Tigers well spread out for their offseason cheer

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Longtime Tigers player and now special assistant Alan Trammell says Detroit area has become his home.

Once, they were with Detroit and the Tigers year-round. Players lived here.

They drove their kids to school after the season ended, which in those pre-playoff-round days was too often on the last day of the regular season, and then they headed for their offseason jobs, which was what you did before something called free agency arrived and salaries soon became hefty enough not only to support a man and his family for the year, but to retire upon.

But while cold cash is key to why today's Tigers rarely stay in Detroit beyond the day Comerica Park and its concourses take an autumn-winter breather, there is another human reality and condition at work.

It is called home.

Most of the Tigers roster heading into 2015 is from Latin America or from Sunbelt areas. Their roots can pull them back, almost gravitationally, to a culture and climate even more alluring when family and friends tend to be based there.

When the minimum big league salary is $500,000 per season and the player's payday averages about $4 million, it also can be easy, and tempting, to head for the sun of Miami's South Beach, or to Scottsdale, Arizona, or to California, or to a native homeland in the Caribbean, where workouts and a four-month break from baseball's grind can be enjoyed in the happiest of atmospheres.

Brennan Boesch, a former Tigers outfielder from the posh Brentwood area of Los Angeles, explained it succinctly in 2012 when he talked about why he chose California offseasons over his preferred digs in Royal Oak.

"If only I could bring the weather to Detroit, I'd be here," said Boesch, who now plays in the Reds organization. "I love this area. Everything about it."

Max Scherzer, who is waiting to see if the Tigers or another club snags him from the free-agent market, spoke last week from his cold-weather retreat in Scottsdale, Arizona, where a Missouri native has learned the desert can be splendor.

"When I first got here, in 2007 for the Arizona Fall League, I fell in love with it," said Scherzer, who began his big league career with the Diamondbacks before being traded to the Tigers in 2009. "It's just such great weather for the offseason, especially for training.

"I can run outside, work out outside. Growing up in St. Louis, it was always a nightmare in winter trying to find places to throw and get into shape. For a Midwesterner, it was always a knockdown battle trying to deal with the cold."

The stalwarts

Others have dealt with the north's murk and chill of winter mostly because they were born and raised here and came to view Michigan as too familiar, too familial, or simply too much fun to leave.

Kirk Gibson and Dave Rozema, buddies and later brothers-in-law from the Tigers' 1980s heyday teams, are two of Michigan's year-round Tigers alumni. Willie Horton, the 1960s and '70s slugger who is a special assistant in the Tigers front office, has lived in Detroit or Metro Detroit since he was a boy.

Hall of Fame star Al Kaline has been a suburban Detroit dweller since he came to the Tigers in 1953. Mickey Stanley, Denny McLain, Bill Freehan, Milt Wilcox, Dave Bergman — there are testaments galore to players who either have lived in Michigan since birth or who decided to stick in Detroit during and after their Tigers careers.

In Mickey Lolich's era, many players had to work during the offseason.

Not coincidentally, those players also happen to be from an earlier era. They played before free-agent money made offseason relocation more convenient. And before rosters became so dense with players from Latin America.

Mickey Lolich was a bedrock Tigers pitcher during the '60s and '70s remembered not only for All-Star skill and durability, but for winning three World Series games in the Tigers' 1968 championship season. His 50-year stay in Detroit, matched by many of his old teammates, is about one word:

"Economics," said Lolich, who has lived in Detroit's far northeast suburbs since he and wife, Joyce, were married in 1964.

Lolich remembers the days of $30,000-per-year salaries and for a reality that came with most contracts. Players had to work during the offseason. And forget notions that because you were a star pitcher a company might be interested in you at even an intern's salary.

Lolich got a lesson there when he returned to his hometown, Portland, Oregon, after the 1964 season. He and Joyce were getting married in Portland and Lolich, who was then 24 and who had just won 18 games for the Tigers, hoped to work for a local company with the idea of returning during offseasons and building skills that might lead to a post-career job.

"I went around to several major companies there," Lolich said. "7-Up Bottling Co., and Kandel Knitting Mills had huge plants there. Jantzen (swimwear), Pendleton — places like that.

"I explained who I was, that I was a Portland resident, had grown up there, that I had a couple of years in the big leagues and a successful sophomore season, that someday I'd be retiring from baseball and that I'd like to get into a training program, not at a big salary. But after retirement, with the benefit that people in Portland and the buying public would know me, I'd have some value to their company.

"And they said: 'You mean you're only going to work here four or five months and then go back and play baseball?'

"And not a one accepted that deal."

Back to Detroit went Lolich and Joyce. The Tigers public relations department offered him a $300-a-week job to rub elbows at pancake breakfasts, service-club luncheons, sports banquets, etc., which averaged a bit more than 30 functions a month.

From there, Lolich began a parade of offseason stints that included car sales, which proved to him and his bosses that he might be great at pitching complete games but he wasn't so hot at sealing deals. He did promotional work for Kawasaki motorcycles that at least provided him with a new bike each season. Later on, he put $5,000 into a doughnut shop that was being sold and had a business foundation so solid he and his partners knew Lolich merely had to take basic care of existing customers to make it all work, which it did.

