The Tigers came out of spring training in Lakeland confident of their hitting. Their lineup was rich with veteran bats and some young ones. The offense didn’t figure to be a problem.
But oh, what about that pitching!
The pitching caused some of the so-called experts to make a face that was consistent with biting into a lemon. There were a couple reliable arms but after that, you might have wanted to pray for rain, a la the old Boston Braves of Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain.
Then a funny thing happened. The offense was slow out of the gate, and the pitching—surprise, surprise—actually became the team’s saving grace.
Chalk another one up against the supposed wise baseball minds.
It should—if you’re over 45 years old.
If you thought I was speaking of this year’s Tigers, you’re forgiven. You should also be heartened.
This is the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Tigers—who often are nothing more to people’s recollection than the team that came four years after the heroic 1968 Tigers.
But the ’72 Tigers came within a whisker—pun intended—of making the World Series. And the formula they used was the opposite of what was forecast for them.
The Tigers of 1971 were a power-laden team, filled with those same heroes from 1968.
Norm Cash, still raising the right field roof at age 36.
Jim Northrup, another dangerous left-handed bat.
Bill Freehan, still the league’s best catcher.
Willie Horton, always a big bopper.
Al Kaline, another 36-year-old veteran who made the All-Star team in 1971, as did Cash and Freehan.
Off the bench was Gates Brown, who, if he had been born five years later, might have been the greatest designated hitter in history, let alone just for the Tigers.
Then you had the role players, like Mickey Stanley, Aurelio Rodriguez, Tony Taylor and Dick McAuliffe, all of whom could reach the seats more than occasionally.
So it was understandable that the Tigers felt comfortable with their offense coming out of spring training in 1972; the 1971 team had won 91 games and finished a strong second to Baltimore.
On the mound, the Tigers rotation was anchored by veterans Mickey Lolich (lefty) and Joe Coleman (righty), but after that it was a crapshoot. Lolich and Coleman each won 20-plus games. Then you did a rain dance.
The offense bulled its way to the 91 wins—that and the magic of manager Billy Martin.
Martin was, in a way, the perfect manager at the perfect time for the Tigers in those days.
It’s the tenet of hiring and firing coaches and managers in sports that you replace the fired guy with his polar opposite.
If the fired guy is too nice and too much a “player’s manager (or coach),” then you get a tough guy to take his place.
If the fired guy is too strict, you bring in an old softy who the players can “relate to.”
If the fired guy is quiet, go get a loudmouth. If the fired guy has loose lips, hire a clam with lockjaw.
And so on.
The 1970 Tigers played uninspired baseball for manager Mayo Smith, a hands-off skipper whose laissez-faire ways worked in 1968, to the tune of a World Series championship.
But by 1970, the Tigers were cranky and filled with the distraction of Denny McLain, whose escapades often went unchecked by the passive Smith.
As the ’70 season closed, it was terribly apparent that the Tigers needed a swift kick between the back pockets.
Enter Martin, one of the most celebrated butt kickers of all time.
Martin was still a raw manager in 1970, having guided the Minnesota Twins to the 1969 AL East pennant as a rookie skipper. Martin fought the umpires and his own players on his way to glory. A celebrated incident with pitcher Dave Boswell occurred in the alley behind the Lindell AC in Detroit. Martin gave the term “giving the pitcher the hook” a whole new meaning, as he KO’d Boswell after a night of drinking.
Minnesota fired Martin after one winning but notorious season in what would become a career trend for him.
After the 1970 season, the Tigers dismissed Smith, who on his way out of town claimed the baseball fans of Detroit couldn’t tell the difference between a ballplayer and a Japanese aviator. Smith’s words.
GM Jim Campbell brought in Martin, a manager Campbell admired from afar, and a former Tigers player (1958).
Campbell figured—rightly, really—that Martin was just what the coddled Tigers needed in order to awaken their talented roster.
Martin barged in and ruffled some feathers, but also coaxed 12 more wins out of the team in 1971, challenging the Orioles for much of the year.
All this was the back story as the Tigers opened the 1972 season, 40 years ago.
Well, you know what happened—the hitting went south (.237 team BA) and the pitching outperformed the expectations. And Martin’s veteran team managed to stay in the race all summer.
Campbell brought in some graybeards like lefty Woodie Fryman, who was the 1972 version of Doug Fister (2011) and Doyle Alexander (1987); catcher Duke Sims; and slugger Frank Howard.
The season’s final weekend pitted the Tigers against the Boston Red Sox in a three-game series in Detroit. Thanks to a spring training players strike that cut into the regular season, the Red Sox would end up playing one fewer game than the Tigers.
The Tigers took the first two games of the series, and thus clinched the division pennant. The Red Sox finished one-half game back—thanks in part to playing one fewer game.
The offensively-challenged Tigers, who drastically underperformed with the bats, used surprisingly good pitching and their two veteran starters (Lolich and Coleman—1972’s Justin Verlander and Fister), along with Fryman and some unexpectedly strong bullpen arms, to nip the pack at the finish line.
In the ALCS, Oakland beat the Tigers, 3-2 in a heartbreaking series.
A year later, Martin became too much for the Tigers to handle, so he was canned and replaced by his opposite—the more easygoing Ralph Houk.
The 1972 Tigers were the last Detroit playoff baseball team until the 1984 heroes.
Forty years ago. It hardly seems it—if you can remember it to begin with.