LAKELAND, Fla. — “The weirdest thing,” says Jim Walewander, ripping open a miniature box of Cheerios, “was when one of these guys asked me for an autograph. What should I write? ‘Good luck in taking my job’?”

We are sitting in the dimly lit cafeteria of the Tigers’ minor league complex, surrounded by lanky, young baseball players. We are eating breakfast. Actually, Walewander is eating. I am watching.

“Milk,” he says, pouring some onto his cereal. “You got to conserve this stuff down here. You’re only allowed one glass per breakfast.”

“What happens if you ask for more?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. No one ever tried.”

Yesterday — or at least, it seems like yesterday — Jim Walewander was in the major leagues, the only Tiger to ever introduce Sparky Anderson to a punk rock group. You remember? The Dead Milkmen? SPARKY: Hello, boys. DEAD MILKMEN: Satan rules! SPARKY: Well, gotta go, boys.

And today Walewander, 27, is back here, in the minors, sleeping in a dormitory, eating in a cafeteria. He seems unfazed. He looks the same, little boy face, hair sticking out in all directions. Of course, he is the only guy in the room wearing a denim jacket and a button that blinks, “Kennedy: A Man For The 60s.”

Wait. News flash. During the off-season, Walewander attended a Dead Milkmen concert in Chicago. They spotted him. Brought him on stage. Wanted him to sing.

“Which song?” he yelled over the crowd.

“It’s a new one,” they said. “Sing it.”

“What? But how does it g–

DA-DA-DA-DA-DADADA-DA-DA-DA Wales tales abound

I don’t know the Tigers’ plans for Walewander this year. Personally, I think he should be back with the club, because baseball needs guys like him to keep it from falling asleep. Here is a free spirit who kept his first major league home run ball — in his glove compartment. A guy who surfs, wears army boots, and once sent Christmas cards to the media with a picture of a cow:
“MOOOO-RY CHRISTMAS.”

This is how Jim Walewander met his girlfriend last summer. He went to St. Andrews Hall, Detroit’s downtown punk joint. She asked where he worked.

“Tiger Stadium,” he said.

Oh. Was he a hot dog vendor?

“I showed her my baseball card,” he said. “She still didn’t believe me. She thought it was one of those things you get made at Disneyland.”

OK. True. As a baseball player, Walewander is, at best, a specialty guy. Small. Fast. Utility infielder. But he impressed Sparky Anderson enough in September 1987 to earn an invitation to camp last spring. For the first time, he had a locker in the big clubhouse, stayed at a hotel, per diem money, no curfews. But this year, he’s back across the parking lot, in the minors — where he had spent the four previous springs — 100 yards and a lifetime away from The Show.

“Shoes,” he says. “That’s a big difference. Up there, you get as many as you want. Down here, they take all the shoes the big league guys don’t want and put them in a bin on the first day. You grab what fits. I saw a guy with Lou Whitaker’s shoes yesterday.”

“Do they go after certain names?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “certain sizes.” No style not his style

He finishes breakfast. We walk to his room. The hallways are sparse. The decor is early 1950s. The windows, he says, are screwed shut, to keep players from sneaking in past curfew. The room itself is tiny — a lamp, two beds (he has a roommate) and nothing on the walls. Nothing is allowed. Tigers’ rules. Even a librarian would find this depressing. Jim Walewander seems to belong here the way Frank Zappa belongs on “The Patty Duke Show.”

“Clean or dirty?” I say, pointing to the pile of clothes against the wall.

“I just sort of recycle,” he says.

A sudden voice blares over the loudspeaker, warning players that the maids are coming through. I rub my ears.

“That’s nothing,” he says. “When I first got here, that’s how you found out you were cut. Around 8 a.m., that voice would come on and say, “WILL THE FOLLOWING PLAYERS PLEASE REPORT TO THE CENTRAL OFFICE. . . . “

How quickly you can come and go. Just yesterday, he was a spark plug in the big leagues. Today, he is warming up some Double-A pitchers. The thing that makes Jim Walewander really unique is that, for all his punkishness, he loves baseball. And I find myself wishing the Tigers would call him up. I really do.

“It’s a bit of a drag not being with the big club again,” he says. He looks at the stadium across the parking lot and shrugs.

“I just hope I haven’t used up my Andy Warhol 15 minutes yet.”

You know what I think? I think Andy would have given him a half-hour. That’s what I think. CUTLINE

Jim Walewander

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