The Post-Journal

Lunetta Part Of Tigers’ Super Season

Wally Huckno is a huge Detroit Tigers’ fan.

Born in the Motor City, the retired Jamestown High School football coach and district athletic director admits to enjoying the national pastime even more than tuning in a game on the gridiron.

And when he’s not catching the Tigers on DirecTV, he’s logging on to the World Wide Web to get his baseball fix.

“I follow all (of Detroit’s) minor league teams every morning on the computer,” he said.

No doubt, surfing the net and turning on the tube has been an enjoyable experience for the West Ellicott resident this season.

Through Friday night, the Tigers – the major league laughingstock in 2003 when they were 43-119 – are the proud owners of the best record in baseball (55-25) and are 2 ½ games in front of the defending world champion Chicago White Sox in the American League’s Central Division.

Knowing that Jamestown native Dan Lunetta has had a hand in turning around the fortunes of one of baseball’s storied franchises makes it even better for Huckno.

For barring a collapse of epic proportions, the Tigers are assured of their first playoff berth in 19 years. While Lunetta, the team’s director of minor league operations, remains guarded – in his line of work you only look to the next game – it’s clear that this franchise has turned the corner and is planning to be playing come October.

Lunetta oversees the day-to-day administrative operations of the minor league department, including budget responsibilities, working agreements with the six minor league affiliates and acquisition of minor league players.

“When we broke camp, we knew we had a decent club,” Lunetta said via telephone from the Tiger’s minor league offices in Lakeland, Fla. “We felt we were going to be competitive. If things fell our way, if we stayed healthy at key positions, if we got performances from people that we needed to have big years from, we had a chance to compete and maybe even contend.”

The Tigers have done both – and then some.

Through Friday night’s games, the Tigers rank first in all of baseball in pitching, sporting a 3.47 earned run average, are tied for sixth in runs scored and are ranked in the top 10 defensively.

“Pitching and defense is what’s carried us this year,” Lunetta said. “It’s going to win you a lot of games. Our pitching is exceptionally good. We’re leading in staff ERA, our rotation has been almost flawless and our bullpen has been exceptionally strong.”

Starters Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander are a combined 20-7, while Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman have eight and seven wins respectively. Rogers, at 41, is clearly the elder statesman of an otherwise young staff.

“The Tigers get a lot of credit now within the game that we’re starting to build a strong inventory of good, young arms,” Lunetta said. “We have a very good player development staff. It’s their responsibility to get these guys ready, and it’s happened this year.”

Of course, the men at the top of the organization – general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland – are truly the men responsible for the amazing turnaround. They held the same positions with Florida when the Marlins won their first World Series in 1997. Lunetta was the director of minor league administration for that club, too.

“This team plays with a purpose,” Lunetta said. “With Leyland managing the Marlins, his mantra was, ‘One heartbeat.’ His mantra this year is ‘nine innings.’

“We’ve had games when we’ve been behind. I can think in one particular game against Kansas City when we were behind six runs and came back to win. The players have bought into Jim’s philosophy, Jim’s approach. … If we play nine innings, we’re going to have a legitimate chance to win every game.”

Leyland, who played for the Jamestown Falcons of the New York-Penn League in the early 1960s, has made owner Mike Ilitch’s decision to hire him last Oct. 4 a stroke of genius. Coincidentally, Ilitch also played minor league baseball for Jamestown in the 1950s.

“The Tigers are his favorite, by his own admission,” said Lunetta of Ilitch, who also owns the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League. “He is so happy with what he’s seeing, and it’s exciting for the club to see the owner happy. … He says, ‘I’m going to do what it takes.’”

That’s music to the ears of Tiger’s fans everywhere, including Huckno, whose passion for his beloved team isn’t reserved only during the season.

In fact, he attends numerous spring training games during March trips to Florida. But his most memorable visit to Lakeland came last January when Huckno, who also spends a month in Key West, stopped at the Tigers offices to buy tickets as he and his wife Dixie were beginning their trip back to Jamestown.

“I went to the administrative offices and just took a chance that (Lunetta) would be working, and he was,” Huckno said.

After the two chatted for a few moments, the conversation was interrupted by another visitor.

“Al, come on in,” Lunetta said, “I want you to meet someone.”

Huckno turned around, and found himself staring at none other than Hall-of-Fame outfielder Al Kaline.

Now a special assistant to Dombrowski, Kaline was one of Huckno’s heroes growing up.

“I can remember when he came up as a 19-year-old out of high school,” Huckno said, “and there he was in living color. We chatted and talked a little about golf. He said, “I played yesterday and I shot my age.’ I said, “You’re out of my category.’”

Kaline, who turned 71 in December, invited Huckno to lunch and then to watch a Tigers fantasy camp that was being held at Joker Marchant Stadium, the Tigers spring training home.

Unfortunately for Huckno, he didn’t have the time, because he had responsibilities he had to tend to in Jamestown.

“I had to push it the next two days to get back,” Huckno said.

But, as is his practice, Lunetta, whose heart remains in Jamestown even though he lives in Lakeland with his wife Johanna and sons, Anthony and Samuel, made sure that Huckno had a permanent reminder of his January visit with a Tiger legend.

“A few months ago I got a call from Russ Bonfiglio (of Jamestown, who is a good friend of Lunetta’s),” Huckno recalled. “He came to the house and brought me a baseball.”

Inscribed on the stitched rawhide was the following: “Best Wishes, Wally.”

It was signed by Kaline.

“It doesn’t take much to make old guys happy,” Huckno said with a laugh.

If you’re a fan of the Tigers, who have won 15 of their last 17 games through Friday, smiles are everywhere.

“To think there might be a possibility of being with a club that has another chance not only to go to the postseason, but also the World Series is pretty exciting,” Lunetta said.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Lunetta, whose baseball career began in Jamestown in 1980 and took him to minor league outposts in Buffalo and Rochester, and major league stops with Montreal, Cincinnati and Florida, would have another shot at a ring.

“I’ve been blessed,” Lunetta said. “I’ve worked in baseball 28 years, I’ve got a World Series ring and I’ve had some tremendous relationships. You don’t ask for much more than that.”

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