Alan Trammell was Detroit Tigers' heartbeat for 20 years: Here's how
Alan Trammell sat in a plane, scribbling notes, working on the most important speech of his life — the one he will give Sunday at his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
How do you capture an entire career? An entire life in baseball, all 20 years with the Detroit Tigers?
His on-field partnership with Lou Whitaker — the longest running double-play combination in history. His reverence for Sparky Anderson, who molded him with tough love and became like a second father.
The deep friendships and bonds he shared with his teammates on the 1984 World Series championship team. They grew up together in the Tigers’ minor-league system. They became champions together.
Trammell wrote the speech longhand on a yellow pad of paper. Old school.
“That’s vanilla,” he said. “That’s what my wife would say. She would just shake her head and say, ‘That’s you.’ She says, ‘You aren’t going to change, are you?’ And I’d say, ‘Nope. It’s who I am.’ ”
Trammell, 60, started working on his speech in December, on a flight from Orlando, Florida, to his home in San Diego, just days after learning he was selected by the Veterans Committee along with former teammate Jack Morris.
Seven months before the event.
“That’s the way I do things,” Trammell said.
He has written several versions and tweaked it for months. He sent a copy to the Hall of Fame, and somebody helped with the grammar. He has practiced the speech and tried to think about every detail, preparing for every situation.
“You need to practice,” Trammell said. “I want to be good at it. I don’t want to just do well. That’s my goal. We’ll see.”
No surprise, right?
That’s how he goes about his business — on the field and off. He was a blue-collar player working in a blue-collar city. A man of consistency. Fundamental to his core. One of the finest human beings on the planet, according to his closest friends.
He has tried to think about every detail about the speech: Should he wear his reading glasses while giving it? He will have it memorized but still will be able to read parts. What will the font be like?
He's prepared for everything — and he always has been. Is the grass long or short? Who is hitting? Who is pitching? What are his tendencies? That’s how he earned six All-Star Game selections, three Silver Slugger Awards and four Gold Glove Awards.
“I don’t know if I want to put my reading glasses on or not,” he said. “The different fonts? As a guy who is 60 years old now, I need reading glasses, I’m going to get the first one and see whether or not I can look down and read it and go back and forth without glasses.”
He respects this moment, because he respects this game so deeply, one of the lasting lessons from Anderson.
“I’m so proud to have played for him,” Trammell said of Anderson, his late manager who already is in the Hall of Fame. “I will say this, and I’m going to use it in my Hall of Fame speech, he was an extension of my parents. … There was tough love. That’s how it was back then. They got on you. And that’s how it was. And you took it. In this generation, it’s different. They ask a lot more why’s. We didn’t do that. We did what we were told.”
''I thought (Dave) Concepcion was the greatest shortstop I ever saw until I saw this guy. Tram hits 15 homers, he drives in 70 runs, he hits second, he's hit .300 three times in seven years, he's only 26, and he's the best fielding shortstop I've ever seen.'' — Sparky Anderson to the New York Times in 1984.
The Tigers selected Trammell in the second round of the 1976 draft. He came straight out of a high school in San Diego, a long-haired 165-pounder who had a vacuum for a glove, an accurate arm but not much of a bat.
In the fourth round, they took pitcher Dan Petry, another high-school player from California.
In the fifth, they took Morris, a gritty right-handed pitcher from Brigham Young University.
And the franchise changed forever.
Petry and Trammell started out playing rookie ball for the Bristol (Va.) Tigers.
“We broke in together,” Petry said. “He wasn’t there very long. You could tell he was above that league. He got moved up to Double-A pretty quickly. He was there only about six weeks.”
Trammell was promoted to the Double-A Montgomery Rebels, a team managed by Les Moss that featured catcher Lance Parrish, third baseman Tommy Brookens, Morris and pitcher Dave Rozema — the core of the 1984 World Series champions.
“He came in at the tail end of the year because our shortstop got hurt,” Brookens said. “He wasn’t a very good hitter at that time. He wasn’t real strong. But you could see he could play. You looked at him and thought, ‘This guy is pretty darn good for just stepping out of high school and showing up at a Double-A level.’ ”
Parrish remembers Trammell being a young, consistent workhorse in the minors, not a whole lot different from the player who became the face of the Tigers for 20 years and then managed the team for three years.
