Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lajoie's 1984 Trade Among the Best Ever in Detroit Sports

George "Sparky" Anderson made it clear, early on in his managing career in Detroit, who was in charge in the Tigers locker room.

"It's my way," Sparky said, "or the highway."

Sparky took over the Tigers in June 1979 and before too long, several Tigers had hit the highway.

Some were moved out of Detroit because they were collateral damage---entities that needed to be sacrificed in order for the Tigers to acquire other pieces.

But others were sent packing because they didn't conform to Sparky's way. Hence, the highway.

Ron LeFlore. Steve Kemp. Jason Thompson. Names once believed to be the long term future of the organization when Sparky was hired. But all gone, traded away, within two years. All of them, for one reason or another, not among Sparky's favorites.

Sparky Anderson had himself quite a large dog house, make no mistake. And once you landed there, it was awfully difficult to get out, in a way other than being sent packing.

Glenn Wilson was a young outfielder with a wealth of talent, drafted in the first round by the Tigers in 1980, a 6'1" Texan who could hit, hit with power, and throw. He debuted with the Tigers in 1982, and after his first 11 games he was batting .406.

Wilson hit .292 in 1982, and became a regular in 1983. But Wilson's numbers were pedestrian for an everyday right fielder: .268 BA, 11 HR, 65 RBI.

It was sometime during the 1983 when Wilson fell into disfavor with Sparky Anderson, the reasons unknown.

The Tigers finished a strong second to the Orioles in '83, their mix of young and veteran talent on the verge of taking that next step. Maybe 1984 could be the Tigers' year.

Wilson was rumored to be on the move in 1984. But spring training '84 was almost finished, and no moves had been announced.

Until March 24.

It was that day that Tigers GM Bill Lajoie pulled off one of the most important trades in Detroit sports history.

The news came out of the blue, the Grapefruit League games winding down, the Tigers looking to go with much of the same roster they had in 1983---the roster that could muster no more than a distant second place finish to the O's.

Leaving Detroit would be Wilson, after all---along with veteran utility guy and fan favorite John B. Wockenfuss. They were going to the Phillies, and in exchange the Tigers were getting a slick fielding first baseman named Dave Bergman---himself recently traded from San Francisco to Philadelphia---and a late-inning relief specialist with a big Afro, Willie Hernandez.

It was a curious trade, but not necessarily one that was deemed to lift the Tigers into first place. Hernandez had saved all of seven games with a 3.29 ERA in 1983, and Bergman wasn't even an everyday player---he was a 30-year-old who'd never had more than 186 at-bats in any given big league season.

Spring training droned on, the trade's news not lasting too long on the sports sections' front pages.

No one knew, or felt, that the late-March trade would have a monumental impact on the 1984 baseball season. The trade was made more to move Wilson than anything else.

Except there was one man, for sure, who believed the trade would help the Tigers, and not just with the subtraction of Glenn Wilson.

Lajoie needed a glove at first base to replace Enos Cabell's. And the Tigers had gone with closer-by-committee in '83, led by righty Aurelio Lopez's 18 saves. Lajoie thought it would be nice if the Tigers could add a competent left-hander to the back end of the bullpen.

You know the rest.

Hernandez was lights out in '84, and Bergman's stellar defense and---bonus---clutch hitting contributed mightily to the Tigers' 35-5 start.

All Hernandez did was win the American League MVP Award, the Cy Young Award, and save three of the Tigers' seven post-season victories, which culminated in the 1984 World Championship.

Bergman had 271 at-bats, a career-high, and batted .273, second highest of his then-10-year career. And he played marvelous defense, as expected, including helping to save Jack Morris's no-hitter in Chicago with a late-inning gem.

Bill Lajoie is dead. He passed away yesterday at age 76, having died in his sleep.

What a lousy couple of years we've had in Tigertown.

Mark Fidrych. George Kell. Ernie Harwell. Sparky Anderson. And now Lajoie---all having died in 2009 or 2010.

Lajoie's baseball career gained steam in Detroit, but it didn't end here. He parlayed his reputation for scouting and drafting many key cogs of the 1984 championship into several other jobs, post-Tigers. His most recent role was that of consultant to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Lajoie is gone now, another link to the good old days of Tigers baseball.

What a lousy couple of years we've had.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Leyland’s Contract Status Moot, Just Like Every Baseball Manager's

Jim Leyland is the manager of the Detroit Tigers for 2011. That much we know. After that, only time will tell.

You want more job security than that, if you’re a baseball manager, or a basketball, football or hockey coach?

Then get out of the business. Become a Supreme Court Justice, or a mortician, or a marriage counselor.

The contract on file with Major League Baseball says Leyland is bound by the written, legal word to be the manager of the Tigers through the 2011 season.

