Published May 6, 2017
The summer of 1984 was a magical one for the city of Detroit, if you were a Tigers fan.
Sixteen years removed from the team’s last world championship, the ’84 Tigers enthralled from the first pitch of Opening Day.
The winning and frolicking continued unabated through the first two months of the season, to the tune of a 35-5 start.
One man didn’t enjoy the ride, however.
Sparky Anderson stood near the batting cage at Tiger Stadium before a game in the middle of the summer of 1984. A few reporters were gathered around him.
“See that flagpole out there?” Sparky asked, pointing to the iconic green tower in deep center field. “That’s where the fans are going to hang me if we don’t win this thing.”
Sparky detested the ’84 season. He said so in his book, They Call Me Sparky.
The skipper’s feeling was that if a team wins 35 of its first 40 games, anything less than a World Series title would be simply unacceptable to the fan base. He was probably right.
Of course, the fans didn’t feel the need to hang the manager. The Tigers won the division by 15 games then skipped through the post-season with a 7-1 record and won the whole shebang.
As much as Sparky didn’t enjoy 1984, he loved 1987.
It’s fitting to recall that year now, during its 30th anniversary.
Sparky’s ’87 ballclub wasn’t much, in the eyes of the pre-season pundits. The Tigers, despite winning 87 games the year prior, weren’t supposed to be a factor in the AL East in 1987.
Catcher Lance Parrish, the Big Wheel, had absconded to Philadelphia as a free agent, a move he rued almost from the moment the ink dried on his Phillies contract. Darrell Evans was old. Johnny Grubb was old. Chet Lemon was no spring chicken. The starting pitching beyond Jack Morris was considered shaky.
Even Sparky didn’t believe much in the 1987 Tigers, before the season.
In his book, the manager shared with readers that every year in spring training he would confide to his wife and PR man Dan Ewald where he thought the team would finish that season. The predictions were very private. And the 1987 prognostication wasn’t flattering to his team.
“I had us finishing no higher than fourth,” Sparky wrote.
Then a funny thing happened.
The Tigers got off to a horrible 11-19 start. Those who buried the team before the season were looking vindicated.
But one man showed a sudden urge to be optimistic in the face of such a rotten start: Sparky Anderson.
Sparky went on the Tigers pregame show on TV while the team was in Oakland and in the throes of their awful getaway. And on the air, he basically told George Kell and Al Kaline not to count his team out. Eyes rolled across Tigertown.
Sparky always said that there were two personas inside him. There was Sparky, who showed up from February-October. And there was George, who resided in California from October thru January.
George’s words could be taken much more at face value than Sparky’s, something the white-haired Anderson would always readily admit.
So when Sparky scolded those who would bury the Tigers after 11-19 and declared that his club wasn’t out of it, few folks took him seriously.
In early-June, the Tigers were starting to prove their manager correct. The elusive .500 mark was finally reached after the 50th game, following a 14-6 run of baseball. The spurt almost immediately followed Sparky’s outburst on television.
Then an aging hitter was claimed off the scrap heap in Los Angeles, and the Tigers really took off.
Bill Madlock, a four-time NL batting champion, was languishing with the Dodgers at the end of the bench. It was a fitting place for him, because it looked like he was at the end of his career as well.
Madlock was 36 years old and batting .180 in 61 at-bats when the Dodgers cut him on May 29. Six days later, the Tigers signed him for peanuts.
As was his custom with newly-acquired players, Sparky inserted Madlock into the starting lineup on his first day as a Tiger, in Boston. And the player they called “Mad Dog” partly because of his fiery on-field temper, responded with a 3-for-4 day and a two-run homer.
Sparky spotted Madlock at first base and DH upon his arrival in Detroit, and soon it became impossible to leave Mad Dog out of the lineup.
Madlock went 14-for-31 (.452) in his first seven games as a Tiger. The team itself got red hot, as well.
The Tigers began to win at the same crazy rate as the 1984 team did. Even the skipper couldn’t explain how a team that was so lightly regarded in March was plowing through the American League.
“I had baseball people asking me all summer (in 1987), ‘How are you guys doing it?’ And I would tell them that I had no idea, but if I knew, I’d bottle it,” Sparky wrote in his book.
“It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen,” Sparky went on. “On paper, we had no business winning as many games as we did that year.”
The season culminated in a two-team race for the divisional pennant: the Tigers and the Toronto Blue Jays.
On the penultimate weekend of the season, the Tigers went to Toronto for a four-game series. The Jays held a slim half-game lead over the Tigers at the start of the quartet of games.
Toronto won the first three contests, all by one run and two by walk-off, including a stunning comeback victory on Saturday when the Tigers blew a 9-4 lead to lose, 10-9.
The Jays led the division by 3-1/2 games. The race looked over. Cinderella’s clock looked to be striking midnight.
Tigers outfielder Kirk Gibson stood in front of the media after Saturday’s gut punch and uttered his famous “bear trap” line.
“Maybe we’re setting the biggest bear trap in history,” Gibby said, trying to keep spirits high despite an awful weekend to that point.
Gibson, one of the best clutch hitters in baseball history, shined the next day.
He hit a game-tying home run in the ninth off Toronto closer Tom Henke, then got the winning base hit in the 13th inning.
The Tigers salvaged one game in the series but still trailed by 2-1/2 games with a week to go.
The Blue Jays gagged, never winning another game after Sunday. Their collapse was complete the following weekend in Detroit, where the Tigers swept the three-game series to win the division by two games.
The Tigers, pre-season misfits, won 98 games. They went 87-45 after their 11-19 start.
In Philadelphia, Lance Parrish had an awful season and as is their wont, the Phillies fans let him have it. Parrish was terribly homesick, which wasn’t soothed by watching his former team make the ALCS.
Madlock, the creaky old hitter, got 326 at-bats with the Tigers and batted .279 with 14 homers. Another gray beard, pitcher Doyle Alexander, was acquired in a late-season trade (don’t start) and went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts.
Sparky adored that 1987 team. The fact that the Tigers fell to the Minnesota Twins in five games in the LCS mattered little to the manager.
“That team gave me everything it had,” Sparky wrote. “(The players) had nothing left to give” against the Twins.
The fans seemed to agree with Sparky’s sentiments. Darrell Evans, who turned 40 that season, was lauded with a standing ovation in Detroit the day after committing a base running gaffe in Game 4 that cost the Tigers dearly.
The “Bless You Boys” year of 1984 will always be special to the casual, fair-weather Tigers fan, but the die-hard faithful likely appreciates the 1987 team even more. And it should.
The die-hards are also the ones who still bitch about Alan Trammell losing out on the AL MVP Award in 1987 to Toronto’s George Bell, who was one of the most glaring examples of his team’s choke job in the final week, going hitless.
Anyone can win a division after a 35-5 start. But after 11-19? Not so much.
The 1987 Tigers did it. For that, they should go down as one of the best teams in franchise history; certainly one of the best stories.