Dave Bergman didn’t win the World Series for the Tigers on that Monday night in June of 1984, but there might be as many folks who purport to have been at Tiger Stadium then, as claim to have been there when Larry Herndon squeezed the final out of Game 5 on October 14.
I was at Game 5, by the way, but I would have loved to have been in the stands on June 4, 1984 as well.
Dave Bergman is gone. The defensive specialist for the ’84 World Champs. The man whose acrobatic plays saved Jack Morris’ no-hitter in Chicago in April. The man whose face was in the dictionary under “role player.”
Bergman lost his battle with cancer at age 61. That rotten disease whose won-lost record is maddeningly successful.
Bergman was sick and fighting the cancer in his bile duct when he showed up last summer as the Tigers honored their 1984 heroes at Comerica Park. You could see it in his face and body that Bergie wasn’t right.
But he managed to participate in one last double play, when he was on the receiving end of an Alan Trammell/Lou Whitaker twist as the CoPa crowd roared.
Bergman was brought to Detroit for his defense, but as the Toronto Blue Jays found out, there was about to be great irony on June 4.
The glaring lights of “Monday Night Baseball” shined on Tiger Stadium on that June night in ’84, and Tigers fans knew that when “MNB” came to town, special things could happen.
It was eight years prior when Mark “The Bird” Fydrich mowed the mighty Yankees down on national television at the Old Ballpark, also on “MNB.”
Now here was Bergman, taking over the spotlight against the Blue Jays.
It was a lovely night in a lovely year for baseball in Detroit.
The Blue Jays weren’t about to anoint the Tigers division champs, despite Detroit’s 35-5 getaway. Toronto played good baseball as well, and the Jays were keeping the Tigers in sight.
When Toronto came to town to start a four-game series, the Tigers were 38-11 but still just 4.5 games ahead of the 34-16 Blue Jays.
Toronto jumped out to a 3-0 lead on that Monday night, but the Tigers tied it in the seventh, thanks to a three-run bomb from Howard Johnson. Bergman was part of that rally as well, having singled, but the best was yet to come.
The game moved into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Roy Lee Jackson replaced Jimmy Key with a man on second and one out. Jackson induced a comebacker from Rusty Kuntz. Chet Lemon walked, placing runners on first and second with two outs.
Bergman was up next.
Less than three months earlier, Bergman wasn’t even a Tiger. He was finishing up spring training with the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a time when all teams’ rosters appeared to be set for the upcoming 162-game regular season.
But then a Roman candle was fired from Lakeland, FL. The date was March 24, 1984.
Looking for a late-inning reliever and possibly someone who can close ballgames, Tigers GM Bill Lajoie struck a deal with the Phillies, an unexpected trade.
The Tigers dealt young outfielder Glenn Wilson and veteran 1B/C John Wockenfuss to Philadelphia. Detroit would be getting lefty Willie Hernandez, who was the center of the trade. Hernandez was the guy Lajoie really wanted, to give manager Sparky Anderson another reliable arm in the bullpen. The Phillies, to make things square, also relayed a defensive-minded first baseman named Dave Bergman to the Tigers.
The trade was stunning, in its timing and in its scope. Tigers fans didn’t know much about Hernandez and Bergman. There was no Google back then.
A couple weeks later, Bergman demonstrated why he was known for his nifty defense. He made at least two plays that clearly saved Morris’ no-hitter in Chicago.
But Bergman wasn’t necessarily known for his bat. He was a part-time player, nothing else, in his nine previous years as a big leaguer.
You don’t win anything of note in June. Each of the season’s 162 games may, technically, count the same, but June’s games are played with little pressure. They’re played in warmth and laziness, not in the chilly air amid September’s electricity.
But this June Monday night in 1984 was different than a typical June Monday night.
The Blue Jays represented the Tigers’ only apparent serious threat to having their magical season ruined.
The four-game series was the first time the Tigers and Blue Jays played each other in 1984.
Bergman stood in the batter’s box against Jackson in the tenth inning on June 4, the winning run on second base, a meaningless runner on first, and two outs. There was no margin for error. Either Bergman did something to win the game or keep the inning alive, or the game would move into the eleventh.
Jackson went to work.
Bergman fouled off the first five pitches, living on the edge of an 0-2 count for three of them.
As ABC’s Al Michaels, Howard Cosell and Earl Weaver looked on from the broadcast booth, Bergman finally worked the count full in between foul balls. Twelve pitches had been thrown when Bergman settled back into the box, several minutes after the at-bat began.
Jackson reared back and threw pitch no. 13.
Michaels has been behind the microphone for some iconic moments in sports history, not the least of which were the USA hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 and the earthquake during the 1989 World Series.
Cosell called some of the most famous (and infamous) boxing matches in pugilistic history, and his tenure in the “Monday Night Football” booth certainly reverberated.
Bergman provided another such moment.
“Long fly ball! Way back in right!” Michaels yelled as Cosell and Weaver reacted in the background. “She is…..gone!”
Bergman’s three-run homer stunned the Blue Jays and won the game for the Tigers. It was a stinking Monday night game in early June, but the atmosphere belied that.
I was there when Kirk Gibson sealed the 1984 World Series with his three-run blast off Goose Gossage, and I can tell you that the roar of the crowd was greater in that moment than when Herndon caught Tony Gwynn’s fly ball for the series’ final out.
I wasn’t there when Bergman beat Jackson and the Blue Jays, but video evidence and my own recollection say that Tiger Stadium rocked every bit as hard as when Gibby did his thing.
Dave Bergman was the very essence of role player with the Tigers, especially in 1984, a year in which everyone contributed, from Bergman and Kuntz to Trammell, Whitaker et al.
Bergman battled cancer with the same fury and determination as he did Roy Lee Jackson on June 4, 1984.
But cancer doesn’t hang breaking balls. It doesn’t leave a pitch up at the letters for cranking.
In Detroit, we are still blessed to be graced by many members of the 1968 World Series champions, many of whom still live in the metro area.
We’ve lost a few 1984 heroes before their time (Aurelio Lopez, Dwight Lowry and Sparky) but losing Bergman at age 61 is a toughie. Not only did he have his moment on June 4, but he was a good Tiger who knew his place, didn’t bitch and was a terrific teammate.
“He was a leader,” Parrish told the Detroit Free Press. “A very intelligent man who played the game the way it is supposed to be played. He played very hard and I just loved being on the field with him.”
In describing his signature moment in baseball, the home run that beat the Blue Jays, Bergman was characteristically brief and to the point.
“I just happened to hit it right on the button,” he said.
So long, Bergie. You had your moment, and that’s what any athlete ever wants.