Henning: Leyland, Trammell finding new ways to help Tigers behind the scenes

Detroit News
By Lynn Henning |  Special to The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Two men no longer thought of as being Tigers regulars are, in fact, busy with their old team.

Jim Leyland and Alan Trammell are “special assistants” to the Tigers’ front office.

Special, indeed.

Watch them work:

There is Leyland, the long-tenured former skipper, lean and white-goateed, eyeing kids on TigerTown’s back fields as he stops every so often to chat with everyone who has a place in Tigers baseball.

Leyland always is good gab for baseball people, on all levels, beginning with new front-office chief Scott Harris.

Notice, in fact, during a Grapefruit League game at Publix Field/Marchant Stadium that long before the day’s first pitch, Leyland is in his seat, behind the screen, a few rows up and one row in front of Harris. Leyland, we have learned, is deeply impressed with the team’s 35-year-old team general, which is why he has a knack for often turning to his left and back during games and talking with Harris.

They are talking baseball.

As for Trammell, he might be the best-kept secret in Tigers operations. Amazing, given the fact this man is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Instead, a person who didn’t know better might think he was an entry-level staffer.

He does it all. Everything. Trammell coaches, he scouts, he teaches, he offers opinions (when asked) in front-office and developmental meetings.

He even shags baseballs, as he did a few days ago. Kids on the quadrant’s Cobb and Heilmann diamonds can launch the occasional blast that soars past fences and rolls toward a distant firefighter training facility and tower a quarter-mile away.

It’s all grass and scrub and trees in those distant tracts, a couple hundred yards from the quadrant’s nexus. But, here was Trammell, sauntering toward the fire-fighter complex, picking up a half-dozen or so baseballs and carrying them back to the diamonds.

Trammell is 65 and, yes, looks much like he did during his Cooperstown-ticketed 20 seasons with the Tigers.

It’s what he does for the Tigers that has been invaluable — all because he functions as a Cartier version of the Swiss Army Knife. It has been like this since late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, as he tended to do with his Tigers demigods, brought back Trammell from a get-away coaching stint with the Cubs in 2014 and made him a front-office consultant.

Trammell instantly wowed the execs with his baseball savvy and ability to transfer that expertise to so many different disciplines. Which, when you think about a Hall of Fame shortstop who later coached and managed in the big leagues, probably shouldn’t have surprised.

But, it has been his wisdom, his insight, his ability to read players in detail, all wrapped in his innate humility, that Trammell has been so effective. He speaks when invited. His assessments are succinct and trusted.

He does whatever is asked and loves it all while still living in San Diego.

He indeed is the successor to late Tigers tribal chief Al Kaline in his presence and in his sage baseball wits.

Leyland’s role is similar, if less hands-on than Trammell, who does occasional one-on-one coaching through the Tigers’ farm chain.

Leyland scouts, observes, critiques, converses — all while sticking to a fine-line ethic.

He, like Trammell, chooses to speak when asked. He is there to help, not direct, or lobby, or pretend he has answers the New Wave of hyper-skilled metrics minds are determining to their own satisfaction.

He will talk to young managers and developmental staffers if and when his bosses request help.

Not long ago, in fact, Leyland was asked to speak with the Tigers’ farm skippers. He was to advise on a range of issues they uniquely would face during long and weary seasons. Leyland knows, from all his years managing in the big leagues, from all those seasons in the minors, there are moments when dedicated baseball men can be challenged, in unfathomable ways, by the people they must guide and by a game that can be cruel.

One who was in attendance that night said Leyland offered the farm managers this advice about metrics and analytics:

Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Don’t pretend you’re an M.I.T. grad when all the data is presented and when you’re told it must be incorporated.

Rather than talk like you know this stuff on the level of the sabermetrics and analytics experts, be sure you understand it and that you can involve it adequately in your strategies, in your personnel assignments, and in game and teaching situations.

That, in this view, was vintage Leyland. He deals in straight lines with realities and with direction that’s understandable and achievable.

He also honors his bosses and his Tigers organization with a degree of principle seen regularly during his managerial days and ever on display in his advisor’s role.

He treats people the same way — MLB executives, clubhouse guys, front-office cohorts, or sports writers. He is courteous and affable. He doesn’t play the celebrity game. He doesn’t flaunt the Hall of Fame resume he, in fact, will bring someday soon to a Modern Era Committee.

An example:

Ask him about a young player he has been watching for some time. Ask him for a straightforward assessment.

You will get it, with proper reserve. And with absolute respect to his bosses and cohorts. He will discuss pluses, and not sugarcoat challenges, but there will be upbeat respect paid to a farm kid with whom he relates entirely.

He has seen players written off early in their years in the minors who, unlike Leyland, caught a tailwind and made it to the big leagues.

So, what you get, as you always have gotten with Leyland is truth, integrity and sensitivity.

No surprise, of course, that Trammell specializes in the same traits.

The Tigers, as we know, are more, collectively, than an owner, a front office, a big-league staff and roster, and minor-league galaxy.

They’re about people who have made impacts before, maybe as a manager, maybe as a superstar shortstop. In their later lives, it seems they simply cannot cease leaving a lower-profile mark on others, all while making a great game even better for the folks in Detroit.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News reporter.

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