’84 ALCS: Tigers Have Pennant in Sights

Alan Trammell hitting a baseball

Season Recap, Post-season edition: ALCS Preview and Game 1 Recap

The Royals’ Strange Pennant

The ’84 K.C. Royals cobbled together a division crown.

Their year was serpentine, complicated.  Many contributions were improbable.

In a sense, the season began in the offseason, when both Willie Wilson and Willie Aikens were arrested attempting to buy cocaine.  Each man spent an identical 81 days in federal prison, Aikens also undergoing a drug treatment program[1].  He’d later reveal he’d snorted cocaine before every game of the 1980 World Series.

The two, along with then-teammates Vida Blue and Jerry Martin were given year-long suspensions from MLB.  But these were shortened in the Spring of ’84 and Wilson returned to the team in May.  (Aikens had been traded in December to Toronto.)  Meanwhile, future Hall-of-Famer George Brett missed the first six weeks of the season with an injury involving cartilage in his knee.

Somewhere in there, Vegas odds-makers put the Royals at 100-1 to win the pennant.  It was a transitional year.[2]  “Not even the players on the team thought we’d win,” admitted Brett.[3]  Part of this transition meant a bevy of young players like Outfielders Pat Sheridan and Daryl Motley and young arms, Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza, and Bret Saberhagen. 

Twenty-seven-year old Bud Black entered ’84 on the heels of his first “full” season, in which he started 24 games for the Royals.  He’d emerge as the ace of the staff, putting up a 17-12 record with a glistening 3.12 ERA.  Gubicza and Saberhagen won 10 games apiece, and new acquisition Charlie Leibrandt, 11.  It was win by committee, mostly with guys who hadn’t been on the roster the year before (Leibrandt, in fact, didn’t pitch an inning in the majors in ’83).

            Strong Second Half for K.C.

Predictably, missing sparkplug Wilson and all-around star Brett, the team got off to a rocky start.  In mid-July, they were still 9 games under .500.[4]  Their recovery may not have been magical as much as a matter of a few things coming together.  Saberhagen and Leibrandt were hitting their stride; Onix Concepcion hit .370 from June on[5], while Frank White heated up offensively, ending the season with 17 home runs.  Steve Balboni, one of dozens of young players sent out of New York during the Steinbrenner era, hit his stride, ironically, in the canyon-like Royals Stadium, popping 28 homers.

The team had so many moving parts, so many players filling in much-needed roles, and many of them found their moment to turn in clutch performances.  In a big double-header late in the year against the Angels, Saberhagen spun a 4-0 shutout, while Motley and Sheridan homered in the nightcap to complete the sweep.

On the 25th, Balboni singled in a run in the bottom of the 12th to all but end the Angels’ season, and the Royals would clinch two nights later.

            How Did K.C. Stack Up?

As the Tigers sized up their playoff opponent, they no doubt found themselves the better team—by won loss record, they were 20 games better.  The Royals’ record would’ve been good for 6th place in the East.  But you had to look sidelong at the Royals, a deceptive team that had won through a lot of injuries, with players moving around, experiments coming and going.

Their rocks were the aforementioned Wilson, who hit .301 with 47 SB’s, and Quisenberry, who saved 44 games.  But, perhaps more significantly, they had an impressive cabinet of veterans asked only the fill specific roles.  Veteran OF and DH Hal McRae hit .303 in a platoon slot, while hitting specialist Jorge Orta filed a .298 avg.  Who knew when a veteran might come in an channel 1980 or ’81, recent seasons when the Royals had made the postseason?

They won just 84 games on the year, but put up a solid record in the second half of the campaign.  And, from Aug 12 to the clinching on Sept. 28, the Royals never lost 2 games in a row.[6]

Matching the Tigers and Royals before the series, some of the team stats may have been a bit closer than the teams’ records.  The pair went 4th and 5th in team batting average, The Tigers at ..271, Royals .268.  In team ERA, the Tigers led the league with 3.49 while K.C. was down in the pack with a respectable 3.92.

