In a town where baseball has been blessed with great, high-profile general managers – from Frank Navin, to John McHale, to Rick Ferrell – Bill Lajoie stands out as arguably the best of the lot. Whenever the man’s name is mentioned, it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction for Detroiters to praise him for the years he spent building the ’84 Wire-to-Wire Champions and for the incredible last-minute wheeling and dealing that made possible the wild final week of the ’87 season. [Naysayers using hindsight to knock the trade of a kid who turned out to be an All-Star and potential Hall of Famer need to remember that, at the time, trading John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander was seen as a classic win-win triumph by just about everybody in baseball: a brilliant move, a great prospect swapped for a proven veteran, a long term investment balanced against a current need. Absolutely the only voice raised in disagreement belonged to Smoltz’ grandfather, Tigers grounds crew member “Father John” Smoltz.]
Yet, those two seasons are just a small part of what Lajoie was to baseball as a whole – not just to the Tigers. Bill Lajoie knew how to build a team, and he could teach others how to do it. He never assumed that all that was necessary was to pick the best players and put them in the hands of a good manager. He knew it didn’t work that way. If it had, the Yankees and Gene Autry’s Angels would never have lost a ballgame.
Nope. Bill Lajoie knew how to pick ’em, but he was well aware that selecting talent was one thing, and choosing players who would complement each other and strengthen a team in the clubhouse as well as on the field was quite another. He once deep-sixed a promising young outfielder with a great arm when the player’s girlfriend complained that the outfielder had worked her over. Nelson Simmons was gone almost overnight – not because he hadn’t been a gentleman, but because his GM didn’t want that kind of value system showing up in other ways in his clubhouse. On another occasion, Lajoie turned down pitcher Steve Howe. When first scouted, Howe, a Michigan native and U of M star, had been a favorite, but times changed, and Lajoie wasn’t ready to gamble a whole team’s stability on one troubled link.
Don’t think for a minute, though, that Bill Lajoie was a polar opposite of Leo (“Nice Guys Finish Last”) Durocher. This writer remembers well a rather heated conversation with Lajoie about Kirk Gibson (who had just insulted some fan or other) and being assured that bad PR was meaningless when a player of great ability could be counted on as a force driving his teammates to win.
What Bill Lajoie did was balance a team. He put men together who could and would work and win together. That was his craft, spotting the small things that could make the difference in the overall chemistry of a ball club. The one thing he didn’t like in baseball was its business side, the political side of being a general manager. He knew he was best when he focused on the game and the men who played it.
In 1990, Lajoie left Detroit behind. The following year he went to Atlanta as assistant to Braves GM John Schuerholz to do just that – focus on baseball. In 1990, the Braves were in last place and had been in last place for some time. In 1991, they heralded Lajoie’s arrival with two back to back world championships (’91 and ’92) and a barely missed pennant in ’93. After a single year hiatus, the Atlanta club managed to be in a championship series at least at divisional level for the next eleven years. For most of that time, Bill Lajoie was around to apply his magic.
A few years later in 2002, when Theo Epstein became Boston general manager at the tender age of 28, it was obvious to Boston ownership that surrounding the neophyte executive with the best minds in baseball was going to be nothing short of common sense. So, they built a sort of baseball brain trust. For Epstein, determined to overcome the Curse of the Bambino, it was like going into battle with an executive team made up of Ruth equivalents. This time it took two whole years of advice and tweaking and rebuilding before the Lajoie magic took effect, but in 2004 the trade of a pitcher that was far more controversial than the Smoltz/Alexander swap was avenged, and the Red Sox had won its first World Series since 1918.
Maybe the only time Lajoie’s magic touch failed him was during a brief, voluntary and very unofficial consultancy for a Honeywell-Bull Baseball League team.
For a WHAT team???
The HBBL was an office fantasy league, and this writer, as a fantasy “owner,” had bragged to the great Tiger general manager that her own baseball draft was coming up the following week. “You should pick up Eddie Nunez,” said Lajoie. “What’s it gonna cost you? A buck? Two? He got hurt, but we watched him throw the other day. He’s lookin’ good, and he’s gonna be available.”
Thrilled to get professional advice, I did as I was told. I spent my two dollars or whatever it was and drafted Mr. Nunez, or a facsimile thereof, into the “Bush Leaguers.”
Nunez promptly and literally dropped from sight. His sudden disappearance left aficionados of the real game perplexed. In the fantasy world, I sighed and took my lumps. I couldn’t replace him until he re-emerged on somebody’s real roster, somewhere.
The next time I was at Tiger Stadium, I saw my “consultant” at the far end of the main concourse. Lajoie started toward me, turned on his heel and hastened briefly in the opposite direction, and then wheeled back and strode to meet me.
“I want you to know,” he greeted me, “that I called the Seattle general manager last night and asked him what he’d done with his pitcher. ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘You interested in him?’” Lajoie went on. “I explained that there was this woman in Detroit who was going to kill me the next time she saw me, and I needed to know. So, he told me that, rather than accept a minor league assignment during rehab, Eddie took off for Canada with his girlfriend!’”
And we laughed. I laughed because I was delighted to have insider information. Bill Lajoie? It was a casual conversation, but it was baseball, and, Lajoie, ever the professional, was relieved to have done what he could to set things right.
Oddly enough, before he left Detroit, Lajoie picked up Nunez for the Tigers, for real. Nunez did just about as much for the Detroiters as he had for the Bush Leaguers.
How did Bill Lajoie manage to do it all? What was the secret of his dedication to the game? Once, a long time ago, the great baseball man had been a public schoolteacher. Maybe he revealed his secret the day that he was asked what it was that he taught. “Junior high,” he laughed, putting an automatic headlock on an imaginary student.
That just might explain everything. Ask any junior high teacher. There’s not much in life or in baseball for which the vicissitudes of a junior high school classroom can’t prepare a man.