Number one pick Mike Ivie battled emotional troubles in career that ended with the Tigers

Though this photo from 1982 shows Mike Ivie wearing a first baseman's glove, he only played 12 of his 92 games with Detroit in the field.

Though this photo from 1982 shows Mike Ivie wearing a first baseman’s glove, he only played 12 of his 92 games with Detroit in the field.

When you’re a first round selection in the Major League Baseball amateur draft, there are expectations. When you’re the overall #1 pick, those expectations are high. In 1970, Mike Ivie was that #1 pick, but he never lived up to the expectations, not in two stops with pro clubs in California, not with the Houston Astros, nor in a final, last-ditch trial with the Detroit Tigers. As a result, the once promising prospect’s career was over at the age of 30.

When the Tigers signed Ivie on May 6, 1982, he became one of the first free agents the club ever had ink his signature to a contract. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me go back a dozen years to when Ivie was the greatest athlete in Georgia and catch you up on his odd career.

When he was 17 years old, Mike Ivie hit over .550 as a senior for Walker High School in Atlanta, against some of the stiffest competition in the state. He batted over .425 for his four-year prep career, and as a senior he impressed everyone with his raw power. In one 21-game stretch, Ivie blasted 21 home runs. He made opposing teenage pitchers have nightmares.

The San Diego Padres, the worst team in baseball, drafted Ivie at #1 in June of 1970, and the 17-year old was in uniform for Tri-City of the Northwest League shortly after. Though he was one of the youngest players in the league, Ivie was an impressive physical specimen, standing 6’4 and weighing in at a chiseled 210 pounds. He’d been an All-State fullback and linebacker in high school, and would have certainly been offered scholarships to play football in college, but he chose baseball.

“I wanted to play both, but baseball was my best and most favorite,” Ivie said.

The Padres wasted little time, promoting Ivie in his second pro season all the way to San Diego, where he went 8-for-17 (.471) in a six-game September audition. But he wasn’t ready for The Show for a few more seasons, when in ’75 he made the Padres and hit .249 with limited power in 111 games at first base. In a quandary that would follow Ivie his entire career, the Pads were unsure of where to play the young slugger. He wasn’t naturally gifted in the field as far as mechanics went, and they tried him at catcher, first base, as well as the hot corner. He made 17 errors in just 61 games at third base that season, which didn’t impress the organization.

But Ivie’s bat was eye-popping. He gained the reputation as being one of the best “batting practice” hitters in the National League. When the Padres traveled to Cincinnati to play the powerhouse Reds, stars Pete Rose and Johnny Bench marveled at the ease of Ivie’s stroke and the power that he generated. In Houston’s Astrodome, Ivie hit a BP pitch into the upper deck in right center field, a spot few had ever reached. The powerful right-handed hitter even earned comparisons to Hank Aaron for his powerful wrists, and he was compared to another righty slugger, Harmon Killebrew, for his long home runs.

Though Ivie was named to the NL All-Rookie team in 1975, he never matured as a hitter with the Padres. His practice game rarely showed up for the real games. In more than 1,300 AB’s for San Diego, Ivie hit only 25 home runs. He hit hundreds in BP and dozens more in spring training, often sending baseballs soaring so far that the opposing team was stunned. But Ivie couldn’t get it together in the big leagues. Also, not so quietly, Ivie experienced some emotional problems early in his career. He had difficulty handling the catcher position in the minor leagues, even when the Padres tried several former catchers to help him learn the nuances of “handling a game.” At times, Ivie seemed to “check out”, sort of going through the motions. He complained that he couldn’t concentrate, and after the Padres had an eye specialist examine him, he was prescribed contact lenses. They thought maybe an astigmatism was bothering his focus. But Ivie only continued to struggle with the mental part of the game. When he went into slumps he could go days in a funk, barely interacting with the team. Most troubling, he  developed a problem throwing the baseball back to the pitcher from behind the plate. On one occasion in a game against the New York Mets, Ivie threw the ball into left field on several hops, startling the left fielder, who thought the ball had been hit into play. As his struggles grew, frustration compounded the issue.

