by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

LAKELAND, Fla. — When will they write the last Alan Trammell/Lou Whitaker story? Four years from now? Five? Ten? And what will it say? Probably some syrupy prose about the longest- running keystone combo in baseball, Trammell, the boyish California shortstop, Whitaker, the brooding-but-gifted second baseman, and what great partners they were on the field and off the field and how sad it is to see them breaking up and walking into the sunset arm in arm and . . .

Well. OK. What’s baseball without a little schmaltz? So that’s what the story will say. Here is what it should say. It should say what the two players themselves will say — at least what they will likely say — when the moment comes to say goodby. Which is this:

“Nice working with you.”

“See ya.”

Now don’t get me wrong. They are indeed a magical duo, Trammell and Whitaker. What’s that scoreboard phrase they flash at Tiger Stadium? “Tram To Lou For Two!” Yes. Why not? Their movement on the crack of a bat is beautiful

fury, a sort of Mexican hat dance around second base in which singles die and come back as double plays.

For 10 seasons now, Trammell and Whitaker have been in glorious sync, the same positions, the same infield, the same Tigers uniforms. And when they begin the 1987 campaign for real next month, they will be in the history books as well — the longest-running shortstop-second base act ever. And they still perform as if set to music.

But when the game ends, the music ends. And this may surprise. Nice working with you. For the off-field Trammell/ Whitaker relationship is not a movie-of-the-week.

“Have you ever had Lou and his family to your house for dinner?” Trammell was asked Thursday after a spring workout.

“No,” he said, mulling it over, “I guess we haven’t.”

“Well, has he ever had you and your family over for dinner?”

“Nope. Never has.”

“How often do you and Trammell talk in the off-season?” someone later asked Whitaker.

“We don’t, really,” he said.

“Isn’t that kind of strange, for all the time you put in together?”

“Shoot,” he said, grinning. “It’s a business.” Now, this is true. It is a business. So are the movies. And that same curious discovery that Fred and Ginger dance that way only for the cameras is at work here with these two. On the baseball stage, Trammell and Whitaker could not be any closer without wearing each other’s clothes. They began their pro careers with the same minor league team. They were called up by the Tigers on the same day, and played in the same first game. They share adjacent positions, adjacent lockers, the same agent, for a while they shared the same room. They even did a guest-starring bit together on the “Magnum P.I.” TV series.

And yet they are curiously distant. The other day someone suggested to Trammell that for all they had been through, he and Whitaker were little more than two guys at the office whose desks had been next to one another for 10 years.

“Exactly!” Trammell said, grinning. “Exactly! I couldn’t have said it better. You described it perfectly.”

This, of course, is vintage Trammell. What time is it? It’s enthusiasm time! He is fan and player rolled into one body, a gimme-the-ball guy, a guy who ended his first major league radio interview by yelling “Go Rebels!” — a message to his minor league buddies. He may have less pure baseball ability than Whitaker — “I think so, anyhow,” he said — yet his passion seems to run twice as deep.

Whitaker, meanwhile, is an enigmatic mix, a warm smile on a cool soul, reluctant to talk, resistant to team spirit. His passions run deep also — deep inside. There are few who claim to know him well (Chet Lemon, the center fielder who, like Whitaker, is a Jehovah’s Witness, is an exception) and yet he is a natural, an All-Star, the best at his position today, and likely the best to ever wear a Tigers uniform.

“Like I said, it’s a business,” Whitaker answered, when asked about the closeness between him and his shortstop. “I’m sure a lot of people in big business, they just do their job and that’s all that matters.

“Tram and I don’t do the same thing off the field. Maybe they’ll be a team get-together and I’ll show up for a few minutes, but I’m not gonna sit in the room and party all night. I don’t do that. I never did, not when I met Tram, not before, not after.”

There was, however, a time when they were closer. In fact, the more years pass, the further they seem to drift. In their early days of Instructional League ball, Trammell and Whitaker would pal around with Lance Parrish and Dave Rozema. Trammell remembers a pellet gun Parrish used to have, and how they’d beat the boredom by firing at the Florida lizards. “One shot apiece,” he said, laughing.

“In those days Lou and I talked a lot, mostly about baseball. Then, of course, we roomed together our first four years. The routine was pretty similar. We’d get up, go get something to eat. I’d read the newspaper and tell Lou who was doing what and where. He’d listen, but he wouldn’t say much.”

Added Whitaker: “Maybe once or twice we talked about something personal. But I can’t remember it.”

Trammell married first. He began to grow closer to other Tigers players, most notably infielder Tom Brookens and his wife, Christa. Then Whitaker married. The two stopped rooming together. In the winter of 1983, Whitaker embraced his new religion.

“When we came back in 1984, instead of just talking shop the first thing he said was, ‘Did you know I was a Jehovah’s Witness now?’ ” Trammell recalled. “I said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ He told me about it.

