Thursday, December 30, 2010

The 1984 Detroit Tigers

People remember great teams. The 1927 and 1998 Yankees, the 1948 Indians, the 1996 Boston Red Sox, the Big Red Machine and the Cardinals of the mid-60s. But the 1984 Tigers seem to have passed into oblivion. And it's a sad thing really. Kirk Gibson is more known for the homer he hit for the Dodgers against Eckersley than he is for crushing two homers against the Padres in the 1984 World Series. Sparky Anderson's role as that team's manager is overshadowed by his years with the Reds. The simple fact is that something special happened in 1984 and it should never be forgotten.

A lot of this post was inspired by the news story that the architect of that team, Bill Lajoie, just passed away this week. Some will say that Lajoie inherited a great team to start with since 1984 was his first year as general manager. But it was his move to bring in Willie Hernandez at the last minute before the season began that might have sealed the whole deal (more about Hernandez later). All of those sentiments would be true except that as a long time scout, he had a hand in landing players like Gibson, Parrish, Petry, Trammell and Whitaker for the Tigers organization. It was this great home grown core that were the rock of the 1984 season.

But a lot of teams have had talent. There was just something special about this team and it manifested itself right out of the gate. The team won it's first nine games. In those nine games, they outscored their opponents 60-23. They lost to the great Saberhagen but then won seven more in a row and their record stood at 16-1. That is a start that had never happened before and hasn't happened since. By the end of April, they were 18-2 and Jack Morris was 5-0. By May 24, the Tigers were 35-5. No team has ever won more in the first 40 games. Jack Morris was 9-1, his only lost being a 1-0 loss to Bobby Ojeda and the Boston Red Sox. By the end of May they were 37-9, a two month clip at an .803 winning percentage.

Sure enough, there was no way to sustain that kind of winning percentage. But despite slowing down a bit, the Tigers never had a sub-.500 month that season, had two more months over .600 and owned first place in the American League East (there were only two divisions back then) from the first game to the last. The team won 104 games total that season, swept the Royals in the playoffs and beat the Padres four games to one in the World Series. Their final tally for the year was 111-59. The Tigers were 25-11 in one-run games. They were 11-2 in extra inning games and 30-12 in blowout games. They were simply dominant.

And it wasn't just one facet of the game that brought them such success. They weren't just a pitching team or a hitting team. They had perfect symmetry. They led the majors in OPS+ as a team at 113 and they led the majors in ERA+ at 113. They came in third in the majors in fielding percentage.  In the American League, the Tigers were first in runs scored and home runs and On Base Percentage. They were second in walks, slugging and OPS. On the pitching side they were first in ERA, saves, hits and runs and earned runs allowed. They gave up the second fewest homers. Or to put it more simply, they were a great team.

And they were a very good mix of the old and the young. Darrell Evans, Larry Herndon and Dave Bergman were on the plus side of their 30s (Evans was way plus) and all contributed. Several key home grown Tigers like Gibson, Trammell and Whitaker were all entering their prime years. And youngster like 23 year old, Howard Johnson, were just beginning to grow into good major league players.

The defense was particularly excellent up the middle. Trammell and Whitaker were entering their peak years, years that should have made them Hall of Fame players, but just like the 1984 Tigers themselves, those two have been overlooked in the Hall. And Chet Lemon was a superb center fielder. Rupert Jones, when he played, which was often, was an excellent outfielder. Bergman wasn't your typical first baseman with pop, but he was excellent with the glove and still contributed a 113 OPS+. Gibson was just average in right as was Herndon in left. HoJo was a little below average at third. And behind the plate, Lance Parrish threw out 46% of potential base steal attempts. It was a great defense that aided a very good pitching staff.

It seems weird that this team didn't have a twenty game winner. Morris, who was 9-1 after 40 games ended up at 19-11 with an ERA+ of 109. He wasn't spectacular, but he was very good. Dan Petry was 25 but already had excellent control. He went 18-8 that year with an ERA+ of 124. This was a year after he went 19-11 for the Tigers in 1983. By the time Petry was 26, he had already won 93 games in his career. He would only pitch six more seasons and win 32 more games.

Milt Wilcox was the third starter and he went 17-8 with a 4.00 ERA. The lefty was 34 at the time and two years later was out of baseball. Juan Berenguer was the fourth starter and went a hard luck 11-10 despite an ERA+ of 113. Even so, it was the only year he won more than ten games in a season. He became primarily a reliever after that season and had some very good seasons with the Twins and Braves. He pitched 15 seasons in the majors.

