David Laurila: In 1989 — your one full season in Detroit — the team lost over 100 games. What happened?
Fred Lynn: “It was an older team. They’d also traded Luis Salazar and Tommy Brookens, our two third basemen, and got Chris Brown from the Giants. That didn’t work out so well. Chris got hurt, plus Brookie and Luis had been really popular in the clubhouse. Sometimes you lose something in the clubhouse more than you lose on the field, and I think that was the case with those guys. As professionals you have to move on, but sometimes there’s a hole.
“Tram got hurt that year, too. He had a banged up knee and was kind of hobbling around. That hurt us a lot. Darrell [Evans] was gone, too. So there was a little bit of a changing of the guard, and with a pitch here and a pitch there… a lot of little things can happen that will turn around a season.
“And we didn’t play as well as we should have, to be honest. The pitching was… they had a tough year, and when that happens the offense feels like it has to score more runs. That puts a lot of pressure on the position players. The same thing is happening with the Red Sox right now. The offense feels like they have to score a million, and you can’t do that day in and day out. When the load is like that, it’s a tough one to bear.”
Laurila: Earlier we touched on how underrated Evans was. Chet Lemon is another guy who was better than a lot of people probably realize.
Lynn: “Chet The Jet! Chester played a lot of games, which is what you want. That’s one thing I had trouble doing later in my career. But yeah, he was a solid guy. He played center. He ran well. He had a little pop in his bat. Chet was a quiet guy. There were a lot of quiet guys on the team; they just played the game. They were what I call ‘real professional players’ — they let their play do the talking.
“Lou Whitaker was a lot like Chet. Sometimes you had to pull words out of them. But they were good solid players, and when you have a lot of solid players on a team, you can win. If you have maybe one great player, and a whole bunch of solid players… I like that dynamic on a club.”
Laurila: Alan Trammell was elected to the Hall of Fame, but he was bypassed a number of times before that finally happened…
Lynn: “He wasn’t a flashy guy. He just did his job, and he did it quite well. A thing about Tram is that he was one of the best high fastball hitters you ever want to see. If you threw him a fastball up, you were crazy.”
Laurila: It would be interesting to see how he’d do in today’s game, given how many pitchers like to work up in the zone.
Lynn: “Do you know why they do that? Because hitter’s hands are too low. They’re so concerned about the angle of their swing, their launch angle — we called that an uppercut, by the way — and you can’t handle that pitch with that swing. Fortunately for the guys playing today, they don’t call pitches at the letters strikes, which is what they did when I started playing. That used to be a strike.
“Most guys today couldn’t hit that pitch if you told them it was coming, because their hands are too darn low. You can’t go from down to up. You can go up to down quite easily. If your hands are high you can cover the high ball, because you’re on the same plane. But you can’t change planes to hit a good high fastball. It’s impossible.”
Laurila: Where were your hands?
Lynn: “They used to call me ‘Little Yaz’ when I was in the minors, because my hands were high. Again, if you don’t have your hands up, you can’t hit that letter-high fastball. Jim Palmer was a great high-fastball pitcher. Nolan Ryan. And they called that pitch a strike, especially against younger hitters. So my hands were up — and I could still hit the ball down low, because I just dropped down.”
Laurila: Frank Tanana was all about finesse when you played with him in Detroit, but he had a great fastball early in his career.
Lynn: “He was my No. 1 nemesis. People ask me who was the toughest pitcher I ever faced — and I faced a lot of Hall of Famers — but Frankie was number one. That was back in the days of ‘Ryan and Tanana.’ ‘Nolie’ would lead the league in strikeouts with 300-something, and Frankie would be right behind him. Coming from the left side, he threw across his body, and that’s why he got hurt. His arm angle was such that it put a lot of pressure on it. But he did more than just throw hard; Frankie had four pitches
“He already knew how to pitch. That’s why when he got hurt, and lost velocity, he was able to adjust so well. He was probably 85 [mph] with his fastball later on, and he broke more bats from right-handers than anybody, because he’d set them up. He’d throw a soft, big ‘ol curveball, a little floater, and then he’d throw a cutter in on the hands and break your bat with 85. The guy knew how to pitch. He really did.”
Laurila: You were 37 years old in your final season in Detroit, and not only was the team not winning, you were hitting around .200 in late May. Were you considering calling it career at that time?
Lynn: “Not really, although if you take the winning away from me, it’s difficult. That’s why I played. As a youngster — and I played all sports — winning was key. I wanted to help my team win, and when my team can’t win… boy that’s a tough one.
“I also had a rotator issue that year, that I didn’t really tell anybody about. It prohibited me from getting my arms up to work like I wanted them to. I had to drop them down a little bit, just because it wouldn’t go up there. And when I threw a ball, the pain would be numbing. If I had to lead off an inning after I had to make a throw from the outfield, my hands were down even farther. So I had to make some adjustments because of what I was going through, but those are the things that professionals do.”
Laurila: You hung on for another year, finishing your career with the Padres. That meant getting to play at Candlestick Park, which must have been a thrill given that you grew up rooting for the Giants. [On a related note, Lynn’s thoughts on Wrigley Field were covered in a recent Sunday Notes column.]
Lynn: “That was really cool. I’ve told people that when you played center field at Candlestick, a lot of times it was the bluest sky you could imagine. It was windy, and the sun was out, and boy did that separate the men from the boys. There was no background. The ball would go up, there were no clouds, and the wind was swirling. It made guys look pretty funny, sometimes.
“I hit a ball there… I pinch hit against [Jeff] Brantley, who was their closer, and the fog had come in. It was really heavy air. They had a two run lead, so my run didn’t really mean anything, and I knew that Brantley had four pitches. But he just kept throwing these high fastballs. I’m thinking, ‘I know he’s gonna throw me that breaking ball,’ but he wouldn’t do it. Anyway, the fog had come in so heavy that you couldn’t even see the right field bleachers.
“I finally stepped out of the box and said to myself, ‘Hell, I’m going to look for that fastball.’ He threw it again, and I hit it into the fog. It was a home run, but no one knew where it ended up. It could have been in the bay. It could have been anywhere. When I hit it, I thought, ‘Well, that’s gone’… but then I never saw it.”
Laurila: Circling back to your time with the Tigers, what do you remember about Jim Walewander?
Lynn: “I remember that when he hit, it was like his pants were on fire. He was bouncing around. That guy had some energy — some serious energy — but he couldn’t calm himself down.”
Laurila: I remember Walewander being somewhat of a cult figure, in part because he was a big fan of a punk band [The Dead Milkmen].
Lynn: “That’s right! I’d forgotten about that. Yeah, he was a little different. But do you know what? When you have 25 guys, not everybody is going to be the same. It’s nice to have somebody like him. I’d forgotten that name, so thanks for bringing him up. While he was a little quirky, you don’t want a whole bunch of choirboys on the team — that would be boring as hell. It’s good to have some guys that are a little off center, and don’t forget, I played with Bill Lee. You can’t get any more off center than that.“