“They could have gotten off their duffs and brought John Smoltz back home, some 21+ years after coughing him up for Doyle Alexander.”


The Chicago Cubs never had the chance to get Lou Brock back. The New York Mets let Nolan Ryan slip through their fingers, and could never right that wrong.

Now the Tigers, our Detroit Tigers, have been revealed as being as fast asleep as Little Boy Blue when it came time to bring closure to their own Brock and Ryan debacle.

John Smoltz is going to pitch for the Boston Red Sox this summer – and maybe this fall – and I have just one question: Where were the Tigers?!

Well, they sport the right colors, the Tigers do: blue.

Blue as in the fictitious Little Boy, who was found dozing instead of looking after his sheep.

A brief history lesson, first. Pay attention, because I’m only going to go over this once. It’s all I can stomach.

The Cubs, in June 1964, traded a young, speedy outfielder to the St. Louis Cardinals, including him in a package for a starting pitcher named Ernie Broglio. The speedy kid was Lou Brock. And as soon as that year’s World Series, he began showing how duped the Cubs had been in the swap.

Brock would play the next 15 years in St. Louis, setting stolen base records, garnering over 3,000 hits, and terrorizing the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers (though in a losing effort) in separate World Series – 1964, ’67, and ’68, respectively.

And Ernie Broglio? That’s an easy one – he’s the guy the Cubs got for Lou Brock. And that’s all he ever was. After the trade, Broglio went 7-19 for the Cubs before retiring after the 1966 season.

In December 1971, the Mets packaged some players and shipped them to the California Angels, in order that they could get an infielder named Jim Fregosi. The Mets were sweet on Fregosi, believing he could solve their ongoing dilemma at third base. It didn’t look like a travesty at first blush. Fregosi was an 11-year veteran who played solidly, if not spectacularly, for the Angels. He was a proven big leaguer. And he was still only 29 at the time of the trade.

Nolan Ryan was part of the package cross-countried to the Angels. It’s hard to imagine a time when Ryan was ever young, but he was at the time – just 24 and with only four big league seasons under his big Texan belt.

Ryan blossomed into a superstar with the Angels, throwing no-hitters and racking up strikeouts like Carter’s does pills. And he wouldn’t stop pitching until he was 46 years old, after stops in Houston and the Texas Rangers.

Fregosi scuffled along until 1978, his best years behind him. That’s when he retired and got into managing – 15 years before Ryan threw his last pitch in the majors.

Lou Brock. Nolan Ryan. Two Hall of Famers traded in two of the most lopsided deals in baseball history.

The Tigers didn’t make a trade that bad, but they had a chance to correct themselves belatedly, yet were nowhere to be found.

Smoltz, 41, has pitched for only the Atlanta Braves. Been doing so since 1988. Last week, in a stunning development, Smoltz up and signed with the Red Sox as a free agent. After 21 seasons, Smoltz is switching sides.

That loud snoring you hear is coming from Comerica Park.

The Tigers drafted Smoltz, who was born in Warren, in 1985 and were nurturing him for entry into the big leagues, for his hometown team, when they found themselves in a dogfight for the divisional title in 1987.

A dour, grouchy veteran pitcher named Doyle Alexander was pitching for the Atlanta Braves, and not truly happy about it. The Braves, in those days, scraped the bottom of the standings frequently.

So the Tigers, needing another arm in their tussle with the Toronto Blue Jays for divisional supremacy, were interested when the Braves called about taking Alexander off their hands. All the Braves wanted for Doyle Alexander’s sour puss was that young Smoltz kid. The local boy. The 21-year-old who was destined for the bigs.

The Tigers made the trade.

Alexander did what he was brought to Detroit to do. He went 9-0 down the stretch, with a sparkling 1.53 ERA, and a few weeks after his 37th birthday, the Tigers zoomed past the Blue Jays in the season’s final week.

John Smoltz made his major league debut the following spring, with the wretched Atlanta Braves.

Alexander fizzled out and was out of baseball before 1990.

Smoltz is still pitching.

He made his big splash as a starter, then turned into a closer early in the 21st century because, well, the Braves needed a closer. And Smoltz was willing to help them out in that regard. After a few seasons of saving games – and saving them quite competently – Smoltz went back to being a starter because, well, the Braves needed a starter.

Not too many pitchers can pull off the starter-closer-starter routine in their careers. Smoltz did, with flying colors.

A few weeks ago, it was reported that Smoltz, a free agent, would be open to returning to the Tigers, where it all began for him. The reports said that Smoltz’s sore right shoulder, which caused him to miss the 2008 season after early-June, was healed. Whether the Braves re-signed him or not, the reports said, Smoltz was determined to pitch somewhere in 2009, even though he would turn 42 early in the season.

The Tigers were specifically mentioned – by Smoltz himself. He floated the idea out there for public consumption.

Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski didn’t have much to declare about that revelation, even though Smoltz said he’d be willing to go back to the bullpen if necessary. Dombrowski currently presides over one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Yet he was strangely silent about the possibility of bringing Smoltz back to the Tigers organization.

Then, last week, the bombshell: Smoltz would be leaving the Braves, after all, after two-plus decades. And the Red Sox, of all teams, would be signing his paychecks.

Those Little Boys Blue in Detroit barely stirred as Smoltz was inking his signature on a nice, shiny new Red Sox contract.

Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio was never brought full circle. Same with Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi. But the Tigers had their chance. They could have gotten off their duffs and brought John Smoltz back home, some 21+ years after coughing him up for Doyle Alexander.

It could have been one of those better-late-than-never sort of things.

Instead, it’s just never.