Tigers should bring Trammell back to the dugout

Alan Trammell is shown working as a special instructor at spring training in Lakeland in 2017.

Last week the Detroit Tigers introduced the 47th manager in team history, Ron Gardenhire. The new skipper will have the latitude to hire his own coaching staff. He should consider the Tigers’ 44th manager for his new staff in Detroit. In case you’ve forgotten, the 44th Tiger manager was Alan Trammell, and I think he’d be a great bench coach.

A bit of history seems necessary to support my position that Trammell should be brought back as bench coach under Gardenhire.

Fifteen years ago in the fall of 2002 the Tigers had just finished in last place. It was the worst of times for the franchise. The Tigers had suffered nine straight losing seasons and were coming off a 106-loss campaign. The cupboard was bare after several terrible drafts and personnel decisions by inept general manager Randy Smith in his six-plus years in charge. New team president Dave Dombrowski had quickly assessed the debacle and axed Smith and manager Phil Garner only a week into the ’02 season. He needed a new manager to take over a once-proud franchise.

Moving swiftly, Dombrowski hired Trammell only days after the conclusion of the 2002 season. A franchise legend, Trammell was arguably the most popular player in team history next to Al Kaline. But he was stepping into a tough situation. The Tigers were young and untalented. They were also drab and uninteresting, which is largely why Dombrowski turned to Trammell. If the team on the field was going to be hard to watch, a former World Series hero in the dugout might take away some of the stink.

The Tigers used Alan Trammell. It remains the most unappealing decision Dombrowski made in an otherwise brilliant run in Detroit. Trammell waved his cap to the crowd when he needed to and had his face on the media guide. He reminded people of a time when the Tigers were the best team in baseball. He helped fans forget how terrible the team was. And he presided over the losses, so many losses.

The Tigers lost 119 games in Trammell’s first season, narrowly missing the all-time record for futility that was set by an expansion team. It wasn’t the manager’s fault: the starting pitching was as bad as you’ll ever see. They were a staff without an ace, without a #2 starter, without a fifth starter! They stunk. The defense was bumbling and the lineup was weak an ineffective. The two players who hit leadoff most that season were Alex Sanchez and Andres Torres. Think about that. The roster was filled with Triple-A quality players. They were bound to lose. But Trammell stomached it.

In his second season the Tigers improved by 29 games. The offense got better as Dombrowski started to turn the roster over and make his imprint on the club. Trammell was getting better at handling a team. In 2005 the Tigers were only one game under .500 in late August. They were getting better, their young emerging players were starting to understand how to win at the big league level. A young pitching prospect named Justin Verlander made his big league debut. In September they brought some more kids up and went 8-22 to finish with 71 wins and a fourth place finish. But there were some signs of promise and attendance topped the 2 million mark for the first time since their first season at Comerica Park.

After the ’05 season Trammell was fired and replaced by veteran manager Jim Leyland, rescued from retirement. Leyland took over a young talented team, instilled them with confidence, gave several rookies a chance, and guided the Tigers to an unlikely pennant in a thrilling season. Trammell was exiled with a managerial record that showed 300 losses in three years. He was tossed aside after having served his purpose. Tram’s a big boy and he’d been around the game since he was a teenager, so he understood the harsh realities of pro sports, but it still stung him to be fired by his team. Always a good soldier, he gracefully accepted his fate and even came back in October of 2006 and tossed out a first pitch before a World Series game. The fans gave him a thunderous ovation.

Losing 300 games in three years is not a good record. 119 losses in one season is embarrassing. But the historic failures of the 2003 season were not Tram’s fault. You could have resurrected John McGraw and the Tigers still would have lost all those games that season. The franchise was waving a white flag after the dumpster fire that was the Randy Smith Era. Trammell was the guy they asked to hold the rudder while the ship was battered by rocks and tidal waves.

I’m sure some Tiger fans reading this will scoff at my suggestion that Trammell should be brought back as a coach. They’ll simply recite his losing record or mention the 199 losses. They might point out that Leyland stepped in and won a pennant the year after Tram was let go. But such simplicity ignores the facts. No team improves by 24 games because of a manager. No manager could have won with the cards Trammell was dealt.

After his tenure in Detroit, Trammell didn’t get much of a look anywhere else for managerial jobs. He took a year off and accepted an offer from Lou Piniella to be his bench coach with the Cubs. Trammell grew into that job, and in interviews he expressed that he learned more working next to Piniella in that role that would make him a better manager some day. When Chicago fired the tempestuous Piniella in 2010, Trammell was not considered for the role. Some people said he was too soft, too nice. Others said the stain of his three-year stint in Detroit would keep him from a managerial job forever. His old buddy Kirk Gibson coaxed him to Arizona to be his bench coach in 2011. He spent four years with Gibby with the Diamondbacks, helping the team to one division title before they were both dismissed near the end of the 2014 season.

Two months after managing the final three games of the season for Arizona as an interim in place of his friend Gibson, Tram came back to Detroit. To his credit, he forgot about the firing, the three tough years, the lack of loyalty that was shown to a Detroit icon.

For the last three years Trammell has been a special assistant to the general manager, typically a ceremonial position that keeps a beloved former player on the team payroll. Willie Horton has been in that role for years without much expected of him. Kaline has been too, but he’s had his hands in things at various times, depending on who was sitting in the general manager’s chair. He’s worked with players to establish a relationship between the clubhouse and the front office, and Kaline has also spoken up at critical times to set a tone for the organization. According to front office insiders, Trammell has been more like Kaline than Horton: he provides input on organizational decisions and assists with planning during spring training. Reportedly, Trammell has supported the Tigers efforts to modernize their statistical analysis, particularly defensive shifts and positioning.

Now that Gardenhire is in place and the team is looking forward, it’s a good time to put Trammell back where he belongs, on the field and in the dugout. He has eight seasons of experience as a bench coach, serving for three division champions. He has those three years of experience filling out the lineup card. He has more than three years under his belt working in a front office. He played the game for 20 years, all of them in Detroit, and he’s still this side of 60. He’s been in uniform at a ballpark in some capacity for more than 4,000 major league games. This time around he’s overly qualified for the job.

If Trammell is asked (and if he wants to), I think he’d make a great bench coach. There’s one thing we know for sure about Alan Trammell – he’ll do anything to help the Detroit Tigers. Let’s see if the Tigers will help him get back into the dugout.