New-look Tiger Stadium had a majority of its changes in place for the start of the 1979 season. The new multi-million dollar scoreboard in centerfield was eye-catching: it could display photos of the player at bat, and the pitcher on the mound, along with that player's statistics. In between innings, animated images would flow across the screen to help entertain fans and kids. For its time, the new scoreboard was considered state-of-the-art.
Fans immediately noticed how BLUE the stadium now was, from the seats to the facades to the walls. And the reviews of the new plastic seats were good, coming on the heels of the old, wooden, slatted seats.
Would the product on the field befit its renovated digs?
New manager Les Moss was a quiet man from Oklahoma---53 years old and a former big league catcher for the St. Louis Browns/Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox. Many of the current Tigers were familiar with Moss from Les's time managing in the organization's farm system.
Moss inherited a youthful, talented core that was handled with patience and experience by Ralph Houk for several years.
What would a Tigers season be without a comeback attempt by Mark Fidrych? Once again The Bird gave pitching a try, and once again it ended badly. Fidrych started four games in May and posted an ERA of 10.43 before being shut down. Now more than ever, it looked like Fidrych was destined to be a "one hit wonder."
Moss's tenure was also marred by the holdout of DH Rusty Staub, who threatened to return full-time to his restaurant business unless the Tigers tore up his contract and gave him a new one. Staub was coming off three seasons in which he drove in a total of 318 runs as a Tiger.
The holdout started in spring training and overlapped into the regular season. It wasn't settled until May 1, with Rusty not making his 1979 Tigers debut until May 3.
The Tigers had lost pitcher Jim Slaton back to the Brewers, from where he was traded, to free agency. This meant that the Brewers had both Slaton AND OF/1B Ben Oglivie, who was traded in order to acquire Slaton.
Ron LeFlore was a fixture in centerfield, as was Steve Kemp in left. Right field would be handled by veteran Jerry Morales, acquired from the Cardinals. In May, the Tigers acquired Champ Summers from Cincinnati, and Champ added immediate thunder as a DH/OF.
The Tigers started out OK in 1979, hovering around .500 for the first month. But then they slipped to 15-21 before recovering with an 11-5 run to move to 27-26.
Then, the Tigers stunned the baseball world.
Without any warning or rumors, the Tigers fired Moss and replaced him with colorful Sparky Anderson, who'd been fired after the 1978 season by Cincinnati after nine seasons as the Reds manager, during which Sparky's teams won four pennants and two World Series.
GM Jim Campbell didn't relish firing Moss just 53 games into his first season as Tigers manager, but the opportunity to hire someone of Sparky's stature was too much to pass up.
Coach Dick Tracewski managed two games---both victories---while Sparky got his affairs together and made it to Detroit.
As expected, Sparky captivated the Detroit media when he came to town, speaking enthusiastically about his new team and all the young talent. He vowed to deliver a World Series championship in five years.
Then the Tigers went out and lost nine of their first 11 games under Anderson.
Sparky also talked of doing things "my way or the highway," and before long it was evident who fit Sparky's mode of a ballplayer and who didn't.
That was underscored when Staub, fresh off his holdout, was traded to Montreal in July for future considerations and cash.
It didn't matter how talented you were; if Sparky didn't like you, your future in Detroit was uncertain, to say the least.
The Tigers finished 1979 with an 85-76 record, good for just fifth place. One of the "highlights" was a July twi-night doubleheader in Chicago. In between games, Chicago DJ Steve Dahl sponsored a "Disco Demolition", in which fans were encouraged to bring disco albums, which Dahl would blow up in centerfield.
The promotion got out of hand and thousands of fans streamed onto the Comiskey Park field, tearing it up and acting unruly. The scene was so bad that the second game of the twinbill was forfeited to the Tigers.
LeFlore hit .300 with 78 stolen bases. Jason Thompson had 20 HR and Summers slugged 20 dingers in just 246 AB. 2B Lou Whitaker hit .286 and SS Alan Trammell batted .276.
Jack Morris, in his first full season as a starter, went 17-7. Another righty, Milt Wilcox, who played for Sparky in Cincinnati, went 12-10.
Everyone in Detroit who cared about baseball, from the fans to the media, waited to see what changes would be in store, now that Sparky had managed 106 games.
They didn't have to wait very long.By GregEno
- Ben Oglivie, Champ Summers, Detroit Tigers, Dick Tracewski, Jack Morris, Jerry Morales, Jim Campbell (GM), Jim Slaton, Les Moss, Milt Wilcox, Ron LeFlore, Rusty Staub, Sparky Anderson, Steve Kemp