During spring training in 1978, still just 25 years old, Ivie was traded to the San Francisco Giants. The Giants hoped a change of scenery would help, and it did at first. In ’78, the Giants fought their way into a battle with the Los Angeles Dodgers for NL West supremacy. On May 28, Ivie delivered a pinch-hit grand slam at Candlestick Park off Dodgers’ hurler Don Sutton as the crowd went crazy. Ivie was surrounded by teammates as he touched home plate after the blast, which was one of four pinch-hit homers he hit that season. In many ways, it was the biggest moment of his otherwise disappointing and puzzling career.

Ivie hit 27 homers for the Giants in 1979, and the club saw him as the heir apparent at first base to veteran Willie McCovey. But 1980 proved painful in many ways for Ivie. First, he sliced off part of his pinky on his right hand during a pre-season hunting trip. When the season started he was the Giants’ first baseman, but he hit just two home runs in the first two months. Faced with letting the team down, the pressure got to Ivie, and in June he left the team voluntarily. He said he needed a break from baseball. A phone call from McCovey coaxed Ivie back to the club  a few weeks later, but the slugger never got on track, hitting just four homers and batting .241 in 79 games for the season.

In 1981, two new faces changed the course of Ivie’s career: new San Francisco manager Frank Robinson and Enos Cabell, who won the first base job away from Ivie. Just a few weeks into the season, the Giants dealt Ivie to the Astros for Dave Bergman and Jeffrey Leonard. Away from California, which he felt had never been a good spot for him, Ivie tried to focus on earning a full-time job with Houston in ’81. But a factor worked against him: the seven-week players’ strike that splintered the season, which kept Ivie from getting into any sort of groove at all at the plate. He continued to struggle emotionally too – after one bad performance in May, he was found crying in his locker. Early in the 1982 season, Ivie asked the Astros to give him his release, and they agreed. He had played 26 games for Houston, failing to hit even a single homer.

But the Astros were doing him a favor, as Ivie had already put out feelers and heard that Sparky Anderson, always an admirer, would be interested in having him on his roster. The Tigers signed him for the major league minimum and Houston picked up the balance of his $240,000 salary for the ’82 season.

In Detroit on a young team with some promise, playing in a park suited for his power stroke, Ivie was confident.

“I’ve made up my mind to play,” he told The Sporting News. “That’s what I said in spring training, that’s what I’m saying now. My goal is to hit the ball hard and let it go where it wants to.”

At least on a few occasions, Ivie made good on that promise. He hit his first homer as a Tiger in his fourth game with Detroit, on May 10 at Texas. Ten days later he belted two homers against Oakland in a victory at Tiger Stadium. He hit five homers in his first 12 games playing for Sparky. But the Tigers didn’t dare put him in the field, as Ivie still seemed to have a phobia about throwing the ball. On June 11, the 29-year-old Tiger DH had a single, double, and triple in his first three at-bats against the Brewers in Milwaukee. In his last two plate appearances he walked and got a single, but was unable to get the home run for the cycle. Ivie was the first Tiger to get the first three legs of the cycle in his first three swings since 1950.

Overall, Ivie performed pretty well in his first season with Detroit, hitting 14 home runs in only 259 at-bats. For all his troubles, Ivie could still hit a baseball.

“Hey, a fish doesn’t forget how to swim,” he said.

Entering 1983, Sparky was still a believer. “I still feel Ivie can be a good hitter if a team is willing to put him at DH and keep him there,” the Tigers’ skipper said.

But Ivie had a short leash in ’83 on a team with many offensive options. He hit only .214 with no home runs and 7 RBI in 12 games before being released on May 16. Ironically, he was replaced by Enos Cabell (for whom he had previously been traded to Houston) and Rick Leach.

Ivie never got back into professional baseball after the Tigers let him go, which was ultimately fine with him. The pressure was just too much. Maybe it was the expectations he had placed on him as a teenager, or maybe it was something mental. Ivie thought his problems started early in his life.

“It goes back a long way to my childhood,” Ivie told Joseph Durso of the New York Times in 1981. “I was an only child, and everybody expected me to be the best player in the world. My dad wanted me to be the best in the Little League. You know, you’re supposed to go 6 for 5. The pressure started building up.”

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.