So tonight the Tigers begin their final series of 1989, in New York City, a perfect cemetery for a garbage season. Say good-bye to this year’s model. Hopefully, we’ll never see it again.
I paid my respects Wednesday night, the final home game. The atmosphere in the clubhouse was not morbid. It was more like a huge sigh of relief, the kind where you wipe your brow and tap your coat pocket to make sure you haven’t lost your plane ticket home.
“How would you describe 1989?’ I asked Alan Trammell, who was already packing for San Diego, his bag stuffed with shoes, cards, an old hairbrush.
“A wasted year,” he said. “To be honest, for me, that’s all this was.”
For a lot of us. It’s hard to say what was the lowest point of this dumpy experience. About the only time the Tigers had a chance was the first day of spring training — when Sparky Anderson might have walked up to Chris Brown and Torey Lovullo and said, “Sorry, gentlemen, there must be some mistake. You’re not on our team.”
They’ve been in trouble ever since. What was once a model clubhouse has become a bus station. What was once a den of champions has become a waiting room for the next paycheck and the first week in October. Stop the season, we want to get off.
“Has this been the toughest year you’ve ever had in your baseball ca– . .
. ?” I asked Mike Henneman. He didn’t even wait for the end of the question.
“The ultimate, the toughest, the worst,” he said, shaking his head as if he’d answered this privately a thousand times. “It has been a miserable season.” No highlights from this long season
Miserable? That’s a good word. In fact, they could subtitle all the games the Tigers played this season “Les Miserables.” Did they really lose more than 100 games? Are they really that bad? Was it really just two years ago that we were hanging on every pitch, right to the end, watching a miracle come through on a cool October Sunday, the last game, a division championship?
It was. And now? How strange to walk around the clubhouse. Every locker tells a story. There was Doyle Alexander, as usual, a loner, reading a newspaper. He went weeks between wins this year, and who knows whether we’ll see him again?
There was Matt Nokes, who went from promising to disappointing in a terribly short span, and Scott Lusader, who seems to be forever on the bubble. There was Chet Lemon, who had an awful year, culminating with a prolonged absence for a mysterious family matter in Florida. Such was the state of the Tigers that, although he was gone several weeks, no one seemed too concerned.
“I never had a season where I went the whole year without at least one stretch where I really shined, you know?” Lemon said, straightening his things atop the locker. “I could never get focused in this year. Never.”
Focusing was his problem. Standing up straight was Trammell’s. When I asked the shortstop whether he had a single day this year when his back didn’t hurt, he said simply, “No, not one.” And he wasn’t the only one aching. Jack Morris, who missed a full six weeks with his elbow problems. Jeff Robinson — Lord, how many games did he miss? And Guillermo Hernandez, who fades into the sunset with creaks and moans. Heck, even the manager was unable to perform for a while, sunk by a case of exhaustion.
And yet, when all is said and done, the sorriest victim will be the spirit, the soul of this Tigers machine. And that, sadly, was no accident. Once-perfect chemistry fizzles
Do you want to know what may be the worst plays of the 1989 Tigers?
1. Trading Tom Brookens for Charles Hudson.
2. Not bringing back Darrell Evans.
3. Allowing Chris Brown to enter the clubhouse.
Let’s be honest. The Tigers of recent years — even the version that won the 1987 division — have not been rich in talent. There are no Jose Cansecos or Bo Jacksons on this roster. The Detroit secret has been chemistry, high productivity, squeezing the rag for every drop, then refolding and squeezing it again.
Darrell Evans fit that mold. Chris Brown never did. Brown was lazy, fat and uninterested, and allowing him in the door was like mixing poison in the oatmeal; hard to get out. Couple Brown and the absence of Evans with the departure of Brookens — who had always symbolized the Tigers’ character, especially to his teammates — and what was once a wonderful mix of personality was now just a weave of disgruntled and dissatisfied.
And then came the season. Turning points? Yeah. Mostly they turned south. Like Robinson going down early. Like Lovullo swinging at the air. Like the four straight losses to the California Angels, all in the final inning.
“That’s when I knew it was over,’ said Trammell. “From that point on, we were just waiting for the end.”
And now, the end is just about here. Tigers fans can only pray for a better next year, and looser purse strings by management, and better judgment. And the players pack up the memories. Very tightly.
“Were there any highlights?” I asked Dave Bergman. “Maybe, you know, back in April?”
He shook his head.
“April was pretty lousy, too,” he said.
Mitch Albom will be signing copies of the book “Bo,” which he co-authored with Bo Schembechler, tonight at O’Neill and Austin Bookstore, University Plaza in Rochester Hills, from 6 to 7 p.m.