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“We needed a shortstop,” Parrish said. “He was a guy who blended right in with the club. Just a guy who got the job done. No real fanfare about him. The great thing I’ve always loved about Alan was, he was never a real flashy player. Just a workhorse. A blue-collar guy who went out and did things the right way.”
Trammell went from playing in high school to playing against men with mustaches.
It was also the first place he saw Morris.
“I saw a guy with a great arm,” Trammell said. “I don’t even believe he was in the regular rotation at the time because he was wild. He had the great arm, but he didn’t throw strikes.”
After the season ended, Trammell and Morris went to an instructional league.
“In that short period of time, he found his control,” Trammell said. “It was unbelievable.”
"I doubted their hitting. I was just wondering if they'd hit well enough. When they hit, it sounded like balsa wood because they didn't hit it very hard. They were great-looking fielders, though." – Anderson to the Los Angeles Times in 1990, speaking on Trammell and Whitaker.
Trammell started out the 1977 season in Montgomery and was paired with Whitaker, a third baseman from Martinsville (Va.), whom the Tigers had converted into a second baseman.
They roomed together on the road, as they would for four years with the Tigers.
“The only thing I can say is, he snored,” Trammell said. “I was a light sleeper. But you know what. We always ate together. We always went to the ballpark together. I’d share. I’d be reading the paper and tell him about certain highlights of who had a good game.”
They were promoted together, of course — that’s how magical stories begin — and made their debut together with the Tigers on Sept. 9, 1977, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. It was the first of 1,918 games they would play together — the most by any double-play combination in history.
Fun fact: Trammell didn’t start out wearing his No. 3 jersey.
“In 1977, when Lou and I got called to the big leagues, I was 42,” Trammel said. “Number 42. I don’t have that jersey but it’s a fact. I think Lou was 44.” (Whitaker wore No. 43.)
When they showed up for spring training the next year, their numbers had changed.
“In our lockers, Lou was 1 and I was 3,” Trammell said.
He never found out who assigned the numbers.
“I would never ask,” he said. “At that point in my career, I just wanted to get a number. You know what? I didn’t have any seniority.”
They played so well in spring training that they earned a trip to Detroit. Trammell and Whitaker started at shortstop and second base on Opening Day — April 7, 1978 — before a crowd of 52,528 in Tiger Stadium.
Both were just 20 years old.
The truth is, they were lucky to be part of the Tigers’ organization, to get that kind of shot so early in their careers.
“If we weren’t with the Tigers at that time, we wouldn’t have been in the big leagues,” said Trammell, who finished fourth in American League Rookie of the Year voting. “We were in the right place at the right time.”
''I've never seen Tram throw the ball underhand or sidearm. He's like Pee Wee (Reese) and Roy McMillan were. No matter where he catches the ball, a shortstop should throw overhand. That's what Tram does. That's why he's got such an accurate arm.'' — Anderson to the New York Times in 1984.
Trammell didn’t start out with the flash of Ozzie Smith or the offense like Cal Ripken Jr. or Robin Yount.
But he was tremendous in his own way.
“When he first came up, he was good,” Brookens said. “But he was certainly young and not an All-Star player by any stretch. But the potential was there. Tram was kind of a happy-go-lucky guy. Early in his career, he wasn’t a team leader or anything like that. He got in the mix with the rest of the guys. When I think of Tram, he’s just one of the boys, man. He just shows up, plays hard and goes. He’s just one of the boys.”
Tram and Lou clicked from the start. They never fought. Never showed any jealousy.
And they were promoted as a tandem from the start. They were featured on the cover of the Tigers’ 1979 yearbook, sitting back to back on second base. (And if I’m being honest, that yearbook was a huge part of my childhood, the thing I leafed through for hours. It stayed on my desk until I went to college.)
“They wanted this to work, but nobody could envision that we would play 19 years together in the major leagues,” Trammell said. “That’s a great story.”
Indeed. But here’s another one: Anderson ordered the grounds crew in Tiger Stadium to keep the infield grass high and thick, playing to infielders.
“Sparky used to keep the grass so thick at Tiger Stadium that, as an infielder, you had to keep an eye on it or you might lose it,” Brookens said. “It would get hung up in the grass. He’d say, ‘I can’t keep the opposing team from hitting the ball over the fence, but if you hit a ground ball, they are out.’ ”
When he was just 22 years old, Trammell made his first All-Star team, hit .300 with nine home runs in 1980 and won his first of four American League Gold Glove awards.
