Saturday, 12 April 2014

The 1984 Detroit Tigers


Shortstop Alan Trammell, 1984
(Topps trading card used courtesy of The Topps Company, Inc)

I was 32 in 1984, married with 2 kids, and with a good-sized mortgage to boot. Moustaches, mullets, and big hair were the fads. Republican Ronald Reagan was President. Conservative Brian Mulroney was our Prime Minister here in Canada. Former Liberal PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau announced his retirement from politics. “About time” was our family response. The Soviet Union made it known to the world that it would boycott the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The McIntosh personal computer was splashed on the market, changing technology forever. Sales of George Orwell’s book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, first written in 1948, had a massive rebirth in sales. It was also the “Year of the Tiger.” Detroit Tigers, that is.

In 1983, the Detroit Tigers had finished 6 games behind the World Series champs Baltimore Orioles in the American League East. I was working for the Loblaw’s grocery chain then and I remember by boss, Jerry, telling me after the season was over that the team to watch out for in the future was my Detroit Tigers. I had to agree. I had been a Tigers fan since their come-from-behind 1968 championship. I had enjoyed myself watching games at Tiger Stadium with my wife’s family since 1976. I actually took my son, Barrie, 7 years old at the time, to his first game at Tiger Stadium that 1983 summer, a game against the Baltimore Orioles. By osmosis, I guess I helped to shape him into a Tigers fan, too.

The 1983 team took root in 1978, when the Tigers had brought up 4 youngsters from the minors…second-baseman Lou Whitaker, shortstop Alan Trammell, pitcher Jack Morris, and catcher Lance Parrish. Not bad for one year. These 4 were the nucleus. Next came the tweaking. Pitchers Aurelio “Senior Smoke” Lopez and Dan Petry were added in 1979, along with manager Sparky Anderson in mid-June, fired by the Cincinnati Reds after the 1978 season for winning only 92 games. It was his second-straight second-place finish after collecting World Championships for the Reds in 1975 and 1976, which was the first time a National League team had taken back-to-back championships since John McGraw’s 1921-22 New York Giants. Anderson had decided to quit managing after the firing, but Tigers GM Jim Campbell was persistent. “He was the best man I could find,” Campbell said, “and I wanted him badly.” In Detroit, Anderson vowed to bring home a pennant winner in 5 years. Then rookie outfielder Kirk Gibson joined the club in 1980, another excellent addition.

The Tigers had a new sole owner for 1984 in pizza king Tom Monaghan, a handsome 47-year-old born and bred Michigan boy from nearby Ann Arbor. He was a self-made success story of colossal proportions, and he wasn’t afraid to spend money to hire the right people. After serving in the US Marine Corps as a young man, he borrowed $500 and opened his first pizza shop in 1960. By 1984, he was the chairman and president of Domino’s Pizza, Inc., the world’s largest pizza delivery chain at the time with 2,000 franchises and projected sales of $600 million for 1984. When he took over the reins of the Tigers in October 1983, he told the press, “It’s a lifelong dream come true. I never wanted to own the Yankees or Angels or any other team. I just wanted the Tigers.” At one time he wanted to play shortstop for them. “When I realized I would never be able to do it, I did the next best thing in buying them.”

The broadcasters were already legendary figures in the game. Ex-Tigers Al Kaline and George Kell teamed up to handle the television side of things for WDIV-TV, while Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey took to radio on the flagship WJR. I remember the WJR signal was so strong that my son and I could pick it up at times in our driveway in Burlington, Ontario more than 200 miles away. Clear as can be some nights, and for several innings. New to the scene that year was Pro Am Sports System (PASS) Cable TV where Larry Osterman and ex-Tiger catcher Bill Freehan shared the duties.

And, of course, we can’t leave out where the Tigers played. Tiger Stadium, that rusty old steel girder on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull built in 1912 and added onto with 2 large pre-war renos to where it now had 51,000 seats in 1984. Yeah, sure, it was old, but we loved it. A dump, but a historic dump. Ticket prices in 1984 were $9 for box seats, $7.50 for reserves, $5 for grandstands, and $3.50 for bleachers.  Our favorites were any seats in the upper deck, where you could almost lean onto the playing field. One time my son and I were in the first row on the first-base side and we could clearly hear the Detroit first-baseman swear when a line-drive banged off his shins.  

