Call me chicken. I would not want to go against Bill Lajoie in a business deal. Maybe it’s that deep voice. Maybe it’s the narrow eyes. Maybe it’s the way he cups his chin in his hand while you’re talking, hiding his mouth, as if to say: “This guy is so dumb I’m gonna crack up.”
Whatever. The man is sharp, you can’t miss that. And it’s always surprising to go into his office at Tiger Stadium in the off-season and find him alone there, like a priest in a confession booth, when you know he’s pulling all the strings for this Tigers team.
He was at it again last week, during the winter meetings in Dallas. The trade of Dan Petry for outfielder Gary Pettis; the efforts to trade Willie Hernandez; the talks with not one, not two, but three teams for the trade of Kirk Gibson — all of which whiffed, at least temporarily. Lajoie was behind it. Every move. Every conversation.
“To be honest,” says the Tigers’ GM, “I really don’t like dealing at winter meetings. It’s not a good atmosphere.”
Here is a fact: The Tigers won more games than any team in baseball last season. Here is another fact: The minute the season was over, Lajoie knew he had to make significant changes.
Why? Simple. Success in pro sports is gasoline; it burns quickly and you never have enough. The Tigers pulled off a surprising season in 1987 with a series of bandages and rubber patches slapped on by — naturally — Lajoie. Doyle Alexander was acquired and won nine games. Bill Madlock was snatched from the Dodgers and came out swinging. Rookies Scott Lusader and Jim Walewander served as fireworks. Jim Morrison plugged a hole at third.
And with all that, the Tigers won the American League East — and couldn’t hit left-handed pitchers if they were bolted to the ground. “Other teams were bringing in lefties from the minor leagues just prior to our series,” says Lajoie, 53, rolling his eyes.
So he set out to fix the problem.
Which brings us Item No. 1 in This Week In Review: the trade of Petry for Pettis. A smart deal. Petry was a wonderful pitcher here, but recent troubles made a return less than optimistic. Pettis, an outstanding outfielder, can steal bases, and he’s a switch hitter. If his bat comes back to life, he’ll be an asset.
“That trade was done well before the meetings,” Lajoie admits, “we just waited until then to make it official.”
Item No. 2. Hernandez. The name has been in the news since the summer, but always behind the words “They gotta trade. . . . ” The 1984 heroics? The Cy Young Award? All forgotten, washed away in a swirl of defeats, injuries and bad feelings between Hernandez and the people who pay to see him.
“Willie’s being run out of town,” Lajoie says. “That’s not right.” Still, Lajoie has been trying to trade him wherever he can. Even Sparky Anderson admits Hernandez can’t pitch in Detroit anymore.
“What’s the reaction from other teams?” I ask Lajoie.
“The two years (left on his contract) are the holdup. The funny thing is, the guy’s healthy. There are certainly teams who could use a healthy Willie Hernandez. . . . “
He leans forward.
“There’s a hell of a difference between getting a head in shape and fixing a bad arm.”
A change of scenery, Lajoie knows, would do Hernandez good. Lajoie would like to trade him. So far, no takers.
“What do you think?” I ask. “Will you be able to move him?”
“He’ll be back next year?’
OK. Let’s talk Kirk Gibson. Everybody else is. The rumors about him going to Seattle, New York or Los Angeles had fans buzzing all week, and finally prompted Gibson himself to gather a few reporters. “I was a little upset when I first heard the talk,” Gibson said, “but Bill Lajoie has been great about it. He’s kept me informed all the way.”
Not every GM would do that. But as we noted, Lajoie is smart. He’s not disappointed with Gibson, the left fielder, and he wants him to know it. An example: Seattle wanted to speak with Gibson before trading for him, because of the court ruling on owners’ collusion, which may award Gibson the right to be a free agent.
Lajoie phoned his player.
“Well, do you want me to speak with them?” Gibson asked.
“This is your call, Kirk,” said Lajoie.
Why did he do that? “Because I didn’t want Kirk to feel like we were looking to get rid of him.” And even though Gibson nixed Seattle, Lajoie had gained his trust, which will be important: 1) in any future deals or 2) should Gibson return next season.
Wait, you say, then what happened then with the Yankees — the second team interested in Gibson? Well, Lajoie had gone to them about a different player, but found a Dave Winfield-for- Gibson offer on the plate instead, like a sudden glob of mashed potatoes. One look at Winfield’s contract and he knew it wouldn’t come to pass. But he let the deal sit for a while, he let the smell get out, because that only made Gibson seem more lucrative to another team, such as. . . .
Los Angeles. Yes. Let’s talk about Los Angeles. The Dodgers were offering Pedro Guerrero (whom the Tigers would like). But they took a long time. Then they apparently let the story out to the press, which made Lajoie angry.
“That was the best-kept secret of the winter meetings,” he says. “They must have let it out, because we certainly didn’t.”
Tired and annoyed, Lajoie pulled the deal off the table. Gibson never got to speak with the Dodgers. (“If I had, I would have been a Dodger today,” he said.)
Now. There are those who think the deal is dead. (“I won’t put Gibson through that again,” says Lajoie.) But if you use a little smarts, you know that Lajoie is holding the cards. The Dodgers seem to be eager for the trade, so keeping them at bay may just make them more willing to bargain.
Besides, if it falls through, bringing Gibson back next year is hardly a bad alternative.
“Right, Bill?” I ask.
He puts his hand over his mouth again.
Remember that old gangster joke?
“Hey, Sam, how about a loan?”
“Five hundred bucks.”
“Sure, you got collateral?”
“How about an eye?”
Well, as we said, Bill Lajoie isn’t stupid. He’s not going to throw away Hernandez. He’s not going to jump at every offer for Gibson. Patience is an enormous part of making sports deals, and Lajoie — part businessman, part psychologist, part media manipulator — knows how to be patient. The best trades, anyhow, “are the ones you make during the season, once you’ve seen what you’ve got.”
What he’s got now is a team that can’t hit lefties, a left fielder who’s his only real good trade bait, and two free agents (Jack Morris and Frank Tanana) who represent the best part of his pitching staff. No problem, right?
“You have to keep stirring the pot,” he says.
There is a fixture on Lajoie’s office wall that contains the names of every team in baseball. He eyes it as he speaks, perhaps already charting his next plan, his next step.
“Will you go for a third baseman?” I ask. “Like Gary Gaetti from Minnesota?”
“No,” he says.
“Are there other right-handed hitters you’re after?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Is Gibson definitely gone somewhere?”
“They’ve been talking about Willie going somewhere and he’s still here.”
“So what is your next move?”
At this, Lajoie does something rare. He begins to ramble. “The right-handed batter was what we were looking for. . . . Pettis will add dimensions. . . . A good defense is a good offense. . . . “
“That’s not really answering the question,” I say.
“Well, I don’t think it’s anybody’s business what our next move is.”
He laughs — a deep, grizzly laugh. And on we go. I’m sure there will be more deals coming, more names tossed around, more GMs seeking to mix it up with Lajoie. I have but one suggestion for them:
Bring your eyes, fellas.
He may want some insurance. CUTLINE Willie Hernandez Bill Lajoie: “I really don’t like dealing at winter meetings. It’s not a good atmosphere.” Kirk Gibson