ACROSS FROM the entrance to Tigertown on Al Kaline Drive in
Lakeland, Fla., is the Senior Meadows Retirement Residence, a
drab, circular structure that houses a hearty bunch of folks a
little past their prime. Just down the road is Marchant Stadium,
the Detroit Tigers' spring training park, another drab, circular
structure that for the last few springs has also housed a hearty
bunch of folks a little past their prime.
The scene in the Tiger clubhouse in the 1990s has usually included
more veterans than a Memorial Day parade. ``Lately we've had our
share of old-timers,'' acknowledges Detroit second baseman Lou
Whitaker, who will turn 38 on May 12. ``But when I showed up this
year, I saw all these baby faces, and I didn't recognize a single
one of them.'' Watch your back, Lou, the Tigers are finally going
with their cubs.
The most shocking move in the Motor City last week was not Kirk
Kerkorian's unsolicited takeover bid for Chrysler but the Tigers'
trade of utilityman Tony Phillips, who will turn 36 next week, to
the California Angels for 26-year-old outfielder Chad Curtis
Could it be that Detroit is actually turning back the clock for a
Last Friday morning around the batting cage at Marchant Stadium,
the newly arrived Curtis talked about the time in 1980 when he sat
in the bleachers at Tiger Stadium watching his idol, shortstop
Alan Trammell, crack a home run against the Milwaukee Brewers.
``It's a little embarrassing to admit it now, but that day I had
this dream that I would play with Trammell, even though I should
have realized the odds were against that,'' Curtis said. ``After
all, I was only 11.''
As Curtis told his story, Trammell, 37 years old and entering his
19th big league season, looked on with amusement from across the
batting cage. ``Sure, that story makes me feel my age a little,''
he said, ``but I don't exactly need a reminder that I've been here
for a long, long, long time.''
These are the 1995 Tigers: the baby boomers and the babies. As of
Sunday there were only six players on Detroit's 40-man roster
between the ages of 27 and 37. Thus, veterans like Trammell,
Whitaker and Kirk Gibson, who turns 38 on May 28, will be
unofficial player-coaches, responsible for telling the Tiger cubs
about the halcyon days when Detroit was an American League
powerhouse -- world champions even, in '84 -- and the luxury tax
was just a space on a Monopoly board.
Forgive the Tiger vets if they don't dwell on the 1990s. Recent
Detroit history reveals a venerable but decaying ball club playing
for a manager, Sparky Anderson, now 61, and in a ballpark, Tiger
Stadium, which dates back to 1912, that fit the same description.
Detroit bottomed out last season, finishing 53-62 and dead last in
the American League East. If that wasn't depressing enough, the
Tigers were on pace to lose $20 million before the players' strike
hit, thanks to the major leagues' highest payroll ($52 million)
and its fourth-lowest attendance (1,184,783).
Much of Detroit's recent talent shortfall can be traced to a
fallow farm. Over the past 15 years the Tigers' minor league
operation has been one of the least productive in baseball. ``I'll
guarantee that in my 16 years here, we haven't had more than seven
or eight bona fide prospects,'' Anderson says. ``I wish I knew
why. That's the $64,000 question.''
Detroit's first pick in the first amateur draft, in 1965, was Gene
Lamont, who is far better known as manager of the Chicago White
Sox than he ever was as a catcher. (In picking Lamont, who hit
.233 in 87 big league games, the Tigers passed on a catcher named
Johnny Bench.) None of Detroit's first- round picks from the '80s
have had an impact; the top choices included the never-heard-from
Ricky Barlow, Randy Nosek, Bill Henderson and a guy, Wayne Dotson,
who was released after he was caught stealing from his teammates.
Detroit's current general manager, Joe Klein, was hired in 1992 to
run the Tiger scouting operation and was told to reseed the farm.
``Three years ago, when I came here, they were asking, `When's
Greg Gohr going to be ready?' '' says Klein, of Detroit's
first-round pick in '89. ``He was our only prospect. Now they ask,
`When are [pitchers] Justin Thompson, Jose Lima, Cade Gaspar and
Greg Gohr going to be ready?' Everything in baseball runs in
trends. Let's just say we were in a downtrend.''
In fact, the last Tiger draft pick to make it big in Detroit was
third baseman Travis Fryman, who was the organization's third pick
in 1987 and joined the big club three years later. There had been
several homegrown players on the '84 world-championship team,
including Gibson, Trammell and Whitaker.
In recent years Detroit has attempted to cover up its inability to
develop players by signing big-ticket free agents like Rob Deer,
Dan Gladden, Bill Krueger, Eric Davis and Tim Belcher, all of
whose most impressive numbers were on their pay stubs.
