The first time Buddy Bell sat down in his office he opened a drawer in Sparky Anderson’s desk and it fell apart.
“Sparky had this old desk that must have been twice his age,” Bell said.
Bell got a new desk and he also replaced the aged wood paneling on the walls of the manager’s office tucked beneath Tiger Stadium. If that paneling could have talked, what stories it would have told of Sparky’s days as skipper. Perhaps some advice would have spilled out to help Bell handle the storm that was coming.
In 1996 the Tigers were transitioning into a new era. Not only had Sparky retired (or more accurately been forced out), but for the first time in two decades Lou Whitaker was not in uniform for spring training. In addition, the previous August, Kirk Gibson had abruptly retired, explaining “I’ve been traded to my family.” That left only Alan Trammell as a link to the glory days of a Tiger team that had posted baseball’s second-best record in the 1980s and winning records in 13 of 18 seasons.
But for all those wins of the past, Buddy Bell was walking into a no-win situation. A popular player in the league for 18 years known for his work ethic and positive attitude, Bell’s character would be tested in his stint as Tiger manager. In large part there was little chance that he could succeed following a dugout legend like Sparky.
Bell was taking over the managerial duties in just the fourth full season of the Ilitch ownership era. Detroiter Mike Ilitch had bought the Tigers in the middle of the ’92 season, fulfilling a personal dream. Initially, Ilitch received praise when he rehired Ernie Harwell as the voice of the team after the previous front office group had forced the popular broadcaster out. But Ilitch also showed his ruthless nature by firing longtime Tiger executives via fax in a purge that cleared the way for his family and cronies to run the club.
In the first few years of the Ilitch era, the Tigers muddled along, not committed to a new strategy, still stuck in the past. The prospects for 1996 were dim and uncertain. The lone stars remaining on the roster were Cecil Fielder, Trammell, and Travis Fryman, a quiet, unexciting infielder who rarely cracked a smile. The Tigers were not only falling into mediocrity, they were becoming stale.
Bell brought his team north with optimism. He told the media that he liked his lineup, with young outfielders Chad Curtis and Bobby Higginson setting the table in front of Fryman and Fielder. He admitted that his starting rotation was “untested” but he insisted “I love my bullpen.” That starting rotation he was suspicious of? It included legendary wannabes Omar Olivares, Scott Aldred, and Clint Sodowksy. The bullpen he felt confident of featured veteran Gregg Olson, and guys named Brian Williams (not the anchorman), Richie Lewis (not the wrestler), and Mike Myers (not the Saturday Night Live star).
The first game of the season came on April Fools Day, appropriately enough. It started with promise: the first three batters in the Detroit lineup all reached base, with Fryman driving in the first run of the season on a sharp single. But the lead was short-lived: Felipe Lira, certainly one of the worst pitchers to ever start opening day for the franchise, allowed three runs to the Twins in the bottom of the first. He was knocked from the game after three innings with the Tigers down 6-1. They lost 8-6.
Two weeks later the Tigers were 7-6 after defeating the Angels at The Corner on a walkoff hit by Mark Lewis, the guy who replaced Sweet Lou at second base. But after that, Bell’s team plummeted and the reasons were clear: the pitching staff was garbage. While the offense did their best, the staff couldn’t stop runs from crossing the plate.
Starting on April 17 the Tigers went into a terrible spiral, losing eight in a row. The pitching staff surrendered an average of eight runs per game in the skid. But that was only the beginning of their dive into the abyss. Ultimately the Tigers lost 39 of 44 games. That’s right, a 5-39 record that spanned more than seven weeks. The abysmal stretch took the wind out of the team and drove Bell crazy. A competitive man, Bell could barely stand the losing. The new manager tried everything. He changed his lineup, he shuffled his rotation, he benched players, and he was ejected from four games during the stretch.
The 5-39 stretch was a mirror-image reminder of the 35-5 streak by the 1984 team. And one man (Trammell) had been there for both.
“Both of them are unbelievable,” Trammell said, speaking of the losing stretch in ’96. “How we went 35-5, I don’t know, and by the same token this is what happens when you go through a losing streak. It’s hard to take.”
On June 6th the Tigers were already 26 games out of first place and on pace to lose 127 games. Bell had used ten starting pitchers in 59 games and the team ERA was at 7.18 for the season. The team went more than a month without winning a game at Tiger Stadium. When Justin Thompson suffered an injury that shelved him from the rotation, Bell was asked who would replace him. The Tiger skipper merely shrugged. The pitching staff, the clubhouse, and the manager were shell-shocked.
The Tigers tried everything, signing unwanted pitchers who were dumped from other organizations and shuttling players from the minor leagues. Higginson was sent to Toledo, then recalled. Young prospect Tony Clark was called up on June 7th and inserted into the lineup at first base.
The strain on Bell was visible. The rookie manager seemed to age like a President in their first term. The lines on his face got deeper, the bags under his eyes heavier, the pep in his step disappeared. To some, Bell seemed to wilt under the losing. Perhaps buoyed by his tenure as elder statesman of the team, Trammell was uncharacteristically critical of the clubhouse atmosphere.
“I’ve heard a lot of right answers,” Trammell told the Detroit Free Press in June, “but from the performance, I know we don’t know exactly what we’re doing. It’s time for guys to really step up.”
Bell saw the skid as an anomaly. “We don’t really deserve this,” he said. “We care, we work hard.”
The Tigers could have worked around the clock in 1996 and it wouldn’t have mattered. The talent wasn’t there, and the organization, from Ilitch (who was spending his time and money on his hockey team) to general manager Randy Smith, who traded Fielder to the Yankees at the trade deadline.
The team played just under .500 in July and August but were still buried in last place. In September attention turned to Trammell’s impending retirement. Bell had consulted Trammell in spring about his role, explaining that he wanted to get playing time for younger players and asking the veteran how much he could contribute. Always a good soldier, Trammell agreed to do whatever Bell wanted, but the reduced role hurt him. After the All-Star break a sore knee and shoulder kept Trammell out of the lineup here and there. When he was available, Bell hit Trammell low in the order.
The Tigers rolled over in the final month, going 4-22 to play out the string. They lost their last 17 games at Tiger Stadium. On September 29 in Detroit they lost to the Brewers, 7-5, forced to play into the tenth inning on the last day of the season. In the bottom of the tenth inning Trammell came to the plate for the final time in his 20-year career, facing reliever Mike Fetters. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Trammell grounded a ball straight up the middle into center field. He ended his Hall of Fame career with a single. He also ended the most frustrating season of his career and the most pitiful season in franchise history.
The loss was the 109th of the season, by far a record for futility in Tiger history. Long gone were Sparky and the days of optimism.
“I’ll always remember my first year as a big league manager, that’s for sure,” Bell said at his desk after the loss, “I’ll remember Trammell too. Maybe him most of all.”