DETROIT -- Theirs is a union of circumstance and fate, a marriage celebrated on a diamond instead of with one.

To put in perspective the partnership of second baseman Lou Whitaker and shortstop Alan Trammell, consider this: The Detroit Tigers have had one double-play combination since the two were summoned from Montgomery, Ala., of the Southern League and made their major league debuts in the second game of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 9, 1977. The New York Yankees, in that span, have changed managers 17 times.

Other players have changed allegiances in pursuit of dazzling riches, but Whitaker and Trammell remain a constant and reassuring sight in the Tigers' infield.

"We're both very proud that we're the longest running double-play combination," said Trammell, a Garden Grove, Calif., native who grew up in San Diego, a continent away from Whitaker's home in Martinsville, Va. "To me, to have two positions open at the same time, that's so highly unlikely.

"It was just meant to be."

Linked almost accidentally in the minor leagues, where Whitaker began as a third baseman and was shifted to second because the Tigers were deep at third, the players are linked for posterity. Their 13-year tenure is the longest for any double-play combination in major league history -- longer than the 11-year pairing of Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker, who combined with first baseman Frank Chance to form the Chicago Cubs' fabled infield early in the century, longer than the partnership of Davey Lopes and Bill Russell with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972-81.

"It's very unusual," said Sparky Anderson, who leads American League managers with more than 11 years' service but stands behind his double-play combination in seniority. "I don't believe you'll see it again because of free agency and all the other factors in the game today."

Both infielders appreciate their accomplishment but deem it so natural a part of their baseball lives that Whitaker was surprised to be asked about it last week, during a season in which Tigers first baseman Cecil Fielder is leading the major leagues in home runs and runs batted in.

"You know who I am?" Whitaker asked. "You know I'm not Cecil? Most people coming around here are looking for Cecil."

Although Whitaker is struggling at the plate with an average of .201, his nine homers are second on the Tigers behind Fielder's 25, and he has 26 RBI. He hit .251 last season, far below his career average of .276, but he led the Tigers with 28 homers (a club record for second basemen), had a career-high 85 RBI, and was the only American League second baseman to exceed 25 home runs.

"He'll straighten out," Anderson said. "I'm not worried about that."

Nor is Whitaker, who continues to be serenaded at Tiger Stadium with cries of "L-o-o-o-o-u," with nary a "Boo" among them.

"It's been a very pleasant career for me, even if this year is a little difficult," said Whitaker, who wears a brace to keep his back warm. "I still enjoy baseball. I'm still putting the numbers together, but my average is pitiful, pathetic. But I'm going to make it. I'm going to survive this thing. I'm a tiger -- I'm going to claw my way back up this tree until I get back on top. . . .

"I don't believe in jinxes, but this is year number 13 for us."

Thirteen has been lucky for Trammell, a career .286 hitter who has hit .300 or better five times and was the runner-up to Toronto's George Bell in voting for the American League's most valuable player award in 1987, with a .343 average, 28 home runs and 105 RBI.

This season he has raised his batting average to .304, and has driven in 46 runs, more than his production during his injury-riddled 1989 season.

"Trammell will be in the Hall of Fame; there's no way you can stop him," Anderson said. "He'll have the numbers, the average, the runs scored."

So much respect does Trammell command among opponents that Oakland Athletics Manager Tony La Russa decided to walk him with a one-run lead in the fourth inning last Tuesday and pitch to Fielder, who short-circuited that strategy by hitting a two-run single.

"When you break it down, you're really looking at two guys who've been our biggest producers, and they're middle men," Anderson said. "You don't expect to get that kind of hitting out of those positions, but they've given us that and strength up the middle defensively."

Whitaker, a three-time Gold Glove winner and four-time all-star, has committed only one error this season; Trammell, a four-time Gold Glove winner and five-time All-Star, has made six. The St. Louis Cardinals' Ozzie Smith is a more acrobatic shortstop, and Baltimore Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken has played more consecutive games than anyone except Lou Gehrig, but for reliability and consistency, Trammell and Whitaker are second to none.

