Inside Baseball

May 04, 2003

No Hit, No Fun
The terrible Tigers are putting Alan Trammell's optimism to the
test

While Alan Trammell spoke last Friday afternoon in the visiting
manager's office at Safeco Field, shortly before the Tigers lost
their 19th game in 21 tries, his bench coach, Kirk Gibson,
interrupted to grab a bottle of water off Trammell's desk. "I'll
bring it back half empty," Gibson joked. He had barely left the
room before Trammell hollered after him, "It's half full,
remember?"

At least as remarkable as Detroit's dreadful start (through
Sunday the Tigers were 3-20; only the 1988 Orioles, who opened
the season 0-21, had been worse out of the gate) is their rookie
manager's indefatigable optimism. Blessed with a perpetually
upbeat outlook and a teacher's disposition, Trammell, who spent
his entire 20-year major league career with the Tigers, brings an
unwavering enthusiasm to one of baseball's least enviable jobs.

"[Former Giants manager and friend] Roger Craig told me, 'When
you've lost 10 in a row, you come into the clubhouse like you've
won 10 in a row, and you do it until you turn it around,'"
Trammell says. "With a young group like this, if I'm down,
they're going to think that's the way they have to act, and that
can't happen. We've talked about respecting losses, but I don't
want a morgue in here either."

There's ample cause for gloom: The reason for the skid is
Detroit's punchless lineup, studded with a mixture of veterans on
the downswing and learning-on-the-job minor leaguers. At week's
end the Tigers were comfortably last in the majors in batting
average (.179), home runs (10), runs (52), on-base percentage
(.252) and slugging percentage (.254). They had scored two or
fewer runs in 14 of 23 games and had been shut out six times.
Their cleanup hitters had four RBIs.

"We don't have a legitimate cleanup hitter," says rightfielder
Bobby Higginson. "We don't have a legitimate leadoff hitter. So
we have to try to patch it together." Trammell has focused his
energies on instruction, making early batting practice mandatory
and preaching pitch recognition and situational hitting, skills
that take younger players time to acquire. He includes
baserunning drills, pitchers' fielding practice and cutoffs and
relays in his supplementary early-afternoon workouts, which he
takes seriously. (Rookie shortstop Omar Infante was benched for a
game after missing a session.)

Trammell, a six-time All-Star, knows what the game is supposed to
look like, and he easily recalls plays from two decades ago.
Asked about a defensive shift against lefthanded power hitters,
he answers by describing shifts the Tigers' infield deployed
against John Mayberry, last seen slugging in the early 1980s.
Says catcher Brandon Inge, "He's a true student of the game."

Improvement will have to come from the maturation of players on
the roster or in the minor leagues, because G.M. Dave Dombrowski
will not waver from his commitment to rebuild through
youth--won-lost record be damned. It's a strategy dictated by
fiscal inflexibility; owner Mike Ilitch has effectively frozen
the payroll, which is at $49.2 million, and the hefty percentage
currently committed to untradable (or released) veterans (chart,
page 74) restricts the club's options. "If we did something, it
would probably be dipping down to Triple A or replacing somebody
on the bench," Dombrowski says. "We're tied to that philosophy of
youth. We can juggle faces, but it's not like we're in a position
where we can acquire a superstar for the middle of the lineup."

This approach, of course, is testing the patience of Detroit
fans, who have turned out in steadily declining numbers since
Comerica Park opened in 2000. From an average of 31,281 that
year, attendance tumbled to 24,016 in '01, 18,795 in '02, and
16,518 through eight games this season, including the two
smallest crowds in Comerica's history.

"We knew things would be tough--we just didn't anticipate they'd
be this tough," Higginson says. "It's going to take time to get
this organization in the right direction, but now that they've
started building from the ground up, they've got to stay on this
course. They've tried the [free-agent] route, and that didn't
work any better."

Trammell, meanwhile, barely acknowledges the depressing numbers
that now quantify Detroit's misery. "I don't think about our
record on the field, not one time," he says. "It's April. It's
early. I'll be saying it's early at least until June."

*Released on March 28; stats with Devil Rays

Clock Management
Time to Make Some Changes

Major League Baseball has cut 10 minutes from its average game
time in the past two seasons, down to 2:48. Baseball hasn't
finished a season with an average lower than that since 1989.
Under directives from executive vice president of baseball
operations Sandy Alderson, umpires are enforcing the two-minute,
five-second limit between innings. At precisely 1:45 after the
end of a half-inning, the pitcher gets one last warmup pitch,
regardless of how many he's thrown to that point.

Next time you're at a game, check how quickly most pitchers get
from the dugout to the mound in order to get their full warmup. A
little bit of rules enforcement goes a long way in changing the
culture. --Tom Verducci

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: BRAD MANGIN (3) Trammell (above left) has tried to turn losing into learning for Tigers Ramon Santiago (top left), Hiram Bocachica (top right) and Shane Halter. COLOR PHOTO: DUANE BURELSON/AP (BOCACHICA) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BEN MARGOT/AP (HIGGINSON)

Chump Change

The bulk of Detroit's $49.2 million payroll is tied up in
long-term deals, brokered by G.M. Dave Dombrowski's predecessor,
Randy Smith, to players such as Bobby Higginson (right). The
Tigers aren't getting much bang for their buck: The Devil Rays,
with a league-low $19.6 million payroll, were batting .282 with
16 homers and 111 RBIs at week's end, compared with the Tigers'
.179, 10 and 47. Here are the prime culprits.

PLAYER 2003 SALARY 2003 STATS REMAINING
OBLIGATION
AFTER 2003

BOBBY HIGGINSON $11.85 million .212, 2 HR, 9 RBIs Two years,
$17.7 million
DEAN PALMER $8.5 million .127, 0 HR, 5 RBIs None
DMITRI YOUNG $6.75 million .156, 2 HR, 4 RBIs Two years,
$16.25 million
DAMION EASLEY* $6.5 million .213, 1 HR, 3 RBIs One year,
$7.5 million
CRAIG PAQUETTE $2.625 million .152, 0 HR, 0 RBIs None
TOTALS $36.225 million .176, 5 HRs, 21 RBIs $41.45 million
through 2005

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)