Lakeland, Fla. — The topic, of all things on a chilly Friday morning, was Tigers bench coach Gene Lamont.
J.D. Martinez — or D.J., as Lamont calls him — didn’t know that Lamont was the Tigers’ first ever draft pick in 1965. He didn’t know that he was American League Manager of the Year in 1993 and was runner-up for the National League honor with the Pirates in 1997.
He didn’t know that he was the White Sox manager the year Michael Jordan decided to give baseball a try, that he managed Bo Jackson or that he was in Pittsburgh when Barry Bonds broke into the big leagues.
“Is he as old as baseball?” Martinez said.
Darn near. Lamont, 70, is the epitome of a baseball lifer.
He’s been in the game, on the field as either a player, coach or manager, for 52 years. With limited sight in his left eye and cranky knees that make it difficult for him, especially to get up and down steps, Lamont has begun to think about his life after baseball.
He doesn’t much like the thought.
“Of course I have thought about retiring,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer I want to stay on the field. But I want to stay in baseball. I just can’t do nothing. I might be a writer (chuckles).
“All I know is, if I wasn’t here I’d still be watching a baseball game and my wife would be (mad) that I was watching a game.”
He’s thought about staying in the game as a scout, though he’s worried that he’d hate all the down time. He’s thought about consulting or being a special assistant, similar to the role his longtime friend Jim Leyland presently enjoys.
But for now, he’s locked in to being manager Brad Ausmus’ right-hand man, comic foil and primary sounding board. The retirement thing, he said, will take care of itself in due time.
“Not tomorrow,” he cracked. “Just kind of wait and see if they want you and if you want to keep doing it any more. It depends on how much the year affects you, too.”
‘The strike killed me’
If you don’t remember, Lamont was a heck of a manager.
He was hired by the White Sox in 1992 and won 86 games his first year. The next year, 1993, he led them to the American League West title. The Sox lost the playoffs in six games to the Blue Jays, and Lamont was named AL Manager of the Year.
He had his best team in 1994. Frank Thomas (who had 38 home runs and 101 RBIs by August), Robin Ventura, Tim Raines, Darrin Jackson, Ozzie Guillen, Jason Bere, Jack McDowell, Wilson Alvarez. They were 67-46 and led the Indians by a game when baseball went on strike.
“The strike killed me,” Lamont said. “We really had a good team that year. Cleveland was starting to come, but we had a good team. Then the strike came and the next year we started the spring with replacement players and we got off bad — and they got rid of me.”
Just like that. Three straight winning seasons and then one bad start and Lamont was canned.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked why the sudden ending. “I can’t really answer that. I guess I try not to ask myself that too often.”
That probably wasn’t the first time baseball broke his heart, but it left one of the two deepest scars the game has left him with in 52 years. The second one would come 17 years later in Boston.
In the meantime, he got his second managerial opportunity in 1997, replacing Leyland in Pittsburgh. It would be his last.
“They had just cut payroll,” Lamont said. “Jim had thought it was going to go up and they cut it. That’s why Jim left. I think it was cut to like $8 million, $9 million.”
With no Bonds, no Bobby Bonilla, no Andy Van Slyke, Lamont squeezed 79 wins out of a transitioning Pirates team and nearly won his second Manager of the Year award.
“We had some guys who played a little better than they should,” Lamont said. “And then we didn’t improve. I took a chance, really. I played some kids. But I wasn’t satisfied just to manage, I wanted to try to win, and I thought those kids were the only way we had a chance to win.
“They were long shots. If they came through, we’d have been pretty good. I was there four years and we didn’t win.”
Burned in Boston
Certainly he thought another managerial opportunity would come. But it didn’t. He wouldn’t get another sniff until the winter of 2011 when the Red Sox were looking to replace Terry Francona before the 2012 season.
“I wish I would’ve got that job,” Lamont said. “I thought it was a great job. The way things turned out, I think I would have handled it better.”
It came down to Lamont and Bobby Valentine, and then-Red Sox president Larry Lucchino probably wishes for a do-over. He picked Valentine and it turned out to be a disastrous hire.
Amidst player mutiny, the team won 69 games and finished last in the division. Valentine was fired.
“The fact that I had a good job here in Detroit made it a little easier,” Lamont said. “When I first went in there, I didn’t think I had a chance. I don’t think I ever did until, you know, I started to talk to them — opened their eyes a little bit, maybe.
“If I’d have got that job in Boston, Bobby would’ve thought he should have got it.”
As for the somewhat poetic justice of Valentine’s epic fail in Boston?
“I wasn’t happy about it,” Lamont said. “But I wasn’t sad about it.”
Still, he’s left to wonder why his managerial career never got a third strike.
“I felt I should have got another chance,” he said. “But I didn’t. Maybe some people would be (mad), I don’t know. I wish I would have got another chance. But I still enjoy the game. I still enjoy what I do.
“At my age, you always think, ‘Well, if somebody wants to win they will give me a chance.’ But, I guess that’s why I am still here today.”
