When Sparky Anderson was hired to manage the Tigers in June 1979, he promised to deliver a World Series championship within five years. It didn't take much to realize that 1984 was Year Five of the Sparky Era in Detroit.
There had been some close calls---the flirtation with the 1981 half division title, the promising start of 1982 and the race with the Baltimore Orioles in 1983. All that was left was to actually win the division; the Tigers were tired of coming close.
It looked like the Tigers would pretty much return the same cast who gave the Orioles fits in 1983, but then late in spring training, GM Bill LaJoie---who'd taken over for Jim Campbell in 1983 after Campbell was promoted---pulled off a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Going to Philly would be outfielder Glenn Wilson, a very capable hitter and defender, and catcher/first baseman John Wockenfuss, who'd become a fan favorite after nine years with the Tigers. In return, the Tigers received slick fielding 1B Dave Bergman and southpaw reliever Willie Hernandez.
The trade happened days before the regular season was to begin, but no one could ever have imagined how big of a swap it would turn out to be.
The biggest acquisition---or so it was thought---occurred the previous December, when the Tigers made a rare foray into free agency and signed 1B/3B Darrell Evans from the San Francisco Giants. Evans, 36, had starred for the Atlanta Braves early in his career and was coming off a 30 home run season with the Giants in '83.
Armed with new Tigers Evans, Bergman and Hernandez, Sparky took his team north to open the season in Minnesota.
The Tigers won, 8-1, behind the pitching of Jack Morris. Hernandez pitched the ninth inning flawlessly.
The Tigers won the next game, too, and the next. And the next. And the next. After 17 games, the Tigers were 16-1. After 30, they were 26-4. Records for fast starts were being shattered. After 40 games---a quarter of the season---the Tigers stood tall at a remarkable 35-5, including a big league record 17-0 on the road.
The Tigers were the story of the nation. No team had ever begun so fast and with as much dominance. Everyone contributed. Even Kirk Gibson, the oft-injured outfielder, was healthy and putting up big numbers.
As the Tigers cut a swath through the American League, they were fueled additionally by their two late-spring training acquisitions. Bergman made one defensive gem after another, including two that helped save Jack Morris's no-hitter in Chicago in the season's first week. With the bat, Bergman cranked a home run to win a game over Toronto at Tiger Stadium on ABC's "Monday Night Baseball" in early-June. The home run came after Bergman fouled off several pitches from the arm of the Blue Jays' Roy Lee Jackson.
And Hernandez? All he did was assume the job of closer and register save after save, never blowing an opportunity. And Willie's saves weren't just one inning jobs, either; sometimes Sparky would call for Hernandez in the seventh or even sixth inning, and pitch him till the end of the game.
The Blue Jays were the Tigers' main competition, but as good as the Jays were, they simply could not keep pace. At the All-Star break, the Tigers were 57-27 and seven games ahead of Toronto.
By that time, another hero had joined the team: OF Ruppert Jones, who the Tigers signed in April. The lefty-swinging Jones broke in with the Kansas City Royals in 1976, had a great year with the Seattle Mariners in 1977, then became a journeyman. The Tigers were the 29-year-old's fifth big league team.
The day he joined the Tigers in June, in that same series against the Blue Jays, Jones hit a monster home run that skipped off the right field roof of Tiger Stadium. From that point on, Tigers fans called Ruppert, "Rooftop."
The Tigers sailed along, their big lead enabling them to withstand minor hiccups along the way. The Blue Jays would edge to within five games, and the Tigers would move ahead by eight or nine games in short order. Eventually, it wasn't a question of if the Tigers would win their first division in 12 years, but when.
The "when" came on September 17 in a 7-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Tiger Stadium. Hernandez, naturally, registered the save. The Tigers clinched with 12 games still to be played; they'd win the division by 15 full games over Toronto, their 104-58 record being the best ever for a Tigers team.
There were heroes galore. Catcher Lance Parrish slugged 33 homers and had 98 RBI. Gibson, healthy the whole year, had 27 home runs and 91 RBI while batting .282. Chet Lemon played magnificent center field along with going 20-76-.287. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, frequently the top two hitters in the batting order, respectively, seemed to always be on base in the opening inning.
