Across from the entrance to Tigertown on Al Kaline Drive in Lakeland, Fla., is the Senior Meadows Retirement Residence, a drab, circular structure that houses a hearty bunch of folks a little past their prime. Just down the road is Marchant Stadium, the Detroit Tigers' spring training park, another drab, circular structure that for the last few springs has also housed a hearty bunch of folks a little past their prime.
The scene in the Tiger clubhouse in the 1990s has usually included more veterans than a Memorial Day parade. "Lately we've had our share of old-timers," acknowledges Detroit second baseman Lou Whitaker, who will turn 38 on May 12. "But when I showed up this year, I saw all these baby faces, and I didn't recognize a single one of them." Watch your back, Lou, the Tigers are finally going with their cubs.
The most shocking move in the Motor City last week was not Kirk Kerkorian's unsolicited takeover bid for Chrysler but the Tigers' trade of utilityman Tony Phillips, who will turn 36 next week, to the California Angels for 26-year-old outfielder Chad Curtis. Could it be that Detroit is actually turning back the clock for a change?
Last Friday morning around the batting cage at Marchant Stadium, the newly arrived Curtis talked about the time in 1980 when he sat in the bleachers at Tiger Stadium watching his idol, shortstop Alan Trammell, crack a home run against the Milwaukee Brewers. "It's a little embarrassing to admit it now, but that day I had this dream that I would play with Trammell, even though I should have realized the odds were against that," Curtis said. "After all, I was only 11."
As Curtis told his story, Trammell, 37 years old and entering his 19th big league season, looked on with amusement from across the batting cage. "Sure, that story makes me feel my age a little," he said, "but I don't exactly need a reminder that I've been here for a long, long, long time."
These are the 1995 Tigers: the baby boomers and the babies. As of Sunday there were only six players on Detroit's 40-man roster between the ages of 27 and 37. Thus, veterans like Trammell, Whitaker and Kirk Gibson, who turns 38 on May 28, will be unofficial player-coaches, responsible for telling the Tiger cubs about the halcyon days when Detroit was an American League powerhouse—world champions even, in '84—and the luxury tax was just a space on a Monopoly board.
Forgive the Tiger vets if they don't dwell on the 1990s. Recent Detroit history reveals a venerable but decaying ball club playing for a manager, Sparky Anderson, now 61, and in a ballpark, Tiger Stadium, which dates back to 1912, that fit the same description. Detroit bottomed out last season, finishing 53-62 and dead last in the American League East. If that wasn't depressing enough, the Tigers were on pace to lose $20 million before the players' strike hit, thanks to the major leagues' highest payroll ($52 million) and its fourth-lowest attendance (1,184,783).
Much of Detroit's recent talent shortfall can be traced to a fallow farm. Over the past 15 years the Tigers' minor league operation has been one of the least productive in baseball. "I'll guarantee that in my 16 years here, we haven't had more than seven or eight bona fide prospects," Anderson says. "I wish I knew why. That's the $64,000 question."
Detroit's first pick in the first amateur draft, in 1965, was Gene Lamont, who is far better known as manager of the Chicago White Sox than he ever was as a catcher. (In picking Lamont, who hit .233 in 87 big league games, the Tigers passed on a catcher named Johnny Bench.) None of Detroit's first-round picks from the '80s have had an impact; the top choices included the never-heard-from Ricky Barlow, Randy Nosek, Bill Henderson and a guy, Wayne Dotson, who was released after he was caught stealing from his teammates.
Detroit's current general manager, Joe Klein, was hired in 1992 to run the Tiger scouting operation and was told to reseed the farm. "Three years ago, when I came here, they were asking, 'When's Greg Gohr going to be ready?' " says Klein, of Detroit's first-round pick in '89. "He was our only prospect. Now they ask, 'When are [pitchers] Justin Thompson, Jose Lima, Cade Gaspar and Greg Gohr going to be ready?' Everything in baseball runs in trends. Let's just say we were in a downtrend."