Taking the air out of Jordan
Terry Francona may have been Michael Jordan’s manager at the White Sox Double A affiliate Birmingham in 1994, but Lamont was the big-league skipper and in charge of the entire circus that spring.
“I remember his first press conference in the dugout over there in Sarasota,” Lamont said. “They’d ask Michael questions and he just didn’t have any baseball lingo. He basically said the same thing for every question.”
Lamont said Jordan was never a distraction, but there were challenges.
“He came in and said he’d talk to the press every third day,” he said. “And I said, ‘Mike you’ve got to talk to them every day. Because I don’t want Frank Thomas or Jack McDowell or Robin Ventura answering questions about you every day. You have to be accountable.’
“And he was fine with it, he really was. He was first class about everything.”
He just wasn’t a very good baseball player.
“The day he retired (before the 1995 season), we had a golf outing on a course in Sarasota and he showed up, told us he was going back to basketball,” Lamont said. “I said, ‘Mike, you are doing the right thing.’ He said, ‘I can’t play this game.’
“It worked out good for him.”
That it did.
Lamont’s relationship with Bo Jackson was a little more frosty. Jackson came to the Sox after he’d injured his hip and wasn’t the same player.
“He still could throw and he ran almost average,” Lamont said. “But it was hard for him to turn the bases, things like that. He hit a home run to put us in the playoffs. We were going to get there anyway, but he hit the home run to put us in.”
Jackson, though, was not happy with his role.
“I wouldn’t say we had the strongest relationship,” he said. “He thought he should be playing more, but he wasn’t as good a player as he’d been. It’s too bad he got hurt — he would’ve been one of the greatest ever.”
When Lamont thought he might be hired by the Red Sox, he reached out to Ausmus and asked him if he’d be on his coaching staff. Lamont was coaching third base when Ausmus played in Houston and came to respect his baseball acumen.
“He called and asked if I wanted to come,” Ausmus said. “But I had just retired. I wasn’t ready at that point.”
Flash ahead to 2014 and Ausmus didn’t hesitate for a second; he wanted Lamont to be his bench coach.
“If I managed, I wanted him, even before I took this job,” Ausmus said. “He’s the guy I wanted, it just so happened he was here already.”
Lamont has been an ideal touchstone and sounding board for Ausmus.
“He’s got experience,” Ausmus said. “A good bench coach makes the manager aware of things the manager might not have on his mind at that moment.”
Lamont is a bit of a savant in that regard.
“He’s a beauty,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. “Geno, when it comes to in-game situations and being able to foresee and plan for situations ahead of time, he’s pretty good. I’ve sat next to him on the bench over the years when he’d be mentioning something — a possibility that this or that may happen, to get somebody ready — he’s usually ahead of the game.
“And when it comes to a rules question, he knows that stuff right off the bat.”
Lamont spent so much time working with Leyland, it was almost like they saw the game with the same brain. With Ausmus, it took some time for Lamont to figure out how and when to dispense his wisdom.
“I learned a lot from Jim and I like to think he learned a lot from me, too,” he said. “We have a different relationship than Brad and I. Jim and I are best friends. Brad and I, you know, we’re from different generations.
“But I knew he’d be a good manager. And he is. He’s a good baseball guy. He listens. He hasn’t told me to shut up yet.”
To which Ausmus smiled and said, “Well, his hearing is going.”
Lamont said he and Ausmus mostly agree on decisions that are made in games — mostly.
“I don’t agree with anybody on everything,” he said. “But I think Brad respects the fact that I don’t say what I think he wants to hear. I say what I think. Maybe some of my stuff is different from somebody else’s. But I put a lot of thought into it.”
Tiger for life
Thirteen years as a player, a catcher, 12 in the Tigers organization, blocked at the big-league level by Jerry Moses, Bill Freehan and Jim Price. He did, though, hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat, off Cal Koonce.
“If I’d have been a good offensive player, I would’ve played for a long time,” Lamont said. “First-round pick, I hit left-handed. I just didn’t hit very good. Plus, Bill Freehan was the catcher, so I didn’t get much of a chance. He was a great catcher..
“People tend forget how great a player he was. They overlook him a little bit because of Al Kaline, Willie Horton and some of those other guys.”
He managed in the minor leagues in the Royals system for nine years. He was Jimy Williams’ third base coach in Boston and Houston. But since 2006, he’s worn the Old-English D.
“We’ve done pretty well, I guess,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate. I don’t think you could say I have any regrets really. I would’ve liked to get that Boston job, but, things work out for a reason. We’re still here and we’ve got a pretty good ballclub.”
If you go inside the Tigers’ new administration building here at Joker Marchant, and follow the impressive photo history that dons the walls leading from the big-league clubhouse to the minor-league clubhouse, you will see an enlarged baseball card photo of a young Gene Lamont.
It makes Avila laugh every time he sees it.
“I swear, it’s from his playing days and it’s like he hasn’t aged a bit,” Avila said. “He looks exactly the same. I said, ‘Geno, how much did you pay for them to put that up there? Did they take that picture yesterday?’”
He looked older when he was young and he still feels young now that he’s older. Either way, always a Tiger.