He was fantastic again in 1983, hitting .319 with 31 doubles, 14 homers and winning another Gold Glove. He was awarded the Comeback Player of the Year, after batting .258 in 1981 and '82.
“He was like a machine out there,” Parrish said. “You rarely saw him make a mistake.”
Trammell was being molded by Sparky.
They all were.
“We are both disciples for Sparky and promote certain things he believed in and instilled in us, respecting the game and being a professional,” said Tigers great Kirk Gibson.
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"The American League will never again see two players on one team, a shortstop and a second baseman, play like they did.” — Anderson to the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in 1995.
While Whitaker and Trammell seemed inseparable on the infield, they were different souls off it.
Whitaker was smooth jazz.
Trammell was classic rock.
And somehow, it worked beautifully together.
You could never separate Tram and Lou.
Not until the Hall of Fame did just that.
“I believe they both deserve to be in there,” Parrish said. “They should have been in there, together, a long time ago. To me, they are both Hall of Fame players.”
By 1980, the core of the ’84 World Series team had arrived in Detroit. Parrish behind the plate. Trammell-and-Whitaker at short and second — and yes, it felt like it was one name, one word.
Brookens at third. Gibson in center. Morris, Milt Wilcox, Petry and Rozema on the mound. And Aurelio Lopez as the closer.
“We didn’t make very much money,” Rozema said. “We had dinner together. We played cards. We talked baseball. We talked strategies. Different things, all the time.”
And Trammell was one of the guys.
The Tigers were growing together. After games, a core group would always grab a beer and talk for hours. They didn’t have video to study. They didn’t have launch angles to dissect. But it was an important baseball education for all of them that laid a foundation for what was to come.
“We became a band of brothers, in a baseball sense,” Parrish said. “We pushed one another. We kidded one another. We teased one another. We held each other accountable. I think that transformed us into a championship team in ’84.”
They hung out before games. And after.
“We spent a lot of time together,” Gibson said. “We didn’t have phones. We didn’t have video games. Occasionally, at one point, we put an 8-track tape player in there. What we did do was talk about baseball. If you were sensitive, you weren’t in the group.”
On the field, Trammell was a model of consistency, with a humble personality. Always classy. Admired by his teammates. A true pro. But there was something else. Maybe you didn’t see the burning desire behind the nice-guy persona. But it was there.
And he was a world-class instigator.
“He was always starting trouble,” Rozema said, laughing. “And I got blamed for it. I was the one paying fines. He’d be the one who instigated it.”
It was Trammell’s way of keeping the mood light and everybody entertained.
“Behind the scenes, they used to call him the instigator,” Petry said. “He would instigate little things, a smart-alecky comment, just to stir the pot, getting things going, getting people to make fun of one another.”
Gibson had another word for it.
“Here’s an example of Tram being a dick,” Gibson said. “There would always be 12 seats in first class. I’d be like the 13th guy all the time. He’d be like, ‘Oh, sorry.’ And show me where my seat was, in the coach section. And he knew it would bug the snot out of me. The reality was, those things were a way of keeping us all in check.”
And Trammell had the guts and stature to call out Morris.
“It’s well documented that Jack would get angry at times and Tram wasn’t afraid to stand up and say something to him,” Petry said. “To kind of put him back in his place. But he did it because of how important everybody was to our team.”
One time, Gibson had a conflict with a player on another team. “I came in ranting and raving, and Tram said, “Gib, you are wrong.’ I lashed back at him. He said, ‘Hey, I love you, but you are wrong. Let it go.’ ”
“That’s kind of our relationship,” Gibson said. “I really respect him. He was in the foxhole with me. It made me think. I had so much respect for him.”
"They're the best double-play combination I've ever seen, and I've been around the big leagues since 1948." — Ex-Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995.
Trammell always had his nose in the newspaper, reading stories and studying stats. Even on snowmobiling trips with Gibson, as they crossed the Upper Peninsula, he took along a newspaper. If he couldn’t find a new one the next day, he’d read the old one again.
“Tram to me was so unique and weird, well, because he read the Sporting News,” Rozema said. “He knew every stat in every league, every sport. You would go. How do you know that? And he’d say, I read the Sporting News. You look in there and go, huh, they mentioned me in there? Huh, I should read it more.”
