SORRY, CONSPIRACY SEEKERS, JOB CHANGE SEEMED NATURAL

I can hear it now: “The ship is sinking! First Ernie, then Bill Lajoie! Look out, Tigers! The water is rising! It’s all Bo’s fault! Man the lifeboats!”

Come on.

This town has had enough flash floods over baseball lately, don’t you think? The best thing we can do with this Lajoie story is to learn a lesson from the Harwell story, and not turn it into anything more than what it is: and right now, it is a man who has decided to call it quits after squeezing every drop of himself into baseball.

That’s all.

There were many nights when the only light inside Tiger Stadium came from Bill Lajoie’s office. There were Saturday mornings when you would call his house and get no answer, then call the office and hear him in that deep voice say: “Hello?”

About a year ago, he lost his wife, after a long, terrible illness. Now, one winter later, he says, “I don’t want to work so hard any more. Money, at my age, (56) doesn’t mean what it did when I was 30 or 40 . . .”

I don’t know about you, but I find this very understandable. You suffer a loss. You go through a grief period. You re-examine your life. You decide to make changes, while you still can. Good for Bill. I wish him every happiness. He spent far too many years sweating over whether to give some ungrateful pitcher another $500,000 on a contract. Slow down. Live a little.

This won’t be enough, of course, for some folks in our town. From the water coolers to the radio talk shows, there will be those who’ll see all sorts of conspiracy theories in the Lajoie departure, much as they saw them in the recent WJR/ Bo Schembechler/Harwell fiasco. Heck, some whispers were flying an hour after the story broke on Monday.

“Unnamed sources say Lajoie was forced out . . . ” “Unnamed sources say he was unhappy with Schembechler . . . “

Here. Let me save you some time. Bill Lajoie left because:

1) He is allergic to new stadiums.

2) He and Ernie want to write songs together.

3) Frank Beckmann is after his job.

There. Have fun, conspiracy nuts.

The rest of you, however, might like to know that, while the timing of the stadium, Harwell and now Lajoie sure makes it feel like baseball is a winter sport, their intersection is nothing more than coincidence. The fact is, Lajoie’s departure, according to Bo Schembechler, had been discussed and decided, amicably, before Christmas. The news would have been released then, except that our town was still boiling over the Harwell incident. Both parties decided to hold off, until this weekend, when Lajoie told Schembechler: “I think it’s going to leak out if we don’t release it soon.”

Thus, Monday’s announcement. Simple, no?

“Bill and I always got along fine,” said Schembechler from his office Monday, immediately defusing any personal problem talk. “Bill was an astute judge of baseball talent. We’re going to miss him a lot.

“But Bill had been talking about slowing down almost since I got here. I really think his love is in the scouting, just watching the game, checking out players. Believe me, this is an amiable parting in every way.”

In truth, you could see this coming. Lajoie’s job was tough; things broke, he was supposed to fix them — with a trade here, a signing there. But in recent years, there has been precious little to trade. And even when the Tigers finally opened the free-agent pocketbook, Lajoie saw star players walk away from his money in favor of the California sun.

If you ask me, trying to deal in the business side of baseball today would be enough to make any man quit and join a monastery. That Lajoie was OK financially, that he has talents that can be used by other teams in a lesser capacity than GM — all that only makes it easier to say good-bye to mornings full of black coffee, and evenings spent watching the sun set from your behind your desk.

“This is one of the few times in my life that I got selfish,” Lajoie said Monday night. “I was gonna look out for Bill. . . . I wanted to get on a more even keel with myself. And in order to do that, I need to get away from the team . . . “

He leaves behind a legacy of excellent moves. He leaves us Darrell Evans in ’83, and Doyle Alexander and Bill Madlock in ’87, and Cecil Fielder in
’90. He helped keep this team afloat at times when it deserved to sink. Yes, it’s true, the Tigers didn’t exactly shower Lajoie with gratitude over the years, making him work on a year-to-year contract. And maybe he wishes he had taken that Pittsburgh opportunity he had a few years ago, given where the Pirates are now.

But I believe Monday’s decision was strictly based on a life change thing. Which brings us to the Tigers. Speaking of life change, Schembechler is really getting an education in this baseball thing, huh? It’s not as predictable as run on first down, punt on fourth.

“I’ll take my time looking for a replacement,” he said. “Bill has given me some names, and I’ll talk to everyone.”

And on we go. Winter baseball. Sorry to disappoint the conspiracy folks, but Bill Lajoie deserves better than whispers. He deserves a pat on the back, and a wish for good luck. Boring, I know. But true.

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