3 AND OUT

The sad truth about Detroit baseball now is that nobody pays attention unless there’s an explosion. The Tigers’ battlefield is so strewn with rubble, only a burst of flame stands out.

So we look up when a new stadium is opened. Boom! And we look up when a big free agent is signed. Boom!

And we look up when a manager is hired.

And we look up when one is fired.

Boom. On Monday, the Tigers axed Alan Trammell with one year left on his four-year contract, and there was much hand-wringing from the public and the media and some earnest words from president and general manager Dave Dombrowski about what a terrific guy Trammell was. And soon a new manager will be hired, another fireball from the rubble.

And in a day or two, baseball will go back to being insignificant in this town.

That is the real story of the Tigers. The sad but real story. The only news they make is hires and fires. Juan Gonzalez. Pudge Rodriguez. Trammell coming, Trammell going. Sure, we will miss Tram, but we’ll miss him the way you miss an uncle or a grandpa when he goes back home, because he was pleasant company – not because he left a legacy.

Heck, Trammell lost 300 games in three years, his latest team went south for the last six weeks of the season, and his hiring, let’s be honest, was more a marketing move than anything else. Another boom to grab your dwindling attention. Owner Mike Ilitch, a nostalgic type who sensed his baseball team was in danger of a total disconnect from the fans of this city, brought back Trammell and Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish, and for a few ticket-buying moments, folks thought they were purchasing the spirit of ’84.

But it’s 2005.

And the Tigers are going in circles.

A must for the resume

“I’m not saying it’s a complete necessity,” Dombrowski remarked at his news conference Monday when asked about the kind of manager he’d hire next, “but I think experience would be helpful at the major league level at this time.”

Really? You think? Here’s a question: Why wasn’t that the ticket three years ago? If the key to being a good manager is big-league experience, why was Trammell hired straight off the coaching staff from San Diego? Perhaps because no big-time manager would take a team this bad? Perhaps because any manager who had carved a decent reputation wouldn’t risk hanging a 119-loss season around his neck?

That’s the amulet Trammell will wear for the rest of his life. He took it for the team. And he took it because it was a shortcut to the big seat. A fair trade, in the end. Both sides got, if not what they wanted, then the best they could muster.

But for the long haul? It wasn’t going to work. Asking Trammell, a former shortstop, to excel at managing with no managerial experience – on a team where pitching was the biggest deficit – was a little bit like asking a skateboarder to carry passengers.

Just because he knows how to roll, doesn’t mean you can ride on his shoulders.

In the end, Trammell learned, but there was too much to learn. He botched some game situations, but there was no cushion for botching.

“If I leave, I leave with my head high,” Trammell told me last week. “I know in my own mind we’re making some headway, I believe that.”

I believe it, too.

Then again, when you’re that far behind, anything looks like headway.

Longing for a pennant race

On Monday, when Dombrowski spoke about the next manager (and he sure sounded like he wanted Jim Leyland, who was coming in for an interview later in the day), he said he wanted someone who could do what presumably Trammell could not, namely, take the team – here we go with this cliché-“to the next level.”

When someone asked what the next level was, Dombrowski said, “A championship caliber-type playoff club.”

That’s the next level? From where the Tigers are right now? A championship?

How about a winning season? We haven’t seen one of those in 12 years!

How about players who go from tape to tape? When Trammell was hired, remember, it was partly to provide class to a roster that had been accused of everything from dogging it to smoking it. Back then, the Tigers’ team plane was, allegedly, the Delta house of the major leagues.

Having dealt with that, it seems unfair to fault Tram for a lackluster season by relative newcomer Pudge Rodriguez, who Trammell said had “personal problems” and who Dombrowski said had “personal problems” and whom nobody chided for – given the money Pudge is getting – not leaving his “personal problems” at home.

Look. It’s not my business to get involved with a man’s marriage or divorce. But it’s not his business to bring that stuff to the ballpark, either. Since when is that a justifiable excuse for a sub-par season? Players used to play through that kind of thing.

Trammell put enough holes in his boat to sink it, but he shouldn’t be blamed for players who can’t stay focused. And he shouldn’t be blamed for guys who take a lot of money, then, when the going gets rough, start insinuating they’d like to go elsewhere.

Anyhow, with issues like this, unless the Tigers hire a pogo stick for a manager, they are not leaping for a championship any time soon. First, they have to fix a few fundamental things, like making plays, and not making errors, and developing a bullpen, and remembering that four balls is a walk and so maybe they might want to work a pitcher now and then?

Oh, and pitching. That’s pretty basic isn’t it? When you listen to the Tigers’ management talk, every year, it seems to be sitting on a pile of gems, just around the corner from some really ace performances.

Really? Where? The proof is in the doing. That’s why Trammell is gone. But it’s also why nobody will pay attention to the Tigers until they can create a headline that doesn’t involve a hiring or a firing.

Do you realize it has been 18 years since Detroit was in a playoff? That means infants were born who now have graduated from high school and can vote for president and have never seen the Tigers in a playoff game.

That’s the rubble. On a weekend when other cities enjoyed the best that baseball can be, pennant races that came down to the final series, wonderful autumn hysteria in Boston, New York, Cleveland, Houston and Philadelphia, here, in what used to be called “a great baseball town,” the only headline was a personnel move, the latest flare from a team desperate to hold people’s attention, wandering around a barren battlefield wondering what’s left to light on fire.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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