``In the 1990s the Tigers have always had great hitting, but
they've never acquired the pitching, never committed fully to
building a winner,'' says former Detroit catcher Lance Parrish,
now in the Kansas City Royal camp. ``Sometimes you wonder, What
the heck are they thinking? Is there a master plan? But every year
it seems new people are running the show, and when you're playing
musical chairs in the front office, you have to expect some
In the bloody days surrounding pizza magnate Michael Ilitch's
purchase of the Tigers in 1992, chairman of the board and CEO (and
Anderson's friend) Jim Campbell was fired, as was club president
Bo Schembechler. Even Alice Sloane, the Tigers' 72-year-old
executive secretary, an employee for 47 years, was axed in the
aftermath of the purge. The terminations created a rift between
Anderson and the front office that has festered ever since. The
acrimony reached its zenith when it was prematurely leaked to the
press that Anderson would take an unexpected leave of absence on
Feb. 17, choosing not to manage the replacement players. ``The
leak was made on purpose to add fuel to this thing,'' Anderson
said. ``This is the worst disgrace I've ever heard. It was a bank
robbery that was done inside.'' Said Klein, ``I don't think you
win too many points when you leave your club on the first day of
spring training.'' When it was suggested that Anderson believed
his integrity was at stake, Klein added, ``Doesn't a contract have
That contract runs out after this season, and while Anderson
senses his lame-duck status, he nonetheless conducts business as
usual. ``If you worry about what's going on upstairs, you might as
well quit,'' he says. ``Lots of nasty things have been said, but I
just keep managing my way. Just because you work with people
doesn't mean you have to pal around with them.''
Still, so public is the bitterness between Anderson and the Tiger
brass that last Friday, before the Cincinnati Reds demolished
Detroit in a Grapefruit League game, Cincy owner Marge Schott
suggested she might speak to Anderson about returning to manage
the Reds, whom he took to four World Series as manager between
1970 and '78.
Before he goes anywhere, Anderson must first endure the 1995
season. ``We might get a beating,'' says Anderson, who was once
renowned for his blind optimism. ``If I sat here and said we can
win this division, it would be an insult to New York, Toronto and
``We know that on paper other teams are much better than we are,
but you can't expect to field a bunch of rookies and win the
division,'' Whitaker says. ``Somehow we need to stir it all up
into a cake with icing -- something fluffy.'' But many believe
that if the '95 Tigers resemble any confection, it will be a
There is some good news, however. About $8 million has been lopped
off the Detroit payroll as a result of the decision to not re-sign
several expensive free agents, including Belcher, Davis, Bill
Gullickson, Chad Kreuter and Mickey Tettleton. And after beginning
to work younger players into the lineup during last season, the
Tigers are creating a huge opportunity for their top- level
prospects this year. One or two young pitchers -- from among Lima,
22, Thompson, 22, and Sean Bergman, 25 -- will be thrust into the
rotation. Chris Gomez, 23, will get a full-time shot at shortstop,
and his future double-play partner, Shannon Penn, 25, could spell
Whitaker at second. And Danny Bautista, 22, and Bobby Higginson,
24, will platoon in rightfield. Curtis, who stole more than half
as many bases as all the Tigers combined last season, brings
much-needed speed to the lineup and a good glove to centerfield.
Dare we say that when the 1996 season rolls around -- after
Gibson, Trammell and Whitaker have most likely departed -- the
Detroit lineup will consist entirely of twentysomethings, except
for slugging first baseman Cecil Fielder, now 31. ``All the young
guys know that Alan and Lou are big fan favorites, so we expect
them to be a little more skeptical of us when we're in there,''
says Gomez, who is accustomed to living in the shadow of
greatness, having attended Grover Cleveland Elementary in
Lakewood, Calif., alongside Calvin Broadus, who is better known
now as Snoop Doggy Dogg. ``But we all know the torch must be
passed to us sooner or later.''
Seated in his office beneath a larger-than-life portrait of Ty
Cobb, Anderson, smaller than life and carrying 42 years of
baseball sagacity in a duffel bag under each eye, launched a
cumulus cloud from his pipe. ``Looking around, you can definitely
sense the end of a Tiger era, but eras come and go, from the Cobb
era, to the Kaline era, to the age of Trammell and Whitaker,'' he
said. ``When I'm gone, others will begin a new era.''
Barring a miracle at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, this
season may add up to little more than a farewell tour for Trammell
and Whitaker, the sublime double-play combination starting its big
league-record 19th season. They debuted in the majors together, in
the second game of a doubleheader in Boston on Sept. 9, 1977, and
they have all but promised each other that they will end their
magnificent careers by leaving the game side by side. ``I think
we're both proud of what we've done here,'' says Trammell, who has
hit .300 or better seven times.
Adds Whitaker, one of only two Tigers ever to play 2,000 games,
rap 2,000 hits and slug 200 home runs, ``It seems like Tram and I
have been turning the double play together since we were kids.''
Their final double play might be scored Trammell-to-Whitaker-to-
Across the clubhouse from the neighboring lockers of Trammell
and Whitaker last Friday, Gibson was telling how, on the night
of April 7, he was holding an Alaska fishing brochure in one
hand and the phone in the other when he agreed to a contract
with the Tigers literally 30 seconds before the deadline for a
reentry free agent to sign with his former club. ``Many experts
have predicted our fate, but that's just noise,'' he said.
``When I'm at bat in the bottom of the ninth, I don't listen to
the noise. We need to ignore the noise. We have many valleys to
cross before we can reach the highest peak. That's the message
I'm passing on to these guys before I go off to . . . off to . .
. . . Senior Meadows?