“I remember saying that if people would just not give up on us, and I mean our fans, they’d be smiling a big broad smile at the end of the year.”
That quote is from a grizzled Tigers manager who had faith. And it came 25 years ago. Sure, it could have dripped out of the corner of Jim Leyland’s post-game meal stuff mouthed, but it actually came from Sparky Anderson on October 4, 1987, after his club clinched the division title in thrilling fashion.
“I knew there was talent here,” Sparky beamed.
Eerie, isn’t it?
A quarter of a century after Sparky and His Gang sped past the Toronto Blue Jays to capture the AL East title by two games on the final day, the 2012 Tigers have channeled that same spirit to steal away a division crown in the final days of the season.
In ’87, the Tigers stumbled to an 11-19 record and were languishing in last place in May. Similarly, in 2012, the Tigers scuffled most of the season, frustrating their fans as they failed to run away with a mediocre AL Central division. Finally, helped by a collapse from the Southsiders in Chicago, the Tigers rose to the top and are headed to the post-season again.
Ironically, in a season that in some ways mirrors ’87, no ceremony was held to reunite or honor the the team that posted baseball’s best record 25 years ago and won one of the most exciting races in history.
The Detroit organization is not known for being sentimental, so the fact that Mr. Ilitch didn’t bring back members of that team on their silver anniversary isn’t a shock. But it is a shame.
No, the ’87 team didn’t win the World Series, they didn’t even win the pennant. So, they will always pale in comparison to the darling ’84 club. But they were a great team, a team that in many ways was more well balanced than the World Series team from four years earlier. The personal stories from that team are wonderful too.
Consider Alan Trammell, the formerly light-hitting shortstop who was asked by Sparky to be the cleanup hitter and responded by hitting .343 with 28 homers and 105 RBI. Tram hit something like .417 in the last five weeks of the season. You could look it up.
How about Darrell Evans, the ancient slugger who clubbed 34 homers at the age of 40 and played in 150 games?
Kirk Gibson was hurt the first month or so of the season (a big reason the Tabbies got out to a weak start), but when he returned he was the Gibby we all remember: stealing bases, running over catchers, crushing mammoth home runs. On the next-to-the-last Sunday of the season, in Toronto, with the Tigs trailing the Jays 1-0 in the 9th inning, Gibson cranked a game-tying homer off Tom Henke. The Tigers won the game in extra-innings and instead of being 4 1/2 games out with seven to go, they were 2 1/2 games out.
There was rookie Jimmy Walewander, who for some reason was called up from Toledo in June and made the Tigers look like geniuses with his gutsy play. In one game in July, Walewander, who was famous for his love of punk rock, slammed a game-winning home run against the Angels in a game where he was filling in for an injured Lou Whitaker. Two days after Gibby’s heroics in Toronto, with Detroit needing every game to catch the Jays, Walewander had three hits in a laugher over the Orioles.
Catcher Lance Parrish had exited Detroit via free agency prior to the season, which is why Sparky needed Trammell to hit cleanup. Not missing much of a beat, rookie Matt Nokes became the regular catcher and quickly showed how much he loved the short porch at Tiger Stadium. Nokes socked 32 homers.
The Tigers hit a lot of home runs that season. Chet Lemon joined Nokes, Gibson, Evans, and Trammell by topping the 20-homer mark. Trusty Tom Brookens was again ensconced at third and he hit 13 jacks too.
Though Brooky was always reliable, as usual the team tried in ’87 to find a bigger bat for the hot corner, and they rolled the dice twice that year via trades. In August they nabbed Jim Morrison from the Pirates and he promptly hit a home run against the Yankees in his first game for Detroit. He hit four homers in his first 17 games for Sparky, all in August when the Tigs were gaining on the Jays. Earlier, in June, GM Bill Lajoie made one of his best moves of the season, signing veteran Bill Madlock as a free agent after the Los Angeles Dodgers had simply released him. The former batting champion may have seemed long in the tooth at 36, but he sparked the Tigers, providing clutch hits and some surprising power with 17 doubles and 14 homers in just half a season in Motown. In a crucial game against the Blue Jays in late September, a hard slide by “Mad Dog” into second base that upended (and injured) shortstop Tony Fernandez set the tone for Detroit’s charge to the division title. Not everyone appreciated the play at the time, however.
“There’s a difference between a hard slide and a dirty slide,” said Toronto second baseman Nelson Liriano. “That was a dirty slide. It was illegal.”
Illiegal slide or not, Madlock was a critical piece of Sparky’s arsenal in ’87. Holdovers from the 1984 club were still around too: Dave Bergman, Johnny Grubb, and Larry Herndon were role players that season. It was Herndon’s solo homer that provided the margin in the 1-0 victory on the final day of the season that gave Detroit the division.
But the ’87 team was much more than just home run hitting and opportunistic offense. The pitching staff was loaded. At the top of the rotation was Jack Morris, who was ironically booed when he took the mound on opening day. In the off-season, Morris had went through a very public contract fight with the team and nearly bolted the Tigers, something the fans were less than happy about. But Jack sloughed that off and won 18 games, completing 13 of his starts while striking out 208 batters.
No one loved home cooking more than Walt Terrell, who won 17 games while going 13-2 at The Corner. Veteran southpaw Frank Tanana, the Detroit native, won 15 games, tossing three shutouts, including the clincher in Game #162.
But the biggest story of the ’87 season was Doyle Alexander, the veteran right-hander acquired at the trade deadline. The 36-year old, known for his crusty personality, knee-high fastball, and penchant for inducing groundballs, pitched like Cy Young after coming over from the Atlanta Braves. He went 9-0 in 11 starts and posted a 1.53 ERA. He was Doug Fister of 2011, only a lot better. Where would the team have been without Alexander? “In the cemetery,” Sparky quipped.
Armed with the veterans he cherished and youngsters with undeniable talent, Sparky rode those horses as far as he could. Willie Hernandez was still in the bullpen, but Mike Henneman and Eric King also shared closer duties. No Tiger reliever saved as many as 10 games, but four saved between 5-9.
The team went 17-9 in June and were five games back of the Blue Jays. In July the Tigers went 17-9 again, inching within three games of first place. Then they won 19 games in August, moving into the top position for the first time. Toronto and Detroit swiveled back and forth for the rest of the season, all the way through the final three-game series at Tiger Stadium to end the season. But the ’87 Tigers never gave up, as one of the season’s most thrilling games proved.
On June 28, in a Sunday afternoon game against the rival Orioles at Tiger Stadium, Detroit trailed 7-4 in the ninth inning with Baltimore closer Tom Niedenfuer on the mound. Pinch-hitting, Grubb led off and hit a home run into the upper deck in right field. Tigers down two runs. Matt Nokes followed and belted a fastball into the right center field bleachers to pull the Tigers within a run. Next to face Niedenfuer was Madlock, who had already hit two homers that afternoon. Amazingly, Madlock hit another homer, the third straight for the Tigers and his third of the contest. Game tied. Two innings later Trammell singled in the winning run. It was a magical season in Detroit, one worth remembering.