“He changed his life, basically. He used to smoke cigarets, he stopped doing that. We used to have a beer together after the games. Now he almost never drinks.

“I would say the religion thing put a bit of distance between us, no question. But I don’t care what someone does off the field. That’s his business.”

These days, the pair will shake hands at the end of each season, and generally not speak to each other until they return for spring training. From April to October they will dress in the clubhouse, side by side, harmoniously
— “I can’t recall one serious fight with him in 10 years,” Trammell said — and yet very few words will be exchanged. On plane trips, Whitaker will usually sit up front with Lemon, while Trammell is in the back playing cards.

“Do you miss not being closer?” Trammell was asked. “Would you rather you and he talked more?”

“Not really,” he said, shaking his head, “because Lou’s been that way since the day I met him. It’s not my job to go and change somebody. He’s always been quiet. Always.”

The next question, of course, is what difference does it make? None. At least none on the field. It is as if all the two don’t know about each other’s regular life is made up for by a sixth sense on the diamond. They are so well choreographed, neither can remember the last time the other got in his way.

“That’s one of the little things you get by working together so much,” Whitaker explained. “You don’t see us stepping on each other, or bumping into each other. Like when Tram is directly behind second base, making a throw, I’m never blocking his way. Or if he’s gonna make the play himself, I’m never in the way of the bag.”

Trammell nodded at Whitaker’s explanations. He admits he barely looks at his partner anymore before throwing to him. “It’s a little careless, I guess. But I just know where he’s gonna be.”

Their double plays are a tribute to economy of movement. A stop, a flip, a rocket to first. How many, after all, have they practiced? Maybe 10,000? 20,000? So tuned is each to their private frequency that both confess a need to wake up when a substitute partner is out there. “It’s not the same,” said Trammell.

How could it be? It’s a wonder these two aren’t fused at the hip. Look at these numbers: .281 and .281. That’s Trammell’s career batting average — and Whitaker’s career batting average. How about these? Career games played: Trammell 1,289, Whitaker 1,283. Career hits: Trammell 1,300, Whitaker 1,320. Career RBIs: Trammell 504, Whitaker 522.

Their service in the major leagues is identical. Their team history is identical, from the lowest level of the minors. Their numbers are only one digit apart (Whitaker wears “1,” Trammell “3”) and that is only because Phil Mankowski was wearing No. 2 when they showed up — and now, in honor of Charlie Gehringer, that number is retired.

No wonder they work together like the insides of a German clock. And, when cajoled, each will admit that yes, they probably are the best tandem out there today. They have earned it. And they are still young (both 29). And who knows what lies ahead? How many more double plays, more baseball dances, more highlight films?

And yet . . .

“What if Alan Trammell had never been around?” Whitaker was asked.
“Wouldn’t your career have been different?”

“Nuh-uh,” he said, shrugging, pointing to the shortstop’s locker. “The next guy would be right there, where he is. And I would be here. That’s all.

“And it’s the same for Tram.”

So here comes history, the 1987 baseball season. And Tiger Stadium fans should be aware of what they are getting a chance to watch, even if it’s not movie-of-the-week material.

“It’s true,” Trammell said, rubbing a fist though his hair, “we’ve kinda separated over the years, Lou and I. We very seldom do anything together off the field. But there’s a special feeling when we get on the field. It’s like eye contact. We don’t even talk. We just look at each other. And that relationship, well, there aren’t too many of those around. . . . “

On they go. When will they write the last Trammell/Whitaker story? What will it say? That they parted in a sudden splash of emotion? Or that they simply cleaned out their desks and shook hands? Nice working with you.

Who knows?

“Will you guys keep up?” Trammell was asked. “When this is all over, will you stay in touch?”

“Oh . . . uh, yes, I think we will, I think I will,” he said. “At least once or twice a year. . . . I don’t know. I would think so. . . . “

“What do you think?” Whitaker was asked. “Will you guys keep up?”

He looked at his knees, then his glove.

“That’s a tough question.”

Close on field

Trammell Whitaker Age 29 29 Height 6-0 5-11 Weight 170 160 Started Bristol, Bristol, with Tigers 1976 1975 Called up Sept. 1977 Sept. 1977 First game Sept. 9 Sept. 9 with Tigers vs. Boston vs. Boston Games 1,289 1,283 At-bats 4,631 4,705 Runs 702 724 Hits 1,300 1,320 Doubles 214 202 Triples 42 49 Homers 90 93 RBIs 504 522

Average .281 .281 CUTLINE Lou Whitaker: “You don’t see us stepping on each other, or bumping into each other. Like when Tram is directly behind second base, making a throw, I’m never blocking his way. Or if he’s gonna make the play himself, I’m never in the way of the bag.”


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!