Thanks to the work of himself and others well before him, it's a game of universal opportunity. But it's also a game of worldwide competition.
"The only thing I can say for all the kids here is put in more time. We all had to," Whitaker said after being honored with the Tigers' African-American Legacy Award on Friday at Comerica Park. "To play at this level, this is not a once-a-week job. This is something you've gotta have love for the game in your heart. You've gotta play a lot. And opportunity may arise.
"I've had a few youngsters over the years. I've helped a few. A few have been drafted. When I've spent my time, I want my time well spent. I want somebody who's going to be there, who's going to show me something that's going to make me be out there to assist. But there are a lot of kids out there, and help comes from everywhere. You've just gotta be out there. Being a Major League ballplayer, it didn't just happen."
Whitaker's honor is part of the Tigers' annual Negro Leagues Tribute weekend. Among those in attendance were Tigers pitcher David Price, former Tigers greats Willie Horton, Jake Wood, Dan Petry and Dave Rozema, and players from several local high schools, including Major League Draft prospect Nick Plummer from Brother Rice High School.
Whitaker encouraged all of them to put in the work. It was that way for Whitaker growing up in Virginia, then coming up through the Tigers' farm system. He recalled the extra work he put in with a young shortstop named Alan Trammell after the Tigers had moved Whitaker from third base to second at Double-A Montgomery in 1977. For 30 straight days, they put in extra work taking ground balls and turning double plays before games.
Whitaker and Trammell worked enough that summer to get the call to Detroit that September. They became the Tigers' double-play combination for the next two decades and the cornerstone of the franchise's success in the 1980s and early '90s. Whitaker himself became one of the greatest second basemen of his generation, combining 20-homer power with double-digit steal speed and the eye to draw more walks than strikeouts.
They have a case as the greatest double-play duo in modern Major League history, but they do not have a spot in the Hall of Fame. For Whitaker, the snub was worse than that for Trammell, because it was a one-and-done scenario. Whitaker was selected on just 2.9 percent of ballots submitted in 2001, knocking him off the ballot after one year.
"I think one of the greatest disservices since I've been in the game is how this guy [Whitaker] was not close to making the Hall of Fame," Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "But we're here to honor him this weekend, and justly deserved."
Whitaker was happy to have it.
"I appreciate all the support from others saying, 'Lou, you and Tram deserve to be in there,'" he said. "But when I came to play in the Major Leagues, that wasn't something that stood out: I'm going to be a Hall of Famer. My main priority was just go out there and play, do the best that I could do, and everything else is in everybody else's hands. The votes, there's nothing I can do about those, because it's not for me to say."
That's how he wants to be remembered, as someone who put in his work every day and performed without much fanfare or promotion. He believes Detroit appreciated that.
"My experience here is we love people who come here to go to work," he said. "And that's what I came here to do: Go to work, not talk about it. Work, work, work. And have the work ethics to go with it."