THE AGING OF THE TIGERSVETERANS, ROOKIES FIND TIE THAT BINDS IN THE CLUBHOUSE

What’s the difference,” someone asks Jack Morris, who is relaxing by his locker, “between a veteran clubhouse and a young clubhouse?”

He runs a hand through his hair, leans forward, then says it can best be summed up with a joke.

“You might not be able to use it,” he warns. “It’s a little dirty.”

No problem. We’ll clean it up.

“OK. There are these two bulls, right? A young bull and an old bull. And they’re looking down on a field full of cows. And the young bull says to the old bull: ‘Hey. I’ve got an idea. Let’s run down to that field and flirt with one of those cows.’

“And the old bull says: ‘I got a better idea. Let’s walk down, and flirt with all of them.’ “

He smiles.

“Get it?”

Welcome to the land of veteran wisdom, the Detroit Tigers clubhouse, where
“Walk, Don’t Run” could hang above the door, alongside “Slow and Steady Wins the Race.” After all, these are the same Tigers who lumbered out of the gate last spring, lost nearly twice as many as they had won by mid-May, and still came across in October with the best record in baseball.

Veteran? Can we call them veteran? Was Patton a general? The Tigers have a first baseman, Darrell Evans, who began his career during the Vietnam war. They have two starting pitchers, Doyle Alexander and Frank Tanana, who could have taken dates to a Beatles concert. They have a designated hitter, Larry Herndon, a third baseman, Tom Brookens, and a first baseman, Dave Bergman, all of whom could have voted in the 1972 presidential election. They have a new left fielder, Luis Salazar, who is already 31 years old. They have a rookie relief pitcher, fresh off the farm, named Paul Gibson.

Age: 28.

Geez. Even the rookies are veterans.

So OK. What happens when a milk-and-cookies kid enters this steak-and-potatoes ensemble? He’s an outcast, right? Goes running back to his Walkman, buries himself in U2 tapes? Right? Well. Take a look. Over there. With the combat boots and the fashionably mussed hair. Jim Walewander. Punk-rock fan. Recently read “Cannibals of Manhattan” by Tama Janowitz.

Also a Tiger.

And he looks . . . comfortable.

“Isn’t it strange to play alongside guys almost old enough to be your father?” he is asked.

“Hey,” he says, “some of them act like my father.”

He bops his head.

“And . . . ? ” he is asked.

“And what? I always got along with my father.”

Remember last October, final game of the regular season, when the Tigers beat Toronto for the American League East title? Two hours after the game, with the stadium dark and empty, several players emerged from the clubhouse, dressed only in their underclothes. And they raced from first to second base, laughing like children. Scott Lusader, a rookie. Walewander, a rookie. And Jack Morris.

Jack Morris?

“Sure,” says Morris, 32. “Hey, when I first came into the league, the veterans didn’t associate much with the younger guys. They would play cards and shut you out. It was like putting a guy through hazing. I never did get the point.”

He looked over at fellow pitchers Mike Henneman, 26, and Jeff Robinson, 26, two of the youngest Tigers. And he hollered an insult.

And they laughed.

“You see how I am with these guys,” says Morris, grinning. “Just like I am with everybody. Spontaneous abuse.”

What an unusual place, this Tigers clubhouse, a sprinkle of young, a sprinkle of new, and a whole lot of same-old-same-old. The average player is well past 30. The team is managed by a white-haired man with the world of baseball in his eyes. What’s left for him to see? And so it is loose yet businesslike, this room, not given to many roller coaster swings of emotion. Wisdom over wildness. Slow and steady wins the race.

Controversy?

Did someone say controversy?

Last season, when Willie Hernandez whacked a stereo system with a baseball bat, several players leaped forward and began to argue with him. Sparky Anderson, the manager, was out in a flash.

“ZIP IT!” he bellowed.

And that was that.

End of controversy.

The Yankees, they are not.

What they are, these 1988 Tigers, are mostly men who have been around the track a few times. With the exception of Walewander, Matt Nokes, Billy Beane and pitchers Henneman, Robinson and Gibson, every Tiger has at least four years of major league service. And some have as many as 17.

Well, one, anyhow.

Let us talk for a moment about Darrell Evans, 41 next month, who, as much as anyone, sets the tone for the Tigers. On a recent spring training morning, Evans walked into the clubhouse in a charcoal gray sweat suit, his hair neatly coiffed in a pageboy style.

“HEY, NICE HAIRCUT!” Morris hollered. “NOW YOU LOOK LIKE A KID — A 45-YEAR-OLD KID!”

Evans just grinned. What can throw him anymore? When he first came into the big leagues, he wore a crew cut. Others wore long hair and sideburns (it was, after all, the late ’60s). Eventually, Evans was persuaded to let his hair grow, too. Then, in the early ’70s, Joe Pepitone came into the Atlanta clubhouse and pulled out a hair blower. “That was unheard of,” Evans recalls. But soon, everyone was using them, and so Evans broke down and used one, too. The years passed. He is finally the reigning clubhouse veteran. And do you know what the rookies are wearing these days?

Crew cuts.

“I can’t win,” Evans says.

Now, that kind of thing can make you feel old. It can also make you feel smart. You don’t sense there’s a whole lot that Evans — or many of his teammates — haven’t seen in this game. No one will fool them. No one will make them falsely optimistic. Evans, in particular. Remember this is a guy who outlasted flair-bottom pants, gold disco chains and Lacoste shirts with the collars turned up.

“Is that what makes you a leader on this team?” he is asked.

