LAJOIE TRIES TO RIDE OUT TIGERS’ STORMY SEASON

Today, he’s not such a genius. The team is a mess, the good players are barely hitting the ball, and fans are yawning and waiting for football season. Bill Lajoie will ride it out. The same way he rode it out when everybody loved him. Remember? Two years ago?

“In some ways this is easier than that,” sighs the man with the thick eyebrows who, as general manager, is the wheeler- dealer for the Tigers. “In a winning season, like ’87, you have to be so alert. The slightest little crack, you have to jump in and fix it.”

No cracks this year. The whole damn wall fell in. The Tigers are not in the basement, they are the basement. And Lajoie is the guy with the mop. Clean it up, Bill. Make some trades, Bill. Pull some aces from the farm system, Bill. And while you’re at it, see if you can save those Brazilian rain forests.

Here is the urge: blockbuster moves. Headlines. A brazen display of front office effort. He resists. He does not call colleagues and say, “What would you give me for Alan Trammell?” — even when they circle like vultures, ready to pluck the Detroit carcass.

“You’d be surprised at what other GMs try. They figure you need to show people you’re building for the future, that maybe you’re desperate, so they offer you some guy in the minor leagues who hasn’t put the ball over the plate in three years. And they want one of my regular players,” Lajoie says.

He politely refuses. But he will not forget. Years from now, when the tables are turned, Bill Lajoie will remember these days, and the guys who are trying to suck his blood. In the meantime, he has a few things to say. It’s all in the attitude

First of all, he is not trading Trammell or Lou Whitaker because, quite frankly, he does not think that talent is the big problem. “It’s the thinking that isn’t right,” he says. “The attitude. Guys can be having off-seasons and still do little things to help their teammates win. Instead, this group seems to be more caught up with themselves.”

The cynical, of course, will blame attitude erosion on management. After all, who let Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Darrell Evans and Tom Brookens go — the first three with no compensation?

“An awful lot was made of that,” Lajoie says. “And Lance never fails to tell people how it was the Tigers’ fault. Even now. I wish one of those reporters would remind Lance that he was the one who left — for less money. Maybe that would quiet him down.

“As for the guys like Evans and Brookens, frankly, we expected other players on our squad to step up and fill those leadership positions. I have the highest regard for Evans and Brookens, but their physical contributions were clearly diminishing.

“People say, ‘If only we had those guys, we could win it.’ But they were here in 1985 and ’86 and we didn’t win it. The glue of this team, talent-wise, is still here. In the AL East, we should be able to contend. You saw the California series. We were one player from winning all of those games.”

Instead, they lost all four — on the last at-bat.

Not that Lajoie wouldn’t like a few of his moves back. Had he foreseen the fuss over Brookens, he admits, he wouldn’t have made the trade. And then there was a certain flabby infielder named Chris Brown, part of the winter deal for Walt Terrell. Brown lasted in a Detroit uniform only slightly longer than he lasted on his diet.

“He conned all of us,” Lajoie says. “On the press tour (in February) he looked great, said the right things. Next time I saw him, he had gained 15 pounds. After five days I said to Sparky, ‘This guy has got to go.’ We got him because he has talent. But his attitude — he became a cancer. That’s one trade I’d like back.” Maybe next year will be different

But of course, nothing is coming back. The injuries are real, they left this club crippled. The manager is real, he needed a break from the pressure. The record is real: dead last. Basement.

So who will Lajoie mop away? Well. When spring training began, no player was signed for next season except Chet Lemon. Since that time, Trammell and Whitaker have received contracts. That was not by accident. Lajoie will stick by them, as he likely will stick by Jack Morris, Doyle Alexander, Frank Tanana and a few others. If he gets them signed.

The rest? Who knows? But this era of “cagey-veteran” Tigers is over. On Friday, they traded Keith Moreland, the team’s leading hitter, to Baltimore for minor league pitching prospect Brian Dubois. Moreland is 35. Dubois is 22. Youth.

At his office at Tiger Stadium, Lajoie gets letters from fans suggesting trades. In years past, they’ve been fairly intelligent. This player for that player. “Now they want me to trade 10 guys at once.”

He laughs. Sure, he’d love it if Tom Monaghan paid for a cluster of free-agent superstars. He’d love it if the farm system wasn’t a pit of mediocrity. He’d love it if all the pulled tendons and wrists and elbows went back into place, and everyone was healthy.

Then again, he’d love to fix that Brazilian rain forest problem. For now, he fishes for youth, trusts his instincts and waits. Baseball is funny. Next year, they may be calling him a genius again. He’ll laugh at that one, too.

Mitch Albom’s sports talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” airs tonight 9-11 on WLLZ-FM (98.7). Guests: Isiah Thomas, Denny McLain.

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