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While Alan Trammell spoke last Friday afternoon in the visiting manager's office at Safeco Field, shortly before the Tigers lost their 19th game in 21 tries, his bench coach, Kirk Gibson, interrupted to grab a bottle of water off Trammell's desk. "I'll bring it back half empty," Gibson joked. He had barely left the room before Trammell hollered after him, "It's half full, remember?"
At least as remarkable as Detroit's dreadful start (through Sunday the Tigers were 3-20; only the 1988 Orioles, who opened the season 0-21, had been worse out of the gate) is their rookie manager's indefatigable optimism. Blessed with a perpetually upbeat outlook and a teacher's disposition, Trammell, who spent his entire 20-year major league career with the Tigers, brings an unwavering enthusiasm to one of baseball's least enviable jobs.
"[Former Giants manager and friend] Roger Craig told me, 'When you've lost 10 in a row, you come into the clubhouse like you've won 10 in a row, and you do it until you turn it around,' " Trammell says. "With a young group like this, if I'm down, they're going to think that's the way they have to act, and that can't happen. We've talked about respecting losses, but I don't want a morgue in here either."
There's ample cause for gloom: The reason for the skid is Detroit's punchless lineup, studded with a mixture of veterans on the downswing and learning-on-the-job minor leaguers. At week's end the Tigers were comfortably last in the majors in batting average (.179), home runs (10), runs (52), on-base percentage (.252) and slugging percentage (.254). They had scored two or fewer runs in 14 of 23 games and had been shut out six times. Their cleanup hitters had four RBIs.
"We don't have a legitimate cleanup hitter," says rightfielder Bobby Higginson. "We don't have a legitimate leadoff hitter. So we have to try to patch it together." Trammell has focused his energies on instruction, making early batting practice mandatory and preaching pitch recognition and situational hitting, skills that take younger players time to acquire. He includes baserunning drills, pitchers' fielding practice and cutoffs and relays in his supplementary early-afternoon workouts, which he takes seriously. (Rookie shortstop Omar Infante was benched for a game after missing a session.)
Trammell, a six-time Ail-Star, knows what the game is supposed to look like, and he easily recalls plays from two decades ago. Asked about a defensive shift against left-handed power hitters, he answers by describing shifts the Tigers' infield deployed against John Mayberry, last seen slugging in the early 1980s. Says catcher Brandon Inge, "He's a true student of the game."
Improvement will have to come from the maturation of players on the roster or in the minor leagues, because G.M. Dave Dombrowski will not waver from his commitment to rebuild through youth—won-lost record be damned. It's a strategy dictated by fiscal inflexibility; owner Mike Hitch has effectively frozen the payroll, which is at $49.2 million, and the hefty percentage currently committed to untradable (or released) veterans (chart, page 74) restricts the club's options. "If we did something, it would probably be dipping down to Triple A or replacing somebody on the bench," Dombrowski says. "We're tied to that philosophy of youth. We can juggle faces, but it's not like we're in a position where we can acquire a superstar for the middle of the lineup."
This approach, of course, is testing the patience of Detroit fans, who have turned out in steadily declining numbers since Comerica Park opened in 2000. From an average of 31,281 that year, attendance tumbled to 24,016 in '01, 18,795 in '02, and 16,518 through eight games this season, including the two smallest crowds in Comerica's history.
"We knew things would be tough—we just didn't anticipate they'd be this tough," Higginson says. "It's going to take time to get this organization in the right direction, but now that they've started building from the ground up, they've got to stay on this course. They've tried the [free-agent] route, and that didn't work any better."