Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Horton Trade Still Curious After All These Years

When Tigers manager Ralph Houk made out his lineup card for Opening Day, 1977, there was a nod to history on it.

Batting cleanup was Willie Horton. Nothing strange there. But this was:

Horton LF

Willie had been the Tigers' designated hitter since 1974, when injuries and other players' youth shoved him out of playing in the field. But Houk had announced toward the end of spring training in '77, after some rumors to that effect, that Horton would jog out to left field, his old haunts, in front of the Tiger Stadium faithful.

According to Retrosheet.org, Horton saw little action in left, making just one putout. He went 1-for-4 at the plate.

Yet something was going wrong with Horton, and I'm going to ask him the next time I see him.

It wasn't the first time that Willie let his emotions get the best of him. In 1969, the year after the Tigers won the World Series, Horton got off to a slow start at the plate. The fans were turning on him. It got so bad that Horton ripped his uniform off in anger and dropped out of sight briefly for a day or so. I asked him about that years later, long after he retired. He confirmed it.

So Horton played Opening Day, but was out of the lineup for the next few games. It was reported that he was unhappy -- maybe with Houk, maybe with management. Nobody was certain.

Then, suddenly, Horton was gone, traded to the Texas Rangers for an average reliever named Steve Foucault, one-for-one.

Willie Horton for Steve Foucault??

It was true that Foucault was several years younger than the 34-year-old Horton, but it seemed like a bad deal for Detroit. After all, when you trade Willie Horton, you're not just trading a baseball player; you're trading an institution. Shouldn't that have been worth something to Tigers GM Jim Campbell?

I suspect that Campbell traded Horton to get rid of him, not all that concerned with what he got in return. Because if he exercised patience and his usual guile, Campbell almost certainly could have gotten more for Horton than Steve Freaking Foucault.

So here's my theory -- one that I plan on proposing to Horton.

Campbell traded Horton because either a) the Tigers were tired of his complaining, or b) Horton demanded a trade. And it didn't really matter where, or for who. Nobody gets traded in the days after Opening Day; it just doesn't happen.

Something went wrong, and fast, for Campbell to deal Horton so haphazardly.

At the risk of coming off uninformed here, I will confess to not reading Horton's biographies (there've been more than one), and so the reasons for the trade to Texas may be detailed in one of them. If so, then in the words of Gilda Radner's Emily Litella character, "Never mind."

But one way or another, I'd like to know.

Willie Horton for Steve Foucault, straight up.

Something's not right.


Post a Comment

<< Home