Coaches’ contracts in sports, though, have about as much integrity as Kwame Kilpatrick and hold as much water as a sieve.

I’ve used this quote a lot, but it will be true for infinity. It’s from Butch van Breda Kolff, the old basketball coach, uttered after he signed a renewal to lead the Pistons, circa 1971.

Butch said of the worth of coaches’ contracts, “Hell, they can always fire you. Or you can quit.”

Care to argue?

So Leyland will manage the Tigers for 2011, the final year of his two-year extension.
Get ready for the talk of Leyland being the Tigers’ “lame duck” manager.


Leyland works for Mike Ilitch, one of the kindest, fairest owners in all of sports. Ilitch awards his people, sometimes to a fault. If he feels Jim Leyland deserves more years added to his already-added-to contract, then the owner will give his manager those years. Simple as that.

That Ilitch hasn’t yet done so, leaving Leyland’s future with the Tigers beyond the final pitch of the 2011 season undetermined, is going to cause lots of folks consternation.

The hand-wringers will tell you that Leyland’s not having a signed contract beyond 2011 automatically means he’s a leper, and his players will look at him cockeyed and not take it so hard if they leave a man on third base with less than two outs or throw wildly to first base or walk the bases loaded.

Again, bull-you-know-what!

Is Leyland managing for his baseball life next season? Sure, but aren’t they all, all the time?

You think it truly matters if a manager or a coach has years left on his contract, if the owner gets it in his head to make a change?

The country is dotted with coaches being paid not to coach, enjoying their checks until their contracts expire. Just ask Pistons President Joe Dumars what it’s like to pay multiple coaches.

Leyland is a big boy. He knows the drill. He knows that his owner has, once again, opened his wallet and spent big money to bring players to Detroit and to keep them here. Leyland knows that in five years on the job with the Tigers, he has but one playoff appearance to show for it.

That playoff appearance is the only one Ilitch has enjoyed in his 18-plus years of owning the Tigers—which is not what Mike was expecting when he bought the team in 1992.

Leyland also knows that his team faded badly in 2006 (but still made the playoffs), in 2007, in 2009—including a history-making choke job in the season’s final week—and last year. He should also know that the 2008 team, which had been predicted to waltz to the World Series, never got out of the gate, ill-prepared for the expectations.

So it’s not so outlandish that Leyland isn’t extended to manage the Tigers beyond next season. In fact, it’s probably just.

Not that it matters, because they can always fire you, and you can quit.
Ever hear of Walter Alston?

Alston managed the Dodgers when they were still in Brooklyn, and continued after the move to Los Angeles. For 23 years, Alston managed the Dodgers.

In all but the final few years, Alston did so working on one-year contracts that were renewed every winter, pending the O’Malley family’s approval.

Eventually, the O’Malleys tried to sign Alston to multiple-year deals. But the manager refused, maintaining that he should be evaluated annually.

Finally Alston agreed to sign two-year deals.

Leyland isn’t the perfect baseball manager, but he’s probably good enough for the Tigers, with their revamped roster and more experience under the belts of their younger players.

It’s a job that Leyland adores and feels honored to perform. His beginnings with the organization date back to the early 1960s, when he was a scuffling player. He managed for years in the Tigers’ minor league system, before graduating to third base coach with Tony LaRussa’s Chicago White Sox.

Earlier this month, at the winter meetings in Florida, Leyland was asked about the team, and how he feels—both physically and about his roster.

“I feel OK. I smoke too much,” he said. “But this is a good team. We have a great owner. The city is special. The Tigers are special. I love managing.”

There are plenty of fans who aren’t so enamored with Leyland. Familiarity breeds contempt. You stick around in a city long enough, you’re going to make your enemies.

If you go 1-for-5 in baseball, you’re batting .200. Leyland is batting .200 as a manager, with that single playoff appearance in five years.

So why should Mike Ilitch be obligated to Jim Leyland beyond this season?

This is probably all moot anyway. I suspect that, unless the Tigers get off to a God-awful start, Leyland will be extended another two years, through the 2013 season—and that will likely occur sometime before the All-Star break.

Nowhere is it written that a baseball manager must be signed beyond the current season, or else there’ll be a mutiny.

Hey, what about the players who like Leyland so much—and there are plenty of them on the Tigers roster—that they may be inclined to play even harder for him, so that he may be rewarded with a new contract?

Jim Leyland is the manager of the Tigers for the 2011 season. Twenty-nine other men have the same designation for their teams, regardless of their contract status. They are their team’s manager—for now.

By the way, van Breda Kolff only lasted ten games into the 1971-72 season with the Pistons, after signing his contract extension.

He quit.