If Louis Whitaker had played in New York, he’d have been considered tantalizingly aloof.
He’d have been a modern day Joe DiMaggio—occasionally available for appearances but still mysterious and fiercely private. He would be heralded as “the quiet Yankee.” Media types would be falling over themselves to get an audience with him.
If Whitaker had been a New York ballplayer, and if he had conducted himself as he did in Detroit, he’d have been “Silent Lou” instead. And the more he withdrew, the more fascinated the press would have been about him. His Hall of Fame chances would have increased exponentially.
If Whitaker had shunned a reunion of, say, the 1977 Yankees team that was George Steinbrenner’s first World Series winner, the city would have shrugged and said, “That’s Lou for you.” Then the press would have marveled at his elusiveness. He’d have been Garbo and Howard Hughes and Jackie O, all rolled into one.
But Whitaker played in Detroit, and so he’s just kind of weird.
Whitaker, it was confirmed, won’t be helping out the young Tigers this spring training, even though he could do so and still go home for lunch. Whitaker lives in Lakeland, and yet despite being a baseball’s throw away, he’s sitting this one out, and maybe the rest of them.
“That’s true,” a Tigers spokesman said. “He won’t be in uniform. He won’t be helping out.”
This, on the heels of Whitaker’s willful lack of participation in last September’s 25th reunion of the 1984 Tigers World Series team—something Lou said he wouldn’t be doing way back in spring training of 2009. He turned out to be a man of his word.
Whitaker, as a Tiger, was a man of few words, and there’s no crime in that. He had an engaging smile, but didn’t care much for the press. He was the anti-Alan Trammell in that department.
Whitaker played 19 seasons for the Tigers (1977-95) and we knew as much about him after season No. 1 as we did after season No. 19. The man played nearly two decades in Detroit and he was a ghost.
Whitaker didn’t hang around town after the season. He didn’t make any appearances on behalf of the team, unless he was forced to. He mingled not among his public. He was the anti-Curtis Granderson in that department.
Whitaker was a sterling second baseman but a rotten ambassador for the game, and for his team. Maybe it was fitting. His double play partner, Trammell, always had a kind moment for the media and an affection for the city and respect for the franchise, even though Tram was a San Diego guy and liked his Pacific Coast time.
Maybe it was fitting, then, because often times the great duos in history are total opposites.
I have no idea why Whitaker won’t be attending spring training this season with the Tigers, as he’d done from 2004-09. I have even less of an idea why he distanced himself from the 1984 reunion.
But we wouldn’t know those answers because Lou Whitaker never gave us any insight, never let us in, to have any idea of what he was all about. Not once, in the 19 years he played in Detroit. If he’d have been a running clock, he would have been a mysterious one without a battery—because we never knew what made him tick.
New York is an esoteric, ethereal town. There are just enough of them in that city who glorify the sullen, the withdrawn, the hermit-like, to make you believe that those types are fascinating.
But maybe they’re just strange.
Whitaker was always strange, to me. He belonged in New York, or Los Angeles, or maybe even Paris. He was one-dimensional, less than brilliant. He had no use for his public and even less for the very media who could have elevated him to Hall of Fame status, or at least to the level of kindred soul in Detroit.
He looked at the 1984 reunion—the Silver Anniversary of the last World Series champion in Detroit—and sniffed at it. He told the Tigers no, some six months before the actual event. Maybe he had something else planned, like a nap.
I have no problem with Lou Whitaker, the ballplayer. He was, once, one of the very best second basemen of his generation. He was one of the few who helped re-define what a leadoff hitter’s role could be. Lou started games with home runs. Not as often as Rickey Henderson, but often enough to be one of the game’s innovators. No one had done that before in Detroit with any consistency.
But Whitaker could have been so much more in Detroit, and in the game. He seemed to have no sense of moral or social obligation to his fans or to his city. He was a commuter.
So the fans won’t see Whitaker down in Lakeland this spring. It appears to be of his own choosing. Perhaps he grew bored with it. I couldn’t tell you, and I don’t dare speculate, because no one knows Lou Whitaker. Because he never let us.