Trammell played before analytics took over the game. But he seemed to have a computer in his head.
“He was the type of guy who would figure you out,” Rozema said. “We didn’t have the computers and stats and IT. He’d learn: ‘How are they pitching me' and then go with a pitch. He did the things you had to do for yourself to learn.”
''I'm told by our doctors that he can't damage his arm by playing, so he's playing. … If he can't throw it to first base, he'll roll it over there.'' — Anderson to the New York Times during the 1984 World Series.
Magic struck the Motor City in 1984.
“That year was the dream year,” Trammell said. “We couldn’t have scripted it any better — 35-5 (start), going wire to wire. Everything went our way.”
Everything but his arm.
Trammell injured his shoulder on a relay throw.
“The second half of the '84 season, I actually struggled because my shoulder was bothering me,” he said.
Trammell was used sparingly down the stretch, getting just two at-bats in the regular-season-ending series in New York. Still, he finished fifth in the AL batting race (.314 average).
“I got a cortisone shot in New York and I rested until we played Kansas City in the playoffs,” Trammell said. “We were just hoping we could get through it. They knew something was wrong. So I felt fresh initially in the playoffs but after making a couple of plays, it came right back. But I got through it.”
Got through it? In the World Series against San Diego, he went 9-for-20 with two homers and six RBIs and was named Series MVP.
Five days after the Tigers won the Series, renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews performed surgery on Trammell.
“I had a labrum tear that they cleaned up,” Trammell said. “I had a little problem with my knee and they snipped my knee.”
After the surgery, it took time to regain his strength — basically, through the 1986 season — but Trammell hit his peak in 1987 at the age of 29. After Anderson moved him from second to cleanup in the lineup, Trammell hit career highs in nearly every category: a .343 batting average, 28 home runs, 109 runs and 105 RBIs.
He became the first Tiger to have 200 hits and 100 RBIs in a season since 1955.
When the season ended, Whitaker pulled second base out of the ground.
“He grabbed second base,” Trammell said. “When we got in the clubhouse, he had gotten a Sharpie and had written on there: ‘To our MVP.’ ”
Many assumed that Trammell was going to win the AL MVP.
But the voting had not been announced. Later, Trammell found out that he had taken second to Toronto’s George Bell. Trammell became the first player in big-league history to hit at least .340 with 28 home runs and 100 RBIs in a season while playing at least half his games at shortstop, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But that bag. It meant everything to Trammell.
Because it came from Whitaker.
“It was special,” Trammell said, choking up. “And it’s still special as I say that. I still have that.”
"It would be the silliest thing in the world for either one to go beyond this year. You don't ever want to go on when you can't play at your best, and they can't play at their best right now. There isn't that thing that used to be there." — Anderson to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995, hoping Trammell and Whitaker would retire.
Whitaker did indeed retire in 1995 after playing just 84 games that season.
But Trammell was stubborn. That was the competitor in him. He wanted that 20th season.
So he played in 1996, against his manger’s advice.
“I didn’t want to have somebody tell me to retire,” Trammell said.
Trammell struggled physically on a team that struggled horribly. He was a shadow of the former All-Star. He had to heat his shoulder before games and ice his body afterwards.
“In that last year, I had a few other ailments pop up,” he said.
Trammell was having surgery to remove bone chips from his ankle on July 31, 1996, when the Tigers traded Cecil Fielder to the New York Yankees.
“I didn’t know he was traded,” Trammell said. “I never really got a chance to say goodbye the way I wanted to.”
Trammell pushed himself to return Sept.1 when they could expand the roster.
“But that was just me,” he said. “I was driven. I wanted to come back.”
He played his final game on Sept. 29 against Milwaukee, and finished with Hall of Fame stats: a career .285 batting average, 185 home runs, 1,003 RBIs, 412 doubles and 2,365 hits. He finished in the top 10 in MVP voting three times.
In a 15-minute ceremony after the Milwaukee game, he was presented second base and spoke to the fans at Tiger Stadium.
"The time has come for me to move on," Trammell said into a microphone.
"Today was my last day,” he said. “As much as it hurts to say it, it's somewhat of a relief. Every one of us here had a dream, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to do it longer than most. And I'm very proud that I have been able to do it all with one ballclub."