The rotation was rounded out by Glenn Abbott at first and finally by Dave Rozema. Abbott started the year in the rotation but was ineffective. Rozema went 7-6 and was just barely above league average. But he was good enough for the fifth spot on that team. It was Abbott's last season in the big leagues and Rozema was out of the majors after 1986.

Probably what most Tigers' fans will remember about that season was the duel relief tandem of Willie Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez. Hernandez was an abosolute steal from the Phillies in a big trade before the season. Hernandez and Bergman went to the Tigers for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss. Wilson and Wockenfuss were somewhat useful major league players, but Hernandez won the Cy Young Award in 1984 AND the MVP. And he was unhittable.

Willie Hernandez wasn't a one inning closer. He led the league in appearances with 80 and he pitched 140.1 innings! He gave up only 96 hits and 36 walks. He saved 32 games and won 9 more against only three losses. After the Tigers had such a rapid start, their attendance heated up and they ended up leading the AL in attendance that season. Whenever Hernandez entered the game, it became a huge event and the excitement in the crowd was amazing. For better or worse, it may also be where the "Wave" became a popular major sporting event in the stands. Words alone can't describe what it was like when Hernadez came into a game. It was legend.

Willie had one more very good year, another good one and was out of baseball after the 1989 season.

Aurelio Lopez was about as opposite a pitcher to Hernandez as there could be. But the Tigers wouldn't have been as good without him just as much as Hernandez. Lopez, a Mexican pitcher didn't get a full time job in the majors until he was thirty when the Cardinals traded him to the Tigers in 1978. He was a very good reliever for the Tigers for five seasons leading into the 1984 season, a season in which he was 35 years old. Lopez got into 71 games in 1984 and pitched 137.2 innings in relief. He picked up 14 saves and went 10-1 while giving up only 109 hits en route to a 2.84 ERA. It was the fourth time in six years that Lopez pitched more than 110 innings for the Tigers and he won ten or more games three times.

It was the last gasp for Lopez as he was not effective the following year and Lopez had two lackluster years in Houston before retiring in 1988. He finished with a 62-36 record in the majors, mostly in relief to go with 93 saves.

The 1984 Tigers finished 15 games in front of the second place Toronto Blue Jays. They then went on to face the Kansas City Royals in the playoffs. The Royals barely finished 1984 with a winning record and won a very weak American League West division. The first game of the playoff featured a 8-1 blowout as Morris and Hernandez combined on a five-hitter. Trammell, Herndon and Parrish all hit homers. The second game provided a lot more drama.

The Tigers jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead on Saberhagen, then at the height of his career. Kirk Gibson hit a homer of the great Royals' pitcher. But the Royals pecked away at Petry and despite Hernanez coming into the game in the eighth, tied the score 3-3. Dan Quisenberry and Aurelio Lopez both came in and pitched the ninth and tenth and the score was still knotted at 3-3 going into the top of the 11th. Quisenberry, a great relief pitcher who doesn't often get his due, gamely went out to pitch the 11th, but he had little left. Two straight sacrifice flies pushed across two runs and Lopez pitched a scoreless bottom half to get the win.

The third game featured sterling performances from Charlie Leibrandt and Milt Wilcox. Leibrandt gave up a run early but then shut the Tigers down in a complete game gem. But Wilcox was even better and pitched eight scoreless innings. Hernandez came in the ninth and shut the game down giving the Tigers a 1-0 thriller of a win and the Tigers went to the World Series. Kirk Gibson was series MVP.

The Tigers faced the Padres in the World Series. It was the Padres first World Series and the Tigers couldn't have had a better situation. The Tigers won the first game, 3-2, on a complete game by Morris and a homer by Herndon. The Tiges played a sloppy game in Game Two and made three errors on the way to a 5-3 loss. Petry got the loss.

The rest of the way, it was all Tigers. Milt Wilcox pitched six shutout innings in game three and Willie Hernandez rescued the Tigers in the 7th and pitched the rest of the way for a save. Marty Castillo, who got the nod over HoJo in the post season by Sparky Anderson hit a big homer for the Tigers. Jack Morris pitched another complete game to win the fourth game, 4-2. Alan Trammell hit two homers to seal his World Series MVP. Petry started Game Five and was again not effective. But Hernandez and Lopez pitched from the fifth inning on and shut the Padres down. Kirk Gibson hit two homers and Parrish added another and the Tigers were World Series Champs.

The series capped a remarkable season and finished the storybook season. That the Tigers couldn't hold on to the magic is probably what has kept this team from the heights of attention that it deserves. The Tigers would come in third place in their division the next couple of seasons, contend one more season after that and fall into mediocrity. But for one glorious season, the Tigers were on top of the world and it sure was fun to watch.

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