Lou Whitaker’s No. 1 etched into Tigers history: ‘One of the greatest moments in my life’

Detroit Free Press

When Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch has a chance to teach a baseball history lesson, he takes it.

And so, Friday afternoon, he sat in the clubhouse with his pitchers — Tyler Alexander, Jason Foley, Tarik Skubal and Will Vest — talking about the weekend’s upcoming ceremony.

He realized they knew Lou Whitaker, but didn’t know Lou Whitaker.

So he gave them an assignment: Grab your phones, he instructed, pull up Alan Trammell on one and Whitaker on the other.

“The reason I did it is because we hold Alan Trammell in such reverence because he’s active (in the organization), he’s here with us, he instructs us, I mean there’s always a smile on our face when he comes around,” Hinch said. “Lou has not been around, but he was just Alan Trammell at a different position.

“I mean if you look at his offensive profile, the five-time All-Star, the Gold Gloves, the Rookie of the Year (in 1978) — just to open the eyes of our players on what Lou meant to this franchise.”

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The thousands of fans who lined the streets prior to Comerica Park’s gates opening Saturday needed no such history lesson.

Many have personal memories of Whitaker’s 19 seasons wearing the Old English “D.” The sellout crowd of 40,101 (the second-largest crowd of the season) added another memory Saturday, prior to the Tigers’ game against the Tampa Bay Rays — the black tarp on the wall above the bullpen in left-center coming down to reveal Whitaker’s name and No. 1 permanently inscribed at Comerica Park.

No. 1 will never be worn by a Tiger again.

“This will be one of the greatest moments in my life,” Whitaker said on the stage erected in the Comerica infied. “Just knowing that my number will be retired, and I have a chance to see my name on the wall with those legends from Tigers history.”

It was at times hard to hear master of ceremonies Dan Dickerson, Trammell or any of the other teammates of Whitaker who shared their sentiments via a video shown on the board Saturday evening as more than 30,000 fans serenaded the field with  “Looooouuuuuuuu.”

But the message was clear, with Trammell — whose number was retired in 2018 soon after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame — setting the tone.

“Yes,” Trammell said when he took the mic. “Why yes? Because for four years, I’ve been uncomfortable. I have been extremely honored and grateful to have my No. 3 retired.

“But there wouldn’t be a No. 3 on the wall without the No. 1.”

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Whitaker’s ceremony was originally set for 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of fans allowed in the stadium forced a postponement, past even 2021.

For many, Saturday felt like decades in the making.

The link between Whitaker and Trammell was a common thread — how could it not be? The two played 1,918 games together from 1977 to 1995, the most by a double-play combination in MLB history.

But before Whitaker threw the ceremonial first pitch to Trammell — a strike that didn’t have quite the same zip on it as as Whitaker’s trademark flip from second — Trammell recalled the day they met, in the Florida Instructional League in 1976, not long after Whitaker had been selected league MVP. (The manager? Jim Leyland.)

Whitaker had long played third, but on the first day of practice, the team moved him to second. Had he been coming off an MVP season, Trammell noted, and coaches tried to change his position, he might have said something.

But that’s not who “Sweet Lou” was.

“In typical Lou Whitaker fashion, he did what was best for the team,” Trammell said. “We worked there for two months together, the following year we went to Double-A together, and in September, we were called up to Detroit.

“And I guess, you could say the rest is history.”

Whitaker has plenty of history in the Tigers organization: He was a five-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger, three-time Gold Glove winner, 1978 AL Rookie of the Year and 1984 World Series champion.

He’s third all-time in games for the Tigers, fourth in runs scored, second in walks and fourth in WAR (according to baseball-reference.com).

Whitaker ranks seventh all-time in WAR among MLB second basemen — all six ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, as are 14 others.

As far as anybody at Comerica Park was concerned, that Cooperstown honor is overdue as well.

“I couldn’t be more honored to have No. 1 next to No. 3, linked together forever,” Trammell said. “And you know what’s next? The Hall of Fame.”

Finally, it was time for Whitaker to speak.

He opened by joking he “finally” got pitcher Jack Morris to thank him for his defensive service all those years.

He gave a shoutout to Martinsville, Virginia, where he grew up from age 1. No matter the sport — baseball, football or basketball — he and his friends would “play ball all day, all night,” he said while citing the city as the reason for his career.

He thanked his family and friends, as well as past teammates and the late Mike Ilitch.

Then he paused and as the cires of “Looooouuuuuuuu” grew louder, extended his appreciation again for becoming the ninth Tiger with his number retired.

“I want to give love to the city of Detroit,” he said. “A great baseball town. And all of Michigan and the great fans that we have all over this country.

“They love their Tigers and they will always love their Tigers.”

Contact Tony Garcia at apgarcia@freepress.com. Follow him on twitter at @realtonygarcia.

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