Prior to the start of the 1984 season, Jim Campbell made 2 significant deals. First, he signed power-hitting free agent DH-first baseman Darrel Evans on 17 December 1983, the Tigers first million dollar free agent. Then Campbell pulled off  the clincher the following March before spring training was over when he grabbed reliever Willie Hernandez and slick-fielding first-baseman Dave Bergman (the one who did the swearing mentioned earlier) from the Phillies for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss, the man with the last name that you had better pronounce properly after a few drinks. Wockenfuss, tired of his pinch-hitting role and not playing on a regular basis, wanted out and said that a trade would suit him just fine. So, the Tigers accommodated him.

As spring training was drawing to a close, it appeared to many in the press that Detroit had a very good team, at least on paper. Managed by Sparky Anderson in his 5th year now, the silver-haired 50-year-old was given a new contract in the off-season. He had Dave Bergman, Darrell Evans, Steve Garbey (sometimes at third) at first. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell at second and short. Tom Brookens and Howard Johnson at third. Behind the plate was Lance Parrish. In the outfield was Kirk Gibson, Larry Herndon, and Chet Lemon. The notable extras were John Grubb, Rusty Kuntz, and Ruppert Jones, who joined the club in May. The starting pitchers were Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Juan Berenguer, Milt Wilcox, and Dave Rozema. In the pen stood the lefty Willie Hernandez and the righty Aurelio Lopez, plus Doug Bair. The coaches consisted of  Dick Tracewski, Billy Consolo, Alex Grammas, Gates Brown, and Roger Craig, a staff that represented 53 years of major league playing experience, plus another 61 years in the coaching and managerial ranks. The Tigers finished spring training with a not-so-great 11-17 won-lost, the second worst record in the American League. But, what’s spring training? That’s where a manager experiments, lets the rookies play, and such…

Then someone rang the bell in April. The Tigers won the first 9 games of the season, 17 of 18, then a whopping 35 of their first 40. During the 4th game of the season, Jack Morris threw a no-hitter against the White Sox, beating them 4-0 in Chicago. It was the first no-hitter thrown by a Tiger since Jim Bunning in 1958.  After the first few weeks, my extremely observant boss, Jerry, approached me and said, grinning, “I knew the Tigers were the team of the future…but like this!” I didn’t have an answer for him. I never expected it either. Who did? The closest any American League team came to the Tigers was the Toronto Blue Jays in mid-June when they crept within 3.5 games. Then the Tigers took off again and separated themselves from the rest of the pack with timely hitting and Lopez and especially Hernandez snuffing out the opposition when the starters faltered in the late innings.

The Tigers captured the AL East flag on 18 September by beating the Milwaukee Brewers 3-0. By season’s end, they finished 104-58, and 15 games ahead of the second-place Blue Jays. They set an all-time Tigers home attendance by attracting 2.7 million fans. They had a league-best in 3 team categories…187 homers, 3.49 ERA and 829/643 for-against, and a second-best .432 slugging average. The Tigers were only the 4th team ever to go wire-to-wire in first place and the first since the 1927 New York Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Strangely, no Tiger scored 100 runs, played in 150 games, hit 35 homers or 100 RBIs or had 600 at-bats. Only one batter, Alan Trammell, hit over .300. And no pitcher won 20 games. The pinch-hitters performed when called upon by hitting .312 with 6 homers and 42 RBIs. It was a total team effort. They had 3 Gold Gloves in Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell. Kirk Gibson hit 27 dingers and stole 29 bases, making him the first Tiger ever to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases. Six players made it to the American League All-Star Team.

