At the All-Star break in 1982, Alan Trammell was floundering. His batting average was a lowly .205 and through five and a half seasons in the big leagues, the thin infielder had hit only 22 home runs. During the break, he huddled with hitting coach Gates Brown to retool his batting stance.
The conversations and hitting sessions between Trammell and Brown over the next few days changed the trajectory of the Detroit shortstop’s career.
In his playing career, Brown was a pinch-hitter extraordinaire, a thick, round ball of muscle with quick hands and a short, powerful stroke. The Tigers signed Gator out of prison, where Brown was locked up for, as he said, “stealing some hubcaps, stealing some tires, stealing a little bit of everything.” But within the structure of organized baseball, Brown straightened out, and in 1968 he had several huge hits off the bench for the Tigers when they won the World Series. His chump-to-champ story made him a favorite in the Motor City.
Trammell and Brown knew each other well. The former Detroit pinch-hitter was installed as hitting coach in 1978, the first full season Trammell was in the Detroit lineup. When Sparky Anderson was hired the following spring, he kept Gator on his staff. The two men: the former convict and the sunny-haired kid from southern California, discussed hitting a lot. Tram was big league caliber with the glove the day he first stepped on a major league field, but he frequently found himself lost at the plate.
“I didn’t know how to pull the ball when I first came up,” Trammell said in an interview in 1988. “I tried to make contact, but it didn’t occur to me to drive the ball.”
In the three days of the All-Star break in 1982, Brown helped Trammell find a batting stance that would make him more balanced and comfortable. Previously, Trammell had used an open stance with the bat out in front of his chest. Brown worked with him to close his stance and move his hands back. The new stance was so closed off that the pitcher could see Trammell’s uniform #3 and name on the back of his jersey. But more than optics, the stance helped prevent Trammell from rushing into the pitch.
The Tigers were in Minnesota to start the second half of the season. Trammell was hitting ninth in the batting order. In his third trip to the plate, Trammell powered a pitch over the left field wall for a home run. Later, he lined a single back up the middle. It was a new batting stance and better results for the Detroit shortstop. He batted .310 in the second half.
In 1983, Tram hit .319, fourth in the league, and the year after that, Tram batted .314 and was the Most Valuable Player of the World Series. He hit two home runs in Game Four of the 1984 World Series in Detroit. After his second one, the first man to shake his hand when he got back into the dugout was his hitting mentor, the Gator.
Trammell hit .293 the rest of his career after changing his batting stance, and he batted over .300 six times and was a five-time All-Star. In 1987, he had one of the five most important seasons ever by a shortstop. That season, Trammell took over the cleanup role in Sparky’s lineup and hit .343 with 28 home runs and 105 runs batted in. It was a remarkable season, and helped vault him to the Hall of Fame.
Trammell ended up ranking in the top ten among shortstops in hits, total bases, extra-base hits, and home runs. But without Gates Brown’s tutoring, Trammell might have remained an Ozzie Smith-type with the bat, instead of becoming one of the best hitting shortstops the game has ever seen.