he says. Jim grins sheepishly. "I thought Andy Warhol had died!"
The blondish, boyish Walewander (pronounced WHALE-wonn-der) is forever being mistaken for one pop icon or another, but when your job is backing up Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, you take any recognition you can get. "People bug me for autographs all the time," he says. "They ask, 'Can you get Whitaker to sign this?' "
Walewander is Detroit's Tony the Tiger—a real frosted flake. "Some players are flakes from the outside in," says teammate Dave Bergman. "Jim is a flake from the inside out." Walewander, 27, dresses Salvation Army and last season lived "cowboy-style" in an apartment with no furniture or electricity, eating his morning Wheaties from a dog bowl. He has been known to wear combat boots on the golf course and use his baseball card for an ID. "If Ayn Rand, Thoreau and Tama Janowitz ever had a kid," he says, "they'd have had me."
May 15, 1988
His legend looms so large in Motown that a local R & B band penned a paean to him titled The Walewander Blues, which goes, in part:
He's a fair-to-average hitter
Just go check his stats,
He's a late-inning defensive replacement
Who doesn't get many at bats.
Through Sunday, Walewander had one double in three plate appearances, but bench-straddling doesn't seem to faze him. "Even my childhood wasn't this much fun!" he says. "I don't have my parents around and I get to goof off all I want. The only weird thing is I'm not playing much, but I have to be ready." He pauses to ponder this paradox. "Guys who go 3 for 4 after sitting for a week are amazing." Another pause. "I might even have done that once, so I might be amazing."
He did his early Walewandering in Chicago. "Grandma is a Cubs fan," he says. "She'd still trade me even-up for Ryne Sandberg." His father, Lee, played in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system in the 1940s under the name Windy Wanders, but enlisted in the Marines his first year after an elderly woman asked him why he wasn't fighting instead. "It's ridiculous," says Jim. "Who listens to old ladies, anyway?"
Forty years later, Jim dropped out of Iowa State after the Tigers picked him in the ninth round of the 1983 draft. We'll give you $7,500 to sign, they said. I want more money, Walewander shot back. Take it or leave it, they said. "So I took it," says Walewander. "I could tell they wanted me real bad."
He kicked around the minors for four seasons before winding up with the Triple A Toledo Mud Hens last year as a utility infielder. He was leading the International League in stolen bases, and the Tigers needed more speed. After Detroit called him up in May, he hit only .241 in 54 at bats, but scored 24 runs.
"He'll never impress you," says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson. "My god, he's never gonna impress anybody. He don't have the tools. He can run and field. He's certainly not gonna hit anything."
Nevertheless, Anderson says that he keeps Walewander around just for his oddball enthusiasm. "Sparky sees a little bit of himself in me," says Walewander, adding, "That's his problem, not mine."