Here’s one to really stump your friends with—the Royals didn’t enjoy a giant advantage over the Tigers went it came to stolen bases: in fact, the teams tied with 106.[7] 

Head to head, the Tigers had won the streaky season series, 7-5, roughly the win rate you’d need to win a best of 5 series (the league championship series went to best of 7 in ’85).  The Tigers had gone 6-0 in games at Kansas City, the Royals 5-1 at Tiger Stadium.  That made the home field advantage a bit of an enigma, though it went to Detroit, with Games 1 and 2 in Missouri and the rest, as necessary, at Detroit.

Outside of the inherent capriciousness of a 5-game series, the Tigers were heavily favored, with a clear advantage in team pitching and overall weapons.  But the playoffs were uncharted territory for almost all of the main players, and they’d have to contend with the pressure.

One development that—at the end of the regular season was still new—was the move away from Howard Johnson and toward Evans and Castillo at third.

Brookens had gone on the d.l. in mid August with a pulled hamstring, and was listed as iffy going into the playoffs.  As for Johnson, Sparky had really soured on him.  When people talk about Johnson finding that Anderson dog house, they were referring to the end of August on, which would ultimately be the end of his road in Detroit.

On August 28, Detroit beat Seattle 5-4 on Ruppert Jones heroics against his former team. But in the 7th, Howard Johnson “let Spike Owens’s slow, two-out grounder trickle through his legs” letting in a run that blew the Tigers’ lead.[8]  After the game, Sparky said Evans and Castillo would platoon at third.  On Sept. 8, Anderson wrote, “Howard Johnson is really uptight and is having his problems.”[9]

So, in game 1, Marty Castillo, a pretty solid fielder with a great arm, was in the starting lineup at third.  Howard Johnson would get one at-bat in the post-season, in game 5 in the World Series, and didn’t play a single pitch in the field.

Game 1, Oct. 2

The 1984 postseason got underway on the 2nd, with the Cubs hosting the Padres for the first action that afternoon, before Detroit’s game at K.C. at 7:30.  The MLB umpires were on strike, with a replacement crew of retired umps, college crews, etc. filling in. 

While there were complaints in the early game, the Cubs—in front of VIP Punky Brewster—humiliated the Pads, 13-0, a few more runs than one can blame on the umps.

            Elegant Face Punch

In K.C., Jack Morris took the mound against lefty Bud Black.  The Tigers went with their standard right-handed lineup, including Garbey at DH in addition to Castillo at 3rd.

If there was a question as to whether an aberration may present itself, whether the second-half Royals would appear instead of their early-season doppelgangers, it didn’t linger long in the prairie evening.

Lou Whitaker, as he so often did, elegantly punched the opponent in the face by way of greeting, singling off of Black to open the series.  Trammell, as he often did, went in for the kill, tripling in his buddy. Two batters, one run.  Parrish would get Tram in with a sac fly, and it was 2-0.

Meanwhile, as he often did, Morris got his defense involved, and bent a bit without breaking, keeping it 2-0 through three.  In that inning, he let up singles to Slaught and Wilson and loaded the bases with 2 outs.  George Brett came to the plate. 

His line shot to right looked dangerous, but Gibson had seen it all the way and came in for a nice catch.  After the game, Sparky said, “Last year, that ball would still be rolling.”[10] 

Then, the Tigers mounted a pesky offensive against the Royals, picking them apart piece by piece with a far-flung series of hits.  Herndon homered in the fourth; Trammell went deep in the fifth; in the 8th, Marty Castillo got into the act by singling in pinch-runner Dave Bergman.  Lance Parrish would hit a cherry-topper homer in the top of the 9th, and when the dust settled, the Tigers had earned an 8-1 win.

Trammell, Herndon, and Parrish all homer against the Royals

Rather than letