DENVER—Bill Lajoie always looked for an edge.
During his days in the Tigers front office, he would spend the early afternoon of home games sitting in the upper deck at Tiger Stadium, out of sight, and dutifully watch visiting teams take early batting practice.
“You never know what you might discover,” Lajoie said. “Early BP is when the guys who don’t get to play much get in their extra work. You get a chance to see them taking batting practice, and more importantly you get a chance to see their work habits. It’s a chance to find a sleeper.”
It was during those afternoon sessions that Lajoie became intrigued by a young power hitter named Cecil Fielder, who spent parts of four seasons with the Blue Jays, never had 100 at-bats in a season, and at 26 was sold to the Hanshin Tigers for the 1989 season.
A year later, after hitting 38 home runs in Japan, Fielder was back in the big leagues, when the Tigers signed him to a $1.25 million contract. Fielder hit 51 home runs, the first big leaguer to reach the 50-homer mark since George Foster of the Reds in 1977. He led the AL in home runs again in 1991, and went on to hit 245 home runs and drive in 758 runs with the Tigers. He finished second in AL MVP voting in 1990 and 1991.
“You’d watch him in the early sessions when he was with Toronto and he’d hit balls over the roof (of Tiger Stadium),” Lajoie said. “What you also saw, though, was when he wasn’t hitting he was working on other parts of his game. He had a desire to excel.”
So did Lajoie, who was the man who shaped the 1984 World Series champion with his work in scouting and player development, and then enjoyed the celebration in his first year as general manager.
Lajoie died in his sleep on Dec. 28 at the age of 76. His legacy will live on in baseball lore.
A Baseball Man
An All-American who helped Western Michigan to the championship game of the College World Series against Wake Forest in 1955, Lajoie was the focal point in one of the most memorable plays in CWS history.
With Western Michigan trailing 4-2 in the ninth inning against Oklahoma A&M, Lajoie came to the plate with two men on base, and laid down a bunt. The throw to first went into right field, and not only did both men on base score, but when the throw from the right fielder hit the first-base coach in the head, Lajoie scampered home with the game-winning run.
It is commonly referred to as a Little League home run, delivered by a man who was a big leaguer in every aspect. Lajoie spent 57 years in professional baseball, the first nine as a minor league outfielder and his final years as a special assistant with the Braves, Red Sox, Brewers, Dodgers and Pirates. He really made his mark, however, during 23 years with the Tigers.
Lajoie, a Michigan native, joined the Tigers as a scout in 1968, and added the duties of Rookie-league manager in 1969. He assumed the role of assistant GM in 1979, was promoted to GM in 1984, and held the job through the 1990 season.
The World Series winners in 1984 were built around a homegrown nucleus assembled by Lajoie and his scouting and minor league staff, including the middle-infield combo of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammel, catcher Lance Parrish, outfielder Kirk Gibson and starting pitchers Jack Morris and Dan Petry.
As GM, he made the Tigers’ first major free-agent signing before the 1984 season, bringing in the lefthanded power bat of Darrell Evans. In spring training, he traded Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss to the Phillies for lefthander Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman, whose defense was critical for late-inning relief of Evans.
Hernandez? After earning 27 saves in his first seven pro seasons, Hernandez earned 32 saves for the 1984 Tigers and worked 140 innings out of the bullpen, winning the AL MVP and Cy Young awards.
The one Tigers trade that Lajoie has been criticized for was sending minor league pitcher John Smoltz to the Braves in August 1987 for righthander Doyle Alexander. In truth, it helped the Tigers ice a division title, and Alexander went 9-0, 1.53 in his 11 starts. The fact that anyone questions it is really more a tribute to Smoltz than a blemish on Lajoie’s record.
Smoltz went 4-10, 5.68 in Double-A in 1987, walking 81 and striking out 86 in 130 innings. There wasn’t much on his resume that gave anyone reason to believe he would morph into a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate during his career in Atlanta.
Alexander came to the Tigers three weeks shy of his 37th birthday, with the Tigers a half-game back of the AL East-leading Blue Jays. The Tigers won all 11 of his starts, including two against Toronto and one on the final Friday of the regular season at Tiger Stadium. Alexander beat the Blue Jays in the opening game of what became a three-game sweep, which allowed the Tigers to win the division.
And winning was what Lajoie was all about, as a professional and an amateur.