In these trying times, when the clouds of a strike loom thick and dark, and the Tigers’ pennant hopes seem pinned to the rear of a runaway Greyhound bus, let us, for a moment, recall four simple words that remind every Detroit baseball fan of his good fortune.
Lou . . . Lou . . . Lou . . .
Tip your cap, No. 1.
Even those who don’t join his cow calls at Tiger Stadium (“Louuuuuuuu”) or marvel at his deft touch at second base can’t help but spot his name in the league leaders section of the sports pages. Under runs, hits and batting average.
As the Tigers have soured, Lou has stayed sweet. He’s played All-Star baseball. Quietly. Consistently.
So, with the season in danger of striking out Tuesday, not to nod gratefully in his direction would be like stiffing a good waiter because the fish was salty.
And Whitaker deserves more.
All dreary summer long, he’s been the candy after the medicine. The ice cream after the brussels sprouts. If this season was a tax return, Whitaker would be the refund check.
He’s one of the precious few players who kept rubbing two sticks under the kindling of the Tigers’ dreams. No matter how often fate blew in to snuff them out.
Look, Ma, a .314 average, 127 hits, 15 home runs, 50 RBIs.
And because he bats leadoff, Sparky Anderson suggests you double his RBIs to get the true idea of his worth.
All of which, naturally, fazes Lou, Lou, Lou, not a bit, bit, bit.
Praise him, damn him, hit him in the face with a household appliance. You can’t get a decent moment’s boasting out of the guy.
“I’m doing O . . . K . . . ” he says, with measured emphasis, “for the time being.”
We are at Lou’s locker, three hours before a game. The TV is blaring. His teammates are shouting. Lou sits alone, answering his mail.
Even here, he is methodical. Each envelope is opened the same way. If there is a baseball card inside, he signs it with a magic marker. Then he blows on the card until it’s dry.
Lou does not like to smear.
The card is slipped into a return envelope, which he licks closed. And then he reaches for another, as if these were so many ground balls to be scooped up and whipped to first base.
It says something that in the midst of all this written applause, Lou Whitaker remains unfazed. Outside, in front of the live version, he is much the same.
And media attention? You might as well ask the man to drink dishwater.
“You see,” he says, ripping open another envelope, “I think the more you build up a player, the more harm it does to his career.
“When that player goes out there, with all that attention, he’s not just trying to do his best. He’s trying to do what the media expects him to do.”
He pauses to sign, blow, and seal.
” I don’t need that pressure,” he continues. “When I was 13 years old, back in Virginia, I was put on the radio to talk about myself.
“They asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, ‘A baseball player.’ That was enough media attention.”
And for the most part, it still is. What Whitaker, now 28, has done this season — namely, play north while most of the team went south — would be bigger news for a lot of other players.
They’d make sure people knew their numbers. They’d push to get in the dwindling spotlight. They’d expect the star treatment, the interviews, the camera flash.
Whitaker comes to work with all the expectations of a longshoreman hitting the docks.
“If I do anything worth talking about,” he says, “it’ll be in the paper without me talking about it.”
As if on cue, he opens another envelope. Inside is an article criticizing him for forgetting his uniform in the recent All-Star Game.
For a moment he stares at the clipping, and there’s a sense that he might flinch.
Nah. He signs it, blows on it, and stuffs it into an envelope. Like all the others.
“I have got to go now,” he says, “and take batting practice.”
And he’s off.
Going bad is easy. Going good is tougher. And going good when your team is going mediocre is more difficult than people realize.
So if they wrap the season in a burlap bag and toss it to the wolves tomorrow, try to at least remember the quiet noise from second base, whose efforts, for much of the summer, have been the only things to hitch a Tigers dream to.
Lou . . . Lou . . . Lou . . . Whitaker. The season may have disappointed. Those four words have not.