George “Sparky” Anderson made it clear, early on in his managing career in Detroit, who was in charge in the Tigers locker room.
“It’s my way,” Sparky said, “or the highway.”
Sparky took over the Tigers in June 1979 and before too long, several Tigers had hit the highway.
Some were moved out of Detroit because they were collateral damage—entities that needed to be sacrificed in order for the Tigers to acquire other pieces.
But others were sent packing because they didn’t conform to Sparky’s way. Hence, the highway.
Ron LeFlore. Steve Kemp. Jason Thompson. Names once believed to be the long term future of the organization when Sparky was hired. But all gone, traded away, within two years. All of them, for one reason or another, not among Sparky’s favorites.
Sparky Anderson had himself quite a large dog house, make no mistake. And once you landed there, it was awfully difficult to get out, in a way other than being sent packing.
Glenn Wilson was a young outfielder with a wealth of talent, drafted in the first round by the Tigers in 1980, a 6’1″ Texan who could hit, hit with power, and throw. He debuted with the Tigers in 1982, and after his first 11 games he was batting .406.
Wilson hit .292 in 1982, and became a regular in 1983. But Wilson’s numbers were pedestrian for an everyday right fielder: .268 BA, 11 HR, 65 RBI.
It was sometime during the 1983 when Wilson fell into disfavor with Sparky Anderson, the reasons unknown.
The Tigers finished a strong second to the Orioles in ’83, their mix of young and veteran talent on the verge of taking that next step. Maybe 1984 could be the Tigers’ year.
Wilson was rumored to be on the move in 1984. But spring training ’84 was almost finished, and no moves had been announced.
Until March 24.
It was that day that Tigers GM Bill Lajoie pulled off one of the most important trades in Detroit sports history.
The news came out of the blue, the Grapefruit League games winding down, the Tigers looking to go with much of the same roster they had in 1983—the roster that could muster no more than a distant second place finish to the O’s.
Leaving Detroit would be Wilson, after all—along with veteran utility guy and fan favorite John B. Wockenfuss. They were going to the Phillies, and in exchange the Tigers were getting a slick fielding first baseman named Dave Bergman—himself recently traded from San Francisco to Philadelphia—and a late-inning relief specialist with a big Afro, Willie Hernandez.
It was a curious trade, but not necessarily one that was deemed to lift the Tigers into first place. Hernandez had saved all of seven games with a 3.29 ERA in 1983, and Bergman wasn’t even an everyday player—he was a 30-year-old who’d never had more than 186 at-bats in any given big league season.
Spring training droned on, the trade’s news not lasting too long on the sports sections’ front pages.
No one knew, or felt, that the late-March trade would have a monumental impact on the 1984 baseball season. The trade was made more to move Wilson than anything else.
Except there was one man, for sure, who believed the trade would help the Tigers, and not just with the subtraction of Glenn Wilson.
Lajoie needed a glove at first base to replace Enos Cabell’s. And the Tigers had gone with closer-by-committee in ’83, led by righty Aurelio Lopez’s 18 saves. Lajoie thought it would be nice if the Tigers could add a competent left-hander to the back end of the bullpen.
You know the rest.
Hernandez was lights out in ’84, and Bergman’s stellar defense and—bonus—clutch hitting contributed mightily to the Tigers’ 35-5 start.
All Hernandez did was win the American League MVP Award, the Cy Young Award, and save three of the Tigers’ seven post-season victories, which culminated in the 1984 World Championship.
Bergman had 271 at-bats, a career-high, and batted .273, second highest of his then-10-year career. And he played marvelous defense, as expected, including helping to save Jack Morris’s no-hitter in Chicago with a late-inning gem.
Bill Lajoie is dead. He passed away yesterday at age 76, having died in his sleep.
What a lousy couple of years we’ve had in Tigertown.
Mark Fidrych. George Kell. Ernie Harwell. Sparky Anderson. And now Lajoie—all having died in 2009 or 2010.
Lajoie’s baseball career gained steam in Detroit, but it didn’t end here. He parlayed his reputation for scouting and drafting many key cogs of the 1984 championship into several other jobs, post-Tigers. His most recent role was that of consultant to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Lajoie is gone now, another link to the good old days of Tigers baseball.
What a lousy couple of years we’ve had.