I can hear it now: “The ship is sinking! First Ernie, then Bill Lajoie! Look out, Tigers! It’s all Bo’s fault! Man the lifeboats!”
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 Ernie Harwell story, and not turn it into anything more than what it is: And right now, it is a fine man who has decided to call it quits after squeezing every drop of himself into baseball.
Bill Lajoie was a furnace of energy as the Tigers general manager the last
seven years. There were many nights when the only light inside Tiger Stadium came from his 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?” He was tireless, always studying some scouting report, calling some other GM. He missed a lot of the simple things in life, dragging on cigarettes and drinking black coffee at all hours.
About a year ago, he lost his wife, Gloria, after a long and terrible illness. Before her death, they had talked about getting away from it all, slowing down. Now, one winter later, Lajoie says, “I don’t want to work so hard any more. I want to find out more about who I am.”
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 at age 56, 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. An amicable decision
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 discussed leaving with Schembechler as early as last September. “Bo was a big help, because he made a change in life like this himself,” said Lajoie.
The decision was made, amicably, before Christmas. The news would have been released then, except that suddenly, Ernie Harwell called a news conference and the town erupted. Lajoie and Schembechler held off, until this weekend, when Lajoie said: “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 on Monday, immediately defusing any personal problem talk. “Bill was an astute judge of baseball talent. We’re going to miss him a lot.
“I really think his love is in the scouting, just watching the game, checking out players. Believe me, this is an amicable 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. Still, he managed to sign Alan Trammell with a handshake and Cecil Fielder for a song. Overall, given the circumstances, I’d say he’s done an excellent job.
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 behind your desk. Legacy of excellent moves
“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 Fielder in ’90. He helped keep this team afloat at times when it deserved to sink, a patch here, a patch there. 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.