RISKY BUSINESSGONZALEZ’S TIME WITH THE TIGERS HAS BEEN A WASTE

WHEN ASKED about the rumors that he was headed to the Yankees, Juan Gonzalez reportedly said to reporters: “Deal? What deal?”

Funny. That’s kind of how I feel about Gonzalez’s time in Detroit.

Deal? What deal? Was Juan Gonzalez ever really here? Was that really the slugger we heard so much about wearing a Tigers uniform these past few months
— or just some muscular guy in disguise?

Deal? What deal? Did the Tigers really tell us this guy was their future? Did they really trade away young guns like Gabe Kapler, Justin Thompson, Francisco Cordero and three other players for …this?

Deal? What deal? Wasn’t the deal that Gonzalez would blast balls out of the Tigers’ new park at a record pace? Instead, he has offered up a mediocre 13 home runs, a consistent failure to do much in crucial situations, and an attitude about this city that you wouldn’t exactly post in the Chamber of Commerce brochure.

Deal? What deal? Didn’t the Tigers reportedly offer Gonzalez $140 million for eight years? Didn’t they dangle the richest contract in baseball in front of him? And didn’t he wiggle his nose at it — a fish deciding whether to bite — and ultimately decide to keep swimming upstream?

Deal? What deal? In order to have a real deal, you have to get something in exchange, and all the Tigers ever seemed to get from Gonzalez is a lot of question marks, and a lot of people around him saying, “Don’t worry, he really likes Detroit, he’s just, kind of, you know, getting used to things.”

Well. If this latest report is accurate, Juan needn’t bother remembering which exit to take off I-75 to get to Comerica Park. His new address will be Yankee Stadium.

And he can ask anyone how to get there.

Just follow the string of World Series banners.

How about that? With one strong trade wind, the Tigers’ future once again has been whisked into the air of uncertainty. If this trade comes to pass, and Gonzalez goes to New York while Drew Henson, Ricky Ledee and Randy Keisler come to Detroit, then Tigers fans will continue to shake their heads and say,
“Who’s running the ship?”

And it’s a question that GM Randy Smith really needs to answer — quickly, before he trades someone else!

After all, everyone knew Gonzalez was a question mark in the attitude department. There were people all over baseball who told the Tigers that. But they traded for him anyhow, figuring an MVP candidate would put people in the seats.

Problem is, an MVP candidate has to play like an MVP. Gonzalez didn’t. It didn’t help that the fences at the new ballpark are halfway to Grand Rapids. But, excuse me? The Tigers didn’t know the dimensions of their park when they traded for the guy?

And now they are ready to trade him for a huuuuuuuge gamble. Yes, Drew Henson may be the only player who could help wipe the egg off the Tigers’ face in this deal — only because he already is beloved as a local hero and a Michigan quarterback.

But let’s be clear about a few things: 1) There is no guarantee that Henson will be a big-league baseball star. 2) If he will be, it won’t be for several years. 3) Is he even old enough to drink? 4) What if he decides he’d rather be John Elway — and goes the football route instead of baseball?

If that happens, the Tigers will have traded away several of the best prospects for a superstar bust — and traded the superstar bust for, essentially, nothing.

I may be a simple sports writer, but that sure doesn’t sound like good business to me.

What’s worse, this is happening in what’s supposed to be a banner year for the Tigers. New stadium. New attitude. New everything, right? Wasn’t this supposed to be the start of something big — and the end of the worst decade of baseball that anyone alive can remember around these parts?

Instead, in giving up on their marquee player so quickly, the Tigers are like a Broadway show admitting that the score is flawed and the lyrics don’t work.

And they are trying to fix it while still selling tickets.

Fans aren’t dumb. If this deal goes through, more than ever, the only reason they will be buying tickets this summer is to see the new ballpark.

The Tigers might want to erect a few new statues.

You know the saddest part of all this? It may be the only move the Tigers can make. If they don’t trade him, Gonzalez can walk away at the end of the season. The Tigers would be left holding a bag full of shells.

So they do what they can. Damage control. Salvage something — get Henson, and in so doing, perhaps acquire a great future prospect.

But the future was supposed to be now, remember? With Gonzalez, a 30-year-old veteran, not Henson, a kid who’s still going to English class.

There goes the blockbuster, heading toward the bright lights of New York City, where, if the Tigers’ fate holds true, he will immediately begin hitting home runs and win the batting title.

These are sure hard times for Detroit baseball. Somebody check Randy Smith’s door. There may be a sign that reads, “Juan, we barely knew thee.”

Or, more to the point, “Deal? What deal?”

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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