A few weeks ago, before the Tigers hit the top, I was walking through the clubhouse with a copy of Sports Illustrated under my arm. The cover was a photo of Alan Trammell.

“You ever been on it before?” I asked him, holding it up.

“Twice,” he said.

Twice? Impressive. How many of these Tigers, I wondered, had ever graced the front of the nation’s biggest sports magazine? Kirk Gibson had. Jack Morris hadn’t, but he’d had two stories about him, and he didn’t like either one, so he said he didn’t care.

Darrell Evans hadn’t. That surprised me. Around the Detroit clubhouse, Evans is so much the elder statesman, the veteran, the bucket in the well of experience, that you assume everything that can happen in this game has happened to him at least once.

“No cover?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I was in it once.”

“What for?”

“My wife and I saw a UFO,” he said. “They wrote about that.”

Now, it may just be home-cooked perspective, but I figure Darrell Evans ought to get more ink than that. No matter how big the UFO was. So I will give him some right here. Ink, that is. And I will tell you why.

Here is a guy who began his career in 1967, the year the Beatles did
“Magical Mystery Tour.” He has already played more than 2,200 major league games, led both leagues in home runs, showered with the likes of Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey (in the clubhouse, of course) and has even seen a former teammate win a World Series — as a manager. Which is worse than seeing a UFO. And yet Evans did something this spring that few of us are asked to do in the year of our 40th birthday.

He took a 30 percent pay cut to keep his job.

Now, true. Thirty percent off $760,000 still leaves a hefty bank balance
($532,000). But we are talking professional athletes here. They make that kind of money. Besides, it’s less the numbers than the implication.

Think about it. For most of us, a career is sort of like a cow’s udder; the longer we hold on, the more we get out of it. Darrell Evans used to have a contract that increased each year. And then it ran out. He found himself this winter, at 39, a free agent at the worst possible time to be a free agent.

“We contacted everybody,” he admits. “All the other teams. Nobody was interested.” The Tigers offered him less to stay; but it was an offer. Take it or leave it.

Evans took it. A one-season deal. A 30 percent drop. Your whole career you make more each year than last, and suddenly, the process reverses. What does that tell you?

It tells you you’re getting old.

Do you feel vindicated by what’s happened?” I ask Evans as he dresses for yet another game. He is having a good season as a first baseman/designated hitter, batting .254 with 25 homers and 72 RBIs. His year-end totals should surpass last season’s — at lower prices. “Do you feel you’ve proven them wrong?”

“I don’t think that way,” he says. “They did what they did because they could do it. I didn’t have any choice. Anyway, I don’t play for the front office. I play for my teammates. I play for my own satisfaction.”

“Look around,” he motions. “Look at the way this team is playing now. Nobody’s thinking about the money part now.”

Well. Maybe. But then, Evans is not the type to air his gripes publicly. He is the definition of professional cool. Steady? He is so steady, you could rest Jell-O on his head. Look at that face. Granite? Sheetrock? Johnny Grubb may have the smile, Willie Hernandez may have the scowl. But nobody wears stoic better than Darrell Evans.

And yet behind that professional sheath is a man still itching to put on a uniform, to keep his clubhouse key, to play on, play on. He wants to be “the best guy to ever play in his forties,” he admits. But he stands on a razor’s edge. One bad season ends his career.

“I can’t afford to have an off-year personally, and, to be honest, I really can’t afford to be on a losing team. Let’s face it. If I wasn’t playing for a team like this, they might say, ‘We haven’t won with him. He’s 40. Let’s bring in someone else.’ “

He slips on his shoes, and ties the laces.

“From that point of view, that may be the biggest reason I’m still here.”

Of course, there have been a few moments this season when that sentence could have been reversed. Evans’ big bat has delivered clutch home runs and long doubles in Detroit’s surprising uprising. His RBI total is second only to Trammell’s. And his workmanlike attitude is mentioned often by the younger players such as Matt Nokes and Jeff Robinson. He is one of the few players to start regularly, regardless of lefty or righty pitchers. And while there are no real leaders on any team run by Sparky Anderson, Evans is probably as close to a general as this group comes. “It’s an ideal situation right now,” he admits. “We’re around first place, and I’m having a good year.”

Which is not to say he acts like a rookie. Evans is smart. He knows the score. And the calendar. He is less willing to admit his aches and pains than, say, a 23-year-old. After all, people won’t mumble that the 23-year-old is washed up. “My temper is another thing. I used to show it more, I’d throw my helmet in the dugout. But now, they might say, ‘There’s an old guy who’s frustrated he can’t hit anymore,’ or something like that. So I keep it under control.”

An old guy? Well. There were those seven-plus years in Atlanta and seven-plus years in San Francisco and now four in Detroit and — well, consider this: In 1973, with the Braves, Evans made history as one of three men to hit 40 or more home runs on the same team. He had 41. Hank Aaron had 40. Dave Johnson had 43.

Today, Aaron is a baseball executive with an expanding waistline. And Johnson is managing the New York Mets and has won a World Series.

Darrell Evans is still picking out a bat and walking to the plate.

“Do you ever look in the ‘transactions’ section of a newspaper to see if guys you once played with have retired or been waived?” I ask.

“Nah,” he says, laughing. “That’s too much like reading the obituaries.”

So the autumn man heads into the autumn stretch. And Tigers fans might notice a pattern here. The teams that have won the AL pennant recently have had an Evans-like figure as a guiding force. Last season’s Red Sox had Don Baylor. The Royals in 1985 had Hal McRae.

“If the Tigers won the championship, would you retire?” I ask.

He pauses.”I don’t think I could leave in a championship year. I don’t think I could turn my back on it. I’d be having too good a time.

“You know, I never could understand how you can go to bed Tuesday enjoying the game so much, and wake up Wednesday and not have it.

“The age thing, well, I figure I’m the only one who’ll really know when it’s time to quit. There have been times this season when I’ve said, ‘Ooh, I’m really sore, I’m really tired.’ But then I remember, I felt the same way when I was 25.”

He reaches for his glove, then his cap. Then he turns and raises an eyebrow.

“Are you really feeling sorry for me because I’m 40? Hey. I’ve got 40 more years to live.”

Yeah. Besides, next year he may even get a raise. And yes, there will probably be a next year. Like his friend and teammate Larry Herndon, Evans has reversed the equation; taken less, contributed more. He has earned another crack.

So what do you think? We couldn’t all do that. Turn 40, hit maybe 30 home runs, maybe reach a World Series, and not let our pride make us lash out at our employer. Doesn’t the guy deserve a bit more acclaim than a story about a UFO? Although it was a pretty good story. Evans and his wife were on the porch, and they saw this light, and it came down, and . . . well, you can read that elsewhere. Later. When the season is over. For now, baseball is about to hit September, a month neatly suited to a guy of Evans’, shall we say, maturity?

“Does it ever occur to you that some of your teammates were in diapers when you hit your first home run?” I ask.

He looks around the clubhouse and shrugs. “Nah,” he says. “I’m no different than anybody else in here. I was just born a little earlier.” CUTLINE Darrell Evans: “I play for my teammates.”

Darrell Evans: “Are you really feeling sorry for me because I’m 40? Hey. I’ve got 40 more years to live.”

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