The Tigers weren’t finished with just taking the AL East. It wasn’t until they whipped the Kansas City Athletics three straight in the American League playoff that Sparky Anderson had kept his promise of a pennant in 5 years. Next came the World Series with the San Diego Padres as the opposition. It was no contest, all over in 5 games. Although the Tigers were outslugged .265 to .253, the Tigers hit when it counted including 7 homers to 3 by the Padres, who only scattered hits here and there. The Padres were outpitched too. The Tigers had a stingy 3.07 ERA to San Diego’s 4.71. No Padres starting pitcher got out of the 3rd inning. In fact, Tigers batters blasted Padres starters for a 13.94 ERA. Hotter than a firecracker, Jack Morris won both of his starts with complete games by striking out 13 batters and walking only 3. Willie Hernandez picked up saves in Games 3 and 5, going 2 innings or more each time out.  

The final game of the year, the 5th game of the World Series, seemed to be the epitome of the Tigers season in accomplishing anything they set out to do. At Tiger Stadium, in the bottom of the 8th inning, two runners on, Padres reliever Goose Gossage stood on mound, the ball in his hand, doing his best to convince manager Dick Williams that he (Gossage) could get the next batter, Kirk Gibson, out. Gossage, going back to his 6 years as a Yankee, had owned Gibson from their time together in the American league. Williams agreed with a nod and left for the dugout. Gibson then got all his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame into the next pitch and proceeded to park a 3-run homer (his second homer on the day) in the upper deck to put the game out of reach at 8-4. All 51,901 fans rose as one and cheered wildly. It was the final nail in the coffin for the Padres. An inning later, the fans went nuts inside and outside the park.

Manager Sparky Anderson, 1984
(Topps trading card used courtesy of The Topps Company, Inc)
Sparky now became the first manager in World Series history to win a championship in both leagues. He not only took Manager of the Year honors but was also the first manager to win 100 games in both leagues. Reliever Willie Hernandez took the AL Cy Young and the MVP award, with a 9-3, 1.92 ERA season where he saved 32 of possible 33 attempts. This was back in the days when relievers were real workhorses, and he was a cut above the rest with 140 innings thrown in 80 appearances. Kirk Gibson was the AL Championship series MVP, while shortstop  Alan Trammell took the World Series MVP award with a mighty 9-for-20 and a .450 average, with 6 RBIs, and 2 homers, both coming in Game 4. We can’t forget his outstanding defense and that he also hit .364 against the Royals in the AL playoffs.

My son, Barrie, was in Cooperstown in 2001 for the Hall of Fame ceremonies that inducted Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield, and there he met Goose Gossage signing autographs. Barrie approached Gossage and asked, “Did you really talk Williams into letting you pitch to Gibson?” And the ex-reliever replied, grudgingly, “Yeah, I did.” Barrie asked a couple more questions, but quickly sensed Gossage was getting annoyed. So, he left. Gossage made it to the Hall of Fame 7 years later. I hope he wasn’t so grumpy at his own induction.

It’s strange how things worked out for me in 1984. I had been going to at least one Tiger game each season from 1976 up to 1983. But for some strange reason, I just didn’t get around to going during their championship year. Then, every season from 1985 up to the closing of Tiger Stadium in 1999, I went at least once. Wouldn’t you know it.

From the 1984 Detroit Tigers, 3 players are listed in the Top 20 out of the Top 100 of all-time at their positions, as rated by The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. They are Lance Parrish, the 19th best catcher…Lou Whitaker, the 13th best second-baseman…and Alan Trammell, the 9th best shortstop. But none of these players are in the Hall of Fame. No player from that team is. Pitcher Jack Morris isn’t either, the winningest pitcher of the 1980s and one of the best money hurlers in recent memory. And to think, the keystone combo of Trammell and Whitaker has produced more double plays than anyone else in history. It sure leaves you wondering. Only manager Sparky Anderson is in the hallowed hall and he made it in 2000.

In 1992, Tom Monahan sold the Tigers to another pizza man, Mike Ilitch, the founder of Little Caesars. The Tigers just simply switched pizza companies and moved on to where they are today--annual contenders, despite the fact that their last championship was 1984.

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