Ralph Houk entered his fifth season as Tigers manager still looking for his first winning campaign. The first two years were the roughest, as the team was making the transition from the World Series champion core to a youth movement. The next two were mostly overshadowed by Mark "The Bird" Fidrych", but also saw the emergence of a new core featuring the likes of Ron LeFlore, Steve Kemp, Jason Thompson and pitcher Dave Rozema.
Still, no winning seasons.
But that didn't stop Houk from announcing that the 1978 season would be his last. "The Major" would be retiring after the final pitch in '78. His patience in helping to bridge the gap from one glory era to---it was hoped---another, was greatly appreciated by Tigers brass.
Fidrych, of course, dominated the off-season news. Would he be able to bounce back from his shoulder problems? The Bird hadn't thrown a pitch for the Tigers since July 12, 1977.
Kemp and Rozema were no longer rookies. A young pitcher named Jack Morris had made his big league debut in 1977 and the Tigers wondered what they had in the hard-throwing, intense right-hander.
Last but not least was the team's new double play combo: 2B Lou Whitaker and SS Alan Trammell, each of whom had a cup of coffee with the Tigers in 1977.
The Tigers announced that venerable Tiger Stadium would undergo some significant changes over the next couple of years. The longtime green, wooden seats would be replaced by blue plastic ones. The green-painted steel railings surrounding the field would be replaced by silver metal. The centerfield scoreboard that sat atop the upper deck bleachers would be replaced completely by a new, modern, computerized version.
The entire interior would be re-painted blue. Some orange seats would be introduced, signifying the more expensive locations. The sections would be renumbered.
But the playing surface would remain, blissfully, natural grass.
The Tigers sprang from the gate as one of the hottest teams in baseball. First they were 9-2, then 21-9. The new, young core was raising eyebrows.
But two things went wrong. First, the Tigers couldn't keep up the pace and began to slide. Second, and most important, the career of Mark Fidrych appeared to be coming to a sudden end.
Fidrych started three games for the Tigers, including a complete-game win on Opening Day, but after four innings of the third start, Fidrych took himself out of the game, again complaining of shoulder pain. He never pitched again the rest of the year.
The Tigers began to come to the realization that The Bird might be finished. Sports medicine in those days, particularly when it came to a pitcher's arm, wasn't nearly as advanced as it is today. Had it been, Fidrych's condition---it turned out to be a torn rotator cuff---would have been properly diagnosed.
The Tigers faded but recovered after the All-Star break. They never were really in contention, but their record was respectable, finishing at 86-76. Manager Houk went into the sunset with a winning record, after all.
LeFlore led the league with 126 runs scored, and with 68 stolen bases. Thompson hit 26 homers and drove in 96 runs. DH Rusty Staub had 24 HR, 121 RBI and batted .273. Another young player, catcher Lance Parrish, was being broken in to be the new full-time receiver.
Whitaker hit .285 and Trammell hit .268, while also manning their respective positions brilliantly.
Right-hander Jim Slaton, acquired from Milwaukee for Ben Oglivie, led the Tigers with 17 wins. Veteran Jack Billingham, who came over from Cincinnati, won 15 games. But Rozema had a stilted sophomore year, winning just nine games.
With Houk retiring, the Tigers didn't hesitate in choosing his replacement. Les Moss, who'd managed many of the current Tigers in the minor leagues, would take over in 1979. Moss had a brief managing stint with the White Sox in 1968.
But Moss wouldn't last long.