It was late on a Saturday afternoon in Toronto—September 26, 1987 to be exact. The Tigers, embroiled in a divisional pennant race with the Toronto Blue Jays like few races before or since, milled about in their clubhouse, slugged by a horrific loss to the Jays.
The Tigers had led, 9-4, in the fifth inning, but the first-place Blue Jays pecked away, as birds do.
The score was 9-7 in favor of the Tigers heading into the Toronto ninth, when catastrophe struck. The Blue Jays loaded the bases with nobody out as the Exhibition Stadium crowd roared. A Juan Beniquez triple cleared the bases and gave the Jays a stunning 10-9 win.
With the loss, the Tigers fell to 3 ½ games behind Toronto with eight games to play.
And Kirk Gibson, always among the angriest of Tigers, stood in front of his locker after the game, trying to put into words how his team could possibly recover from such a burning defeat.
It was then that Gibby uttered one of the most famous of all Detroit sports quotes.
"Maybe we just set the biggest bear trap in history," Gibson bravely suggested. Some used other adjectives for the words. Foolish came to mind.
But Gibson's words were prophetic. The Tigers won the next day, powered by Gibson himself, who hit a home run in the ninth off Toronto closer Tom Henke to tie the game, 1-1. In the 13th, Gibson struck again, singling home Jim Walewander with the eventual winning run.
The Tigers closed the season by winning six of their final eight games, including a three-game sweep of the Blue Jays in Detroit to clinch the AL East flag. Toronto, meanwhile, ended their season with a seven-game losing streak.
Lost in the bitterness of that 10-9 defeat on September 26 was the day Alan Trammell had.
Tram, the Tigers fixture at shortstop since 1978, went 4-for-4. It was just another day in a memorable month for Trammell, who finished the season by hitting safely in 19 of 21 games, including an 18-game hitting streak.
Despite his heroics, which helped the Tigers overcome the Blue Jays, Trammell got jobbed in the AL MVP race. Toronto's George Bell, whose pratfall in the season's final week helped seal his team's fate, nonetheless captured the hardware.
Trammell hit .343 with 28 homers and 105 RBI in 1987, and he got the job done when the chips were down.
Yet Bell took home the MVP anyway, despite his team's and his own collapse.
In many Tigers fans' eyes, Trammell's runner-up finish in the 1987 AL MVP voting was the second biggest injustice done to him in his career. The most egregious, they agree in unison, is Tram's omission from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Never are the winds of Trammell's rejection more cold to fans than at this time of year, in the days leading up to and following the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which took place on Sunday.
The scab of omission gets picked at annually, which means it is never allowed to heal.
The case for Trammell and teammate (and double play partner) Lou Whitaker's HOF worthiness is largely built on what would appear to be trustworthy evidence—the cold, hard numbers.
Proponents of Tram and Sweet Lou's Hall induction will sit you down in the court of baseball law and bring out charts and graphs supporting their clients.
They'll compare traditional career numbers (hits, BA, RBI, etc.) to guys already in the Hall. They'll try to introduce more recent statistical phenomena such as WAR, OPS+ and the like to further show you how favorably Trammell and Whitaker stack up against current HOF members.
It would seem to be an open and shut case.
But something isn't only keeping the Tigers longtime keystone combination out of the Hall, it's keeping them out by a fat margin.
Neither player fared well in their time on the ballot. Whitaker, especially, was disregarded by voters. Dismissed out of hand, almost.
You can play the New York card if you'd like. I'll allow it.
The New York card, of course, says that if Trammell and Whitaker (they forever will be joined at the hip) were Yankees, their place in Cooperstown would almost certainly be assured. That assertion is supported by the induction of Yankees of the past whose credentials were suspect at best (Phil Rizzuto, I'm talking about you).
But the New York card is a loser's hand. You can never win with it.
Trammell wasn't disliked by the media, who had no axe to grind with him. Whitaker wasn't exactly beloved by the press, but for the most part his enigmatic personality as a player was accepted, albeit begrudgingly.
So neither man's paltry voting totals can be blamed on contentious media relations.
Neither player's name ever turned up in anyone's report about steroids. So there is no scarlet letter there.
So what is it?
The feeling here is that Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker aren't in the Hall of Fame for a simple yet hard-to-accept reason for their fans.
They simply weren't good enough.
You can present all the numbers you want, traditional or not, but I agree with this simple corollary.
Trammell and Whitaker were very good players. No doubt about that.
But they weren't great.
Take your Tigers hat off for a moment.
Neither player was dominant at his position. Neither won an MVP Award. Neither was ever considered, in his prime, as one of the Top 10 players in baseball (including pitchers).
Don't get sucked in by the seduction of longevity. Don't point to all the double plays they turned as HOF material.
A 6-4-3 or 4-6-3 double play, by the way, is hardly rocket science.
I could grab any shortstop and any second baseman, starter or reserve, from any big league team, pair them up, and they'd turn a bunch of double plays, too, if they played together for 19 years, which is how long Trammell and Whitaker were together in Detroit (1977-95).
Just because you do something consistently well for a long time doesn't make you a Hall of Famer.
You have to be great. You have to be among the best, year after year, while you played.
So take that and look at your numbers for Trammell and Whitaker again.
Look for the dominant years. Look for top five finishes in MVP voting.
How many do you see?
I believe that both players are partly victims of their own abilities. That is to say, they made their jobs look easy and while they were never dominant, they were as reliable as tomorrow's sunrise.
But that reliability and non-flashy consistency can also get you lost in the shuffle when it comes time for HOF voting. It's sad but true.
For 19 seasons, Trammell and Whitaker patrolled shortstop and second base, respectively, and their defense was as tight as a drum and their bats were solid if not spectacular.
Those obviously weren't nearly good enough credentials as far as the Hall voters were concerned.
Cincinnati's Barry Larkin and Joe Morgan, both solid Hall of Famers, are often the SS and 2B that Trammell and Whitaker advocates hold up against their guys.
But Larkin won an MVP (1995) and appeared in 14 All-Star games to Trammell's eight. Granted, Tram finished in the Top 10 in MVP voting four times to Larkin's two, but Larkin was widely recognized as THE shortstop of his time (1986-2004).
I also reject the argument that says if one mistake was made, then another should be made to justify the first mistake. In other words, just because players of lesser, or at the very least, equally perceived value of Trammell are in the Hall, then you must put Tram in as well. Wrong.
As for Morgan-Whitaker comparisons, there really aren't any serious ones, to be honest.
Joe Morgan was, in his prime, considered, pound-for-pound, the best player in baseball. Not the best second baseman—the best player, period. He was the guy you'd start an expansion team with, according to one long ago informal poll among baseball executives.
Morgan won consecutive MVPs and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting five years in a row, four of those years in the top five.
You could make a strong case that the Big Red Machine would have sputtered had it not been for Morgan.
Can you honestly say anything remotely as strong about Lou Whitaker?
I'm a Tigers guy, through and through. So if as result of some work by the Veterans Committee, Trammell and Whitaker make it into the Hall, I would be thrilled for them, and for the Tigers organization, and for the city of Detroit.
But it would nag at me as well, because I would also see it as another example of the HOF voters lowering their standards ever so lightly.
There wasn't anything brilliant or magnificent about the careers of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. Both men authored long, reliable, very good careers. They were good Tigers.
They're just not Hall of Famers, and that should be OK. It shouldn't be easy to get into the damn thing, and there should be no shame or sadness about not making it, either.