“Well, I don’t think you cultivate leadership in baseball as much you just accumulate the experience,” he says. “Other guys respect you for that. And you kind of become a leader.

“See, certain rules of the game have never been written down. And those are the important ones. You can learn to play baseball as a kid. But you can’t learn what really goes on up here until you go through it.”

Evans has been through it. So has Doyle Alexander, 37, who now mostly sits by his locker, quietly reading the newspaper. Frank Tanana, 34, has been through it — seen his metamorphosis from a fireballer to a junkballer. Bergman, 34, in and out of the lineup; Herndon, 34, once fast, now slowed by injury; Brookens, 34, challenged year after year for his job; Chet Lemon, 33, moved from his precious center field; Mike Heath, 33, with his fourth major league team; Willie Hernandez, 33, trying to recapture the magic he once had on the pitching mound.

Veterans. They have all been through it. Seen the innocence of the game take nasty twists, seen friends cut, seen colleagues injured, seen the money grow and grow, then hit an invisible ceiling. This is your veteran clubhouse, sports fans; nothing much surprises them anymore.

“You get to be my age, and they don’t worry so much about your spring,” Tanana says. “They figure, he’ll just do whatever it is he does once the season starts.”

“I was a lot more wide-eyed when I first came up,” Morris says. “But the game has changed. For me, the whole owners’ collusion thing made me question what this sport is about. And the bottom line is money, that’s the whole ball of wax. The more veterans you put in a clubhouse, the more your clubhouse understands that, because everyone has had dealings with it at some point.”

Indeed, Evans and Herndon took pay cuts to play last year. Brookens was a free agent with no takers this spring. Tanana went to arbitration. Who doesn’t have a money story?

But wait. Before we get too serious here, remember this: Into each life, a little milk must fall. Enter Walewander, 26, perhaps the only player to be visited by a punk-rock group in the dugout. Remember that day last summer? The Dead Milkmen? Dressed in combat fatigues? Came to see Walewander? Met Sparky, too?

SPARKY: Hello, boys.

MILKMEN: Death to capitalists!

SPARKY: Well, gotta run, boys.

Here is a good Jim Walewander story: He has this jacket. It is leather. At least it used to be leather. But now it’s so worn and frayed you can tear it apart. One night he wears it to a punk club. “I did a little slam-dancing,” he

says, “you know, just to stay in shape for the season.”

And the coat rips.

No problem. He puts it back together. With safety pins. Dozens of them. So now he’s wearing this jacket, held together with safety pins, and one night in Chicago he’s riding the El train home, and it’s real late, and he’s tired, so he lies down across a few seats. “Next thing I know, there’s this old guy yelling at me. He’s screaming: ‘You’re a bum! Why don’t you get a job!’ “

“What did you say?” he is asked.

“Nothing.”

OK. Be honest. This is not a guy you would expect to be sitting a few chairs from Darrell Evans, right? But there he was this spring — and there he will be come Opening Day. And everybody gets along fine. One of the most incredible scenes of last season came that day Walewander hit his first major league home run, and afterward, in the clubhouse, Sparky Anderson, buck naked, on the way to a shower, stopped to talk to the kid, who was dressed to go home, green army pants, boots and a white rock T-shirt.

Talk about a snapshot.

“Hey, we’re all baseball players,” Bergman says. And that is the tie that binds. So you have older players and younger players and even coaches like Dick Tracewski (“I remember when Elvis Presley music was first played in the clubhouse, and the manager said, ‘Shut that thing off!’ “) and Alex Grammas
(“Used to be there were no post-game meals. You played cards and that was it.”). Sure, they might look at a guy like Walewander and shake their heads, but they’re smiling when they do it.

“Hey, I love it,” says Evans, when asked about Walewander’s ways. “It’s the way baseball has always been, young and old guys. It’s refreshing.”

Hey, Darrell. Want to buy a Dead Milkmen cassette?

So here come the 1988 Tigers, slow and steady. Mostly. Even on this largely veteran team, there is room for a cymbal crash or two. No doubt Lusader, 23, and Billy Bean, 23, and Rey Palacios, 25, will find their way up to the Tigers before long.

They will be welcomed, yet they will be swathed in a crib of experience, a place where winning is something you earn, not something that falls from the sky.

“A veteran clubhouse has a different confidence level,” Morris says.
“Older guys pretty much know what they can and can’t do. In a young clubhouse, they don’t know what they can’t do, but there’s a whole world of things they believe they can do. We were like that in 1983. We believed we could beat anybody.”

This time around, it is more realistic. No one denies the absence of Kirk Gibson will take its toll. No one denies starting the season without Walt Terrell is anything short of bad news. But no one denies that a season ain’t over until it’s over — remember last year — and before it’s over, the young guys might play a big part.

So here we go. The old men, the middle men and the Milkmen. There are no guarantees — as any veteran will tell you — except this: No matter what happens, baseball will continue to be, as it always has been, the great equalizer between men and boys.

“There’s nobody in this clubhouse I can’t talk to,” says Walewander, looking over his shoulder at his teammates. “Baseball is the common denominator. We can always talk baseball.

“And if we didn’t have baseball, we could always talk golf.”

He rubs his hair. He taps his foot. Somewhere inside his head, a kick drum is pounding.

“What if you didn’t have golf?” he is asked.

“Well, then,” he says, “we might be stretching it.” CUTLINE: Darrell Evans (standing), 40, is the leader of the Tigers’ over- 35 brigade. Jim Walewander, 26, is one of the younger Tigers.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This