Sparky Anderson delivered on his promise to bring a World Series title to Detroit within five years after being hired. But the Tigers and their fans didn't want to stop at one. And the 1986 team appeared to be a contender before fading a bit. So why couldn't 1987 be the year?
Well, Lance Parrish left the Tigers, for one.
Parrish, the team's mainstay at catcher, exercised his option for free agency and took his talents to Philadelphia, signing with the Phillies in March. That left the catcher's job to Mike Heath, who the Tigers had acquired from St. Louis during the '86 season.
Heath was a competent defender, but his bat was nowhere near as lethal as Parrish's. Tigers fans worried that the loss of Parrish would derail their team's chances at winning.
And, Tigers fans didn't want to hear it, but Kirk Gibson was also eligible for free agency after the '87 season.
As for Heath, he quickly was pushed for playing time by rookie receiver Matt Nokes, a lefty-swinging kid from San Diego who the Tigers acquired in between the 1985 and '86 seasons from San Francisco.
Jack Morris was still the team's ace, Gibson still the team's heart and soul, Darrell Evans still its veteran leader, and Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell still baseball's premier double play combo.
All this, and the Tigers got off to an 11-19 start.
Around that time, Sparky appeared on the Tigers pre-game TV show and declared his seemingly moribund team still very much in the thick of things. Lots of fans rolled their eyes; surely this was just Sparky being Sparky. After all, it was just two years prior when Anderson made another of his wacky declarations, stating in spring training that rookie 2B Torey Lovullo was so good, Whitaker would move to third base. Lovullo batted well under .200 and was soon gone.
But true to Sparky's words, the Tigers began to make their move.
The resurgence began in early-June, when the Tigers signed veteran hitter Bill Madlock, who'd been released by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Madlock was a former batting champ who was 36 years old, the kind of veteran hitter GM Bill Lajoie thought could help.
Madlock got hot immediately, and so did the Tigers. From May 12 to July 28, the Tigers went 47-20, lifting them from the depths of the division to second place, one-half game behind the New York Yankees.
The race heated up in August, but it was the Toronto Blue Jays who emerged as the Tigers' main competition. Back and forth the Jays and Tigers went in first place. Nokes almost made people forget Parrish by slugging home runs and taking advantage of Tiger Stadium's friendly dimensions.
Trammell, especially, was having a great year. His batting average was in the .340s in September as the race for the division was at its hottest.
On the season's next-to-last weekend, the Tigers visited Toronto for a key four-game series. The Tigers were one-half game behind the Jays. But the Tigers lost the first three games, including a heartbreaker on Saturday, when the Tigers blew a 9-4 lead and lost, 10-9. The Tigers were 3.5 games behind with eight games to play.
Gibson, in the Tigers' clubhouse after the Satiurday loss, said, "Maybe we're setting the biggest bear trap in history."
The next day, Gibson's clutch home run in the ninth off ace reliever Tom Henke tied the game, and his base hit won the contest in the 13th inning, stopping the Tigers' bleeding.
In the final week, the Jays hosted Milwaukee and lost all three games. Meanwhile, the Tigers split four games with Baltimore at Tiger Stadium. It all set up a weekend showdown at Tiger Stadium. If the Jays won two of three, they'd capture the division flag. If the Tigers won two, they'd force a one-game playoff. If the Tigers swept, they'd win the division outright.
On Friday, Doyle Alexander improved to 9-0 as a Tiger after being acquired from Atlanta in August for a pitching prospect named John Smoltz, as the Tigers won, 4-3. On Saturday, the Tigers won 3-2 in 12 innings thanks to Trammell's RBI single.
The Tigers were a game ahead; the Jays had lost six straight since beating the Tigers the previous Saturday. Gibson's "bear trap" comment looked to be prophetic.
On Sunday, Detroit native Frank Tanana shut the Jays down, firing a complete-game six-hitter as the Tigers won, 1-0, behind Larry Herndon's home run in the second inning.
The comeback was complete; the Tigers won the division after an 11-19 start, going 87-45 the rest of the way. It was their first division title in 15 years. The Jays ended the season 0-7.
Trammell lost the AL MVP to Toronto's George Bell, which angered Tigers fans who felt Trammell deserved the award, especially in light of Bell's disappearing act in the season's final week. Bell went 3-for-27 in the final week, while Trammell was 10-for-32.
Still, Trammell had a monster year (28-105-.343). Evans finished with 34 homers, Nokes with 32. Gibson slugged 24 home runs, Chet Lemon 20 as the Tigers pounded 225 roundtrippers for the year.
Morris won 18 games, Walt Terrell won 17 and Tanana won 15. Alexander was brilliant after the trade, going 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA.
Lance Parrish, by the way, struggled in Philadelphia, whose fans are notorious for impatience. Lance would soon admit that his leaving Detroit was a "mistake."
Next up for the Tigers was the ALCS against the surprising Minnesota Twins.By GregEno
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- Alan Trammell, Bill Madlock, Chet Lemon, Darrell Evans, Detroit Tigers, George Bell, Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, Philadelphia Phillies, Sparky Anderson, Torey Lovullo, Toronto Blue Jays