STATING HIS CASE

A few weeks ago, Alan Trammell hung a message on the board in the Tigers’ locker room. He was trying to inspire his team. The words read:

The Answer Is

Keep Working

Thursday morning, Trammell entered that same locker room, not knowing whether he’ll be permitted to heed his own advice. His bosses have been mum on his future.

Before what could be his last home game as manager, the most beloved shortstop in Tigers history sat in his office and spoke at length about recent criticism of his performance and the speculation that he will be fired Monday.

“I think it’s unfair,” he said. “I’m just telling you my point of view. I don’t know exactly what everybody was expecting. I think people should take into consideration that I haven’t jumped ship, every day I stand there, I try to answer the questions … but I just don’t think people are looking at the reality of the thing.”

The reality of the thing, Trammell says, is that his first year as manager “we were basically at the bottom,” his second year things started to change, and his third year, this year, was a season beset with injuries, roster interruptions and less than stellar attitudes from a few key players.

“What were people really expecting?” he asked. “We were gonna flip this thing, get a few new players and it was gonna work perfectly?”

He rattles through the injuries, oddities and setbacks, then looks up like a man who is pointing at flies in his cold soup.

“I don’t know how anybody could overcome these things.” Frustration hits locker room

Trammell is beloved by fans, well-liked by media and well-regarded by people around the league – but most of that was earned as a player. There has been talk this year, as the Tigers sunk from a season-best two games over .500 to a season-worst 19 games below, that Trammell had lost the locker room, that players were not responding to his direction.

I asked Trammell what that was all about.

“Losing. End of story,” he said adamantly. “Let’s be honest, we went through a pretty good stretch” of losing. “… Guys get frustrated, I get frustrated. It’s easy to perceive that kind of thing.”

Still, Trammell said, while the Tigers bobbed and splashed, they didn’t sink. He noted that, with the exception of the past few weeks, their losing stretches always were followed with more successful ones. This, despite what Trammell cited as abnormal outside distractions.

“We do have a few guys who have some personal issues that have to be dealt with,” he said, choosing not to elaborate, although Pudge Rodriguez and his recent marital issues were likely part of that. “Some guys do need some time off to get some things back in order … off-the-field things that do affect, to a certain degree, what goes on here at the ballpark.”

It has been that kind for year for Trammell. There were Pudge’s woes and the suggestion that maybe he wanted out of Detroit. There was Magglio Ordonez, the new star, who went down injured before fans got to know his face. There was the wet firecracker of Troy Percival, who was signed for big money to be the Tigers’ big closer. There were long injuries to big bats like Dmitri Young and Rondell White and the here-then-gone stretches for injured Carlos Guillen, whom Trammell considers crucial to the lineup.

That is why, when the ship seemed to be straining at the rivets, Trammell hung that sign about the answer: keep working.

“They were looking to me for a little wisdom,” he said. “That was it. That was the answer. It is always the answer.”

He pulled open a drawer.

“I ain’t got nothing in this drawer that I can come out and sprinkle on them.”

Funny, he sounded a little like Sparky there. It comes down to the players

And Sparky Anderson’s name is worth remembering, because the white-haired legend is part of who Trammell is and the things he got used to.

When you look back on Trammell’s playing career, you see a man who was never traded, who never endured media bashing, and who only once in his career ever witnessed a manger being fired, Les Moss, back in the late ’70s.

“I never got to say good-bye to Les,” Trammell recalled, “I didn’t even know it was happening and then boom, he was gone.”

That’s not the case for Trammell. His future has been the subject on constant conjecture. Which for Trammell, 47, is just agonizing. He is an intensely private person when it comes to anything non-baseball, and this speculation is clearly the hardest part. I have known him for 20 years, and the line I remember him uttering most to me over the years is: “No feature stories. I just don’t care for feature stories about me.”

Now his future is the feature.

“When you were playing, did you think the manager made that big a difference?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I thought some were better than others, but it came down to the players.”

“And did you ever think during a losing season, ‘We need a new manager?’ “

“No,” he said firmly. “I’m telling you. No.”

So do the Tigers? We will know soon enough. Trammell has one more year on his contract, and it doesn’t seem indulgent to let him have it and see what he can do if players stay healthy and some prospects come around. This is, after all, the man who endured a 119-loss season his first year, improved the team by 29 victories the next year, and, even by the harshest standards, has endured a disproportionate amount of roster interruption this season.

“If I had asked when you were hired if three years would be enough time to judge you, what would you have said?”

“I would have said no,” Trammell said. “The first year, honestly, we knew, that year almost didn’t really count – but it does. I sucked it up. We had to clean some things up…

“I definitely think I’d like to do it at least another year. … Let’s do it another year. We do have some better players, no question … but just because you have better players doesn’t mean it comes together just like that. … As I said, we haven’t had them. We haven’t had those guys! …

“I don’t have my own agenda. I said it from the very first day, I’m here to try to help his organization get back … but it isn’t a quick fix…

“The Detroit Tiger way … we’re gonna get that. If I’m allowed, we’re gonna continue to push the way we think the Detroit Tigers want to play or I want them to play baseball.

“That’s my mission. And I don’t feel I’ve been given the opportunity to fulfill it. … I don’t know how anybody could in that short period of time.”

He is the old shortstop, too proud to beg, but pleading with his eyes to be given one more at-bat, not to be lifted for a pinch hitter. He is scheduled to “sit down” with Dave Dombrowski on Monday. Perhaps Mike Ilitch will be there. Perhaps not.

“Monday will come soon enough,” Trammell said, projecting calm. But if he is fired, he added, he will leave “with my head high. I know in my own mind we’re making some headway.”

It is hard to imagine a bitter departure for Trammell, who has never endured a bitter departure before in this city. But when he went from player to manager, he all but assured that fate at some point. Few managers ever leave on happy terms. And Trammell is not naïve.

“As much as I’d like this to be (my final stop) – and I’ll always be known as a Tiger to a certain degree – I’d like to continue because there’s unfinished business, whether it be with this team, or another organization.”

He set his jaw.

“I’m not done. You know, I’m gonna be in baseball for many years to come. … Believe me, if I’m done here, I’m not gonna retire. … I got a lot of good years left and a lot of good stuff to pass along.”

With the conversation finished, he bounded up, and seconds later was yelling to his coaches, preparing, hoping for a home finale victory.

And, typical of this season, Guillen and Rodriguez had to scratch for health reasons, and the Tigers lost with the tying runs on base in the bottom of the ninth.

The answer, he insists, is keep working.

The question is, will he?

AL PLAYOFF RACES

EAST W-L GB GR New York 94-65 – 3 Boston 93-66 1 3 CENTRAL W-L GB GR x-Chicago 93-66 – 3 WILD CARD W-L GB GR Cleveland 93-66 – 3 Boston 93-66 – 3 x – division champion

Thursday’s results

Chicago 4, Detroit 2

Boston 5, Toronto 4

Cleveland 6, Tampa Bay 0

New York 8, Baltimore 4

•How White Sox won division. 6E

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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