"I told Pee Wee Reese recently that if you were to make a video of how a shortstop should field a ball and throw it, you would want it to be of Alan Trammell when he was at his best. He was technically flawless, and what a good person. He and Lance Parrish are as high up on the ladder as you can go." — Anderson to the Los Angeles Times in 1996.
Trammell returned to the Tigers in his mid-40s and managed the organization in the midst of a painful, ugly rebuild. In three years, he had a 186-300 record.
“When he was fired by the Tigers, he and I walked over to Comerica Park and met with Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch,” said Gary Spicer, Trammell’s longtime attorney and friend. “He thanked them and they thanked him. He has a lot of instances of class. He was saddened. He always felt embarrassed. I think his managerial record was dictated by a team he inherited. He never complained about that. But he has a lot of pride.”
Trammell stayed in the game and coached Trevor Hoffman with the San Diego Padres from 2001-02.
“You could see he was headed toward the Hall of Fame,” Trammell said. “I remember telling him, ‘I’m gonna be there, at your induction.’ ”
Ironically enough, they are going into the Hall of Fame together.
“I love the way he went about his business,” Trammell said.
Now, Trammell is back with the Tigers, working as a special assistant to the general manager.
“I have a great gig,” Trammell said. “I go around to all our affiliates and go to spring training. And I’m with the big-league club, but I can also go across the street and watch the kids and kind of evaluate. Another set of eyes and ears for Al Avila and David Chadd. I just love being a part of it… I’m out on the road for 2 to 2 ½ weeks and then go back to San Diego for a week or so. And that’s kind of how I do it. I bounce around and get a few frequent-flier miles and hotel-reward points. But that’s what I do.”
He is still beloved by his teammates.
“They just don’t get any better, as a friend or a human being,” Parrish said.
“You could not pick a better person or a contributor to our game than Alan Trammell,” Gibson said. “As an ambassador of this game, somebody who learned how to be a professional and took Sparky’s message, Alan Trammell is absolutely the best.”
Just when the tone had turned too soft and mushy, Gibson zinged him.
“He’s all class, as far as everybody knows,” Gibson said. “A lot of (stuff) happened behind him, know what I’m saying? I took some bullets for him and he did for me. He’s the ultimate teammate. Ultimately, he respected the game.”
Trammell has been married to his wife, Barbara, for 40 years, and they have three kids in their 30s.
But he has another wife, so to speak.
“My wife to this day calls him my road wife,” Gibson said. “We are inseparable.”
"He's going to make the Hall of Fame because people are going to have to consider his defense, not just his offense." — Anderson to Newsday in 1988.
Trammell is still trying to wrap his mind around the idea of going into the Hall of Fame, joining players like Babe Ruth.
“Babe Ruth? Hall of Famer, obviously. And Alan Trammell? It doesn’t seem to go together,” Trammell said. “I’m extremely proud and honored, but it doesn’t fit for me. … It feels good, I’m not going to lie. It’s nothing I really ever envisioned. I never dreamt about this.”
But there is one thing that will make this weekend a little easier, a little more comfortable. Trammell is thrilled to be going into the Hall of Fame with Morris.
“I expected Jack to go in years before,” he said. “I thought he was the guy, from our team in the '80s, that he would be the guy.”
Several of their teammates plan to be in Cooperstown.
“Alan Trammel is better than an old wine,” Gibson said. “He just gets better. I trust him with everything that I have.”
With Trammell and Morris going into the Hall together, it will be a celebration of that 1984 team.
Some have suggested that it finally legitimizes what they accomplished, an idea that Brookens initially disagreed with. But he has changed his mind.
“You know what, the more I started thinking about it, I think it does,” he said. “It legitimizes that ’84 team and that era. We were a pretty good team there for a 10-year stretch. That’s a pretty good accomplishment. I think it gives us a feeling that, they are going in there, but we will be sitting in the crowd and I will feel like I’m part of this thing because of Jack and Tram.”
But there is still one thing that bugs Trammell.
It comes from the competitor in him.
He always wanted another ring.
“I’m jealous of Jack and Gibby,” Trammell said. “Jack won four, Gibby won two.”
Still wanting to compete.
A 60-year-old man, who might need reading glasses now, but he would give anything to play another season in the sun.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.