"I had {Dave} Concepcion and {Joe} Morgan, and I had Trammell and Whitaker," said Anderson, who managed Concepcion and Hall of Famer Morgan in the heyday of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine. "I'm not going to argue over which of the two are better, because they each have their own merits."

So like a marriage is the bond shared by Whitaker and Trammell that each knows what the other is doing and each can finish the other's sentences. It may be fitting, then, that the wedge most likely to split them is real marriage.

Although Anderson said he believes the pair could play together for perhaps another six years, Whitaker laughed at the thought. Both are signed through 1992.

"I don't think my wife will let me play that much longer; after 15 years of being away from my family, that might be enough," said Whitaker, who is married to a former fashion model and is the father of four daughters ranging in age from 4 months to 9 years. "When I've mentioned it a few times, I say, 'Maybe I'll play one more year than I already have on the contract,' {and} she says, 'Whaaat?'

"When I'm away, she's had to be the mom and the dad. She's had enough of that stuff, and I have to take that into consideration. It's my career, but my family's important to me. We could play six more years, but I don't think that's going to sit too well. There's a lot of money to be made, and some people say, 'How can you quit baseball, because you'll never make so much money doing anything else?' But after I signed that last contract, I thought that would be enough baseball. I can't go back on my word. She'd be a little put out."

The notion of playing well into the 1990s appealed to Trammell, nine months younger than Whitaker, who turned 33 last month.

"I'd like to say we'll play together forever, but of course that's not realistic," Trammell said. "It's difficult to speculate. I'd certainly like to play that long, but I can't foresee that far down the road. A lot will have to do with this team. There's some rebuilding going on and a lot of new faces coming in. If we don't win, the older players could be gone. They might not want us."

That's difficult to believe of the pair Anderson called "probably our biggest offensive thrust for the last 10 years."

It was impossible for anyone who saw Trammell and Whitaker in the minor leagues to know they would be this successful. Even Anderson wasn't all that impressed when he saw them in 1978 in the Instructional League.

"I doubted their hitting. I was just wondering if they'd hit well enough," he said. "When they hit, it sounded like balsa wood because they didn't hit it very hard. They were great-looking fielders, though."

Whitaker played third base for two years in Detroit's minor league system before the Tigers, who had an outstanding third baseman in Aurelio Rodriguez, asked him to play second base, with Trammell at shortstop.

"I was a little bit hesitant, but once I made up my mind, I forgot how to play third base," said Whitaker, who learned his new position well enough to be named the 1978 AL rookie of the year. "Tram always played shortstop, but I was learning how to play a new position. It was a little scary, and I thought, if anything, it might hurt me -- trying to make the major leagues and moving into a new position. It was like starting all over again, I thought. But I always had the desire to make it. . . .

"We just went out and played together and enjoyed it. We ran away with the Southern League {in 1977}. We had good pitching and good defensive players, and that made me more at ease when I was playing."

In playing together so long, they have learned how to turn a double play without looking or communicating, a feat more difficult than it sounds. And although they may be outdone by others in flash and dash, they have persevered through prosperous and poor times with the Tigers, twice playing in the AL playoffs and earning World Series rings in 1984. Trammell was named the Series MVP for his .450 batting average, two home runs and six RBI.

Trammell leaves the superlatives to others when analyzing his and Whitaker's success. For him, it's simple.

"We've both done the job," Trammell said. "That's the reason we're still here."

Whitaker, Trammell and the Tigers aren't just existing -- they're thriving. Detroit has hovered around .500 this season and remained in contention in the AL East, dramatically reversing its 103-loss season of 1989. If the Tigers make it to the top, it's certain Whitaker and Trammell will be leading the charge.

"We're having some fun," Whitaker said. "Guys are having good years here, the pitchers are starting to build their confidence level, and the relief pitchers are doing a great job. Cecil's doing his thing, and we're doing our part, getting on base and coming up with big hits. . . .

"I've come through when we've needed it, had some good games when the big guy {Fielder} wasn't hitting. We're getting a lot of people hitting. It's a team, not a one-man band. We've got an orchestra."