Alan Trammell plops into the chair behind his desk. “I don’t want anyone’s sympathy,” he says.
At the moment, he looks as if he could use some. His voice is as raspy as a Las Vegas lounge singer’s at 5 a.m. His wiry hair and gray T-shirt, both soaked with sweat from a morning workout, suggest a weary fighter who wouldn’t mind a rest.
But Trammell isn’t giving up. And he doesn’t care for pity. “To be honest, it kind of ticks me off,” he says. Never mind that his Tigers are threatening to break the all-time single-season loss record in major league baseball. Never mind that most of the questions he gets these days are like: “How would you feel about having two 20-game losers on your pitching staff?”
Never mind, because Trammell, 45, still thinks like the rangy, competitive shortstop he was for all those years, and that competitive shortstop always thought after one win, there can be another win, and after one loss, there can be . . . another win.
“It’s funny,” he says Thursday morning at Comerica Park, “you win two in a row and you start thinking: ‘Well, if we won all the rest of our games. . . .’ “
He grins, then shrugs. “Of course, that’s not likely to happen. . . .”
Let’s face it, folks. In hindsight, Alan Trammell is the best move the Tigers made for the season they are enduring. He is a buffer between the terrible results and the criticism that normally follows. Nobody wants to pick on Trammell. Detroiters, no strangers to blaming a manager, balk at heaping negatives on this one, because he is a beloved son, a throwback to the good ol’ days when the Tigers were competitive and actually won a World Series. If fans bury Trammell, in a way, they bury one of their best memories.
“But I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me,” Trammell repeats. “I took this job. My name is on it. I know when I look back at my first-year record as a manager, I’m gonna go, ‘Whoa.’ But I also know our staff did a heck of a job holding this thing together.
“Had it been somebody else, things could have gotten out of hand here — and fast.”
‘I hope to God it doesn’t happen’
Trammell, remember, was brought in largely to straighten up an Animal House reputation on this team. He has done that. Which is not much comfort when it loses 102 of its first 136 games. Trammell is only human. He has made some adjustments. He has stopped watching his beloved “SportsCenter,” because he doesn’t want to hear Tigers jokes. He no longer watches Leno and Letterman, because he might stumble onto one of their snide comments.
“But hey, I’ve always been a channel changer,” he says, almost apologizing. “I just flick the channel faster now.”
You hear that, and it’s hard not to feel something for Trammell. Always an intensely dedicated player, he lives as a manager in a narrow world, sleeping by himself in a loft near the downtown stadium. His wife and kids remain in southern California — moving his teenage daughter in the middle of high school was a non-starter — and so for most of this painful spring and summer, he has been getting up by himself, grabbing his own breakfast, getting to the park by noon for a game that is seven hours away — and combing every corner of his baseball brain to try to make his team win more games.
“Do you keep your won-loss record in your head?” I ask him.
“I know how many wins we have,” he says. “I don’t always remember how many losses.”
He does know the infamous 1962 Mets record — 40 wins, 120 defeats. He knows they had two games rained out that they never made up — which means his Tigers get two extra chances to escape the mud or to fall into it.
He has told his players if they should finish worse than the Mets did, “it won’t be the end of the world.” But in conversation Thursday, he says, “I hope to God it doesn’t happen.”
“I’m not getting obsessed,” he says. “I’m not jumping up and down. I told our players you’re gonna see the same guy the whole year. And I think I’ve done that.”
His mantra: ‘The way it used to be’
The Tigers need six wins in their last 23 games to avoid the infamy that the
’62 Mets still endure. Tonight, in Toronto, Mike Maroth tries to avoid becoming the first 20-game loser in two decades. And with the NFL season beginning this weekend, the Tigers’ time on center stage is ending in the same dark shadow under which the team played during June, July and August.
But Trammell is not the reason the Tigers are dangling over ugly history. The roster. The farm system. The bad trades. The tight purse strings of Mike Ilitch, who cannot or will not spend as lavishly in baseball as he does in hockey. Put it this way: It’s hard to imagine that Tony La Russa would win a whole lot more games with this team.
“We could use a little help,” Trammell admits, which is sort of like a Titanic passenger saying, “If you’ve got a spare lifeboat. . . .”
Could he wave a magic wand, Trammell says, he’d like “a bat in the lineup,” right away, followed by an experienced pitcher who knows how to survive the second half of a season as well as the first.
It’s not happening this year. And next year seems pretty far away. Trammell last spoke with Ilitch “about a month ago,” and the owner wanted to know only what everyone else wants to know: How is the team surviving?
The answer: as best it can. When I ask Trammell the biggest thing he has learned about being a manager, he says, “I didn’t know how much patience you would need. . . . I have a pit in my stomach more than I anticipated. A little pit, a rock in there, almost every day — at least every game we’re in, and we’re in a lot of games, even if we wind up losing.”
That pit will feel a lot bigger if the Mets’ record creeps closer. Reporters will circulate. Cameras will seek a reaction. Trammell hates that attention almost as much as he hates pity.
Still, if he believes the old expression, “That which doesn’t kill me will make me stronger,” he and this team could come back as Supermen.
“I didn’t take this job for personal glory,” he says. “I came here because I want the Tiger organization to get its name back. Lance (Parrish) and Kirk
(Gibson) are here for the same reason. We want the Tigers organization to be talked about as a good organization.”
He purses his lips. “The way it used to be.”
For a moment, he looks as if he just finished a game at shortstop, the hair matted, the sweaty shirt drying as he speaks. “The way it used to be” is Alan Trammell’s theme music, and he whistles it past the graveyard of a baseball record he doesn’t want to disturb.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).