Pitching-wise, Jack Morris again anchored the rotation. Jack won 19 games, Dan Petry won 18, and veteran Milt Wilcox, who'd come one batter from pitching a perfect game in 1983, won 17 yet completed no games.
The Tigers regular season had been a record-setting affair. But as Sparky told a reporter during the season, "The fans will hang me from the flagpole in center field if we don't win the whole thing."
First test: the best-of-five ALCS against the Kansas City Royals.
Despite winning 20 more games than the Royals, the Tigers wouldn't have home field advantage, thanks to the rotation between divisions, as opposed to using won/loss records to determine it.
The Tigers were a good road team, going 51-29, but it still didn't seem right that they should start the ALCS on the road after their dazzling season.
No matter. The Tigers took Games 1 and 2 in Kansas City, winning the second game in dramatic fashion thanks to an 11th inning, two-run double by Johnny Grubb that broke a 3-3 tie.
In Game 3 in Detroit, Wilcox pitched a gem, throwing eight shutout innings, giving up just two hits. The Tigers won the game and the pennant, 1-0. Hernandez---of course---got the save.
It was the Tigers' first pennant in 16 years, and the fans went wild. Gibson, who batted .417, captured the series MVP Award.
Next up: the World Series, against the San Diego Padres, who overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat the Chicago Cubs three straight for their first-ever World Series appearance.
1984 World Series
The Tigers may have captivated the nation during their incredible regular season, but the Padres were the underdogs who many baseball fans were rooting for in the Fall Classic.
The series would again begin away from Detroit, again due to a rotation system.
The Tigers won Game 1, with Whitaker and Trammell helping the Tigers to score in the first inning yet again. But the Tigers trailed, 2-1, in the fifth inning before Larry Herndon smacked a two-run homer to put the Tigers ahead. The Tigers won, 3-2.
The Padres won Game 2 behind unlikely hero Kurt Bevacqua, a 37-year-old utility player. Bevacqua slammed a three-run homer off Petry in the fifth inning that turned a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead, which held up.
The next three games would be in Detroit. The Tigers clinched the division and the pennant at home. Would they win the World Series at home, too? They'd have to sweep the weekend's games to do so.
In Game 3 on Friday night, Padres starter Tim Lollar was wild and the Tigers took advantage, buidling a 4-0 lead in the second inning thanks partially to four Lollar walks. The Tigers cruised to a 5-2 win.
Game 4 saw Trammell turn hero. The shortstop slammed two home runs, and starter Jack Morris got his second series victory, 4-2. The Tigers led the Series, 3-1, with a chance to be world champs the next day.
Game 5 was the most dramatic, by far. The Tigers built a 3-0 lead in the first inning, but the Padres chipped away, tying it in the fourth inning. The Tigers moved ahead, 4-3, then 5-3, before the Padres edged to within 5-4 in the top of the eighth inning.
In the Tigers' half, they rallied to put runners on second and third. With first base open and the lefty-swinging Gibson due up, baseball logic said that the Padres should walk Gibby. But reliever Goose Gossage overruled manager Dick Williams, telling his skipper that he could strike Gibson out. Gossage's confidence was understandable, as he had had some success against Gibson over the years. Even Tigers manager Anderson playfully bet Gibson, who was standing impatiently in the on-deck circle as Gossage plead his case, that the Padres wouldn't walk Gibson.
Gossage won the argument with his manager but in reality, he lost. Gibson, who'd hit a home run earlier in the game, took Gossage deep, driving the baseball far into the upper deck in right field, extending the Tigers' lead to 8-4. The mad throng at Tiger Stadium knew, at that moment, that the Tigers were going to be World Series champions, even with the ninth inning yet to be played.
After Tony Gwynn flied out to left field to end the game, the fans streamed onto the field and the celebration got a little out of hand, especially outside the stadium. The iconic image of a police car overturned and on fire sadly fueled the nation's negative perception of Detroit.
But the Tigers were world champs, and it was a fitting ending to a magical season, in which the Tigers led the division wire-to-wire and then won seven of eight post-season games.
The Roar of '84!By GregEno