But others, like Kaline, Stanley, Jim Northrup, Freehan, Earl Wilson, Hank Aguirre and others tended to make Detroit their 12-month home because they were dabbling in that other most favored sideline job for a celebrity athlete: sales representative.

Metro Detroit in the '60s and '70s was flush with auto-parts suppliers and with companies of all origins that loved having a marquee Tigers player shaking hands, telling stories, and writing orders.

But it wasn't always an autumn-winter gig, exclusively.

"The guys who were sales-repping would be doing their job even during the season — during a home series," Lolich said. "You'd call on a customer at 1 o'clock in the afternoon during the week and then head for the ballpark afterward. Then, when the season was over, you'd dedicate all your time to that job."

Now, most big league players, having banked or invested a good portion of their healthy pay, spend down months at the gym in a town or region of their choice. And that usually means someplace other than Detroit.

Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, Alex Avila, Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias — all are either from Florida or, in the case of Cabrera and Martinez, are from Caribbean countries and have found Florida to be a seductive blend of lifestyle and Latin American-grade sunshine that Michigan can't match.

California not everything

Others have seen life differently, at least in the cases of two native southern Californians, Dan Petry and Alan Trammell.

Petry was a starter on the '84 Tigers championship team and pitched for Detroit in 11 seasons spanning two stretches, from 1979-91. He and his wife, Chris, also from southern California, were only a couple of years married when they vowed California would be home. Forever. Not even with Dan's baseball life flourishing in Detroit could they abide Michigan's version of winter.

In the offseason, Max Scherzer prefers the sunshine of Arizona, where he can train outside.

Within another year, "it changed 360," Petry said.

The cold north wasn't so bad, after all, he and Chris decided. Friends were there. Their kids liked Michigan. They relocated and have been in Metro Detroit for almost 30 years.

"What happened is this becomes your life," Dan explained. "This is where your friends are and all the people you know from a certain period of your life.

"And I'm going to tell you right now, I love the winter. Chris still gets cold, but she doesn't mind it that much, either. At first it was a little challenging for her, and last winter was a challenge for everyone — if challenged is the right word.

"But I really like the cold. I like the snow. My only complaint is when it's June, July or August, and we can get in the 60s in summer time, and that's when I get mad. If it's 30 below in December or January, OK, that's what it's supposed to be. But I still love hot weather. I love it hot and humid."

He also has worked full-time since he retired from baseball in 1992. Petry made almost $6 million in his 13-season career but never drew more than $975,000 in a single year, befitting a gentler era of player salaries. He worked afterward as a sales rep for International Paper and then joined the Detroit Lions sales staff at Ford Field. He now works for Millcraft, a regional paper company in Livonia, and coaches baseball at Orchard Lake St. Mary's High School. He and Chris maintain their longtime home in Farmington Hills.

"We've got a little patch of woods back here," Petry said, "and you occasionally look out and see deer, and fox. And if it's in the summertime where the leaves all fill in, it's like a curtain, really — like no one's behind you, even if it's only a couple of hundred yards to the next house.

"In California, the houses are on top of one another. There's no driveway, no spaces between homes.

"Michigan has simply been very good to us. My son, Jeff, plays in the NHL (defenseman, Edmonton Oilers). And if we'd gone back to California, I can probably guarantee you he isn't playing in the NHL. Hockey was the sport he began playing here before he played at Michigan State."

Trammell is from San Diego, a geographical treasure most Midwesterners consider the postcard-perfect antithesis to Detroit.

But in the same way as the Petrys began to see that years could be about more than blue skies, ocean, and 70-degree days, practical family matters began tugging the Trammells toward Detroit.

Good experience

Trammell spent 20 seasons as a Tigers shortstop from 1977-96, then coached and managed for his old team through 2005. During that stretch was an eight-year stint when he and his wife, Barb, and two sons and a daughter lived either in Redford, Franklin Village, or Bloomfield Hills.

"The reason why it was a fairly easy transition is that when you have kids, stuff doesn't stop," said Trammell, who in October was named a special assistant to Tigers front-office chief Dave Dombrowski. "You've got them in school. And in functions. And they have their friends. And those are close to year-round issues."

It became for the Trammells an easy choice. Either they were going to have a genuine home for 12 months a year or they were going to deal with a San Diego-Detroit shuttle that wasn't working smoothly as the kids grew older.

"I was going to Tiger Stadium and working out," Trammell recalled, "and the next thing you know you're picking the kids up from school. I was glad that I could at least help during the offseason with raising them. I could be a dad and do the things I couldn't do during the baseball season."

How many couples cut from San Diego's coastal splendor could have dealt with that sadistic spell known as winter? Trammell said he and Barb adjusted, peacefully.

"Even if you had a snowstorm, you didn't have that many," he said. "And if you did, everyone would be in the house for a while, and then once it stops, they're out playing.

"And if it changes seasons, great. Falls in Michigan are beautiful. Sure, you have some gloominess and that gets a little old. But I thought it was good for the kids to be experiencing those things."

Baseball has gotten bigger, wider, more global, in the days since Lolich, Trammell, and Petry played. It is natural that offseason addresses have in turn become less centralized and more exotic.

Some like it hot. A few, a hearty few, can handle winter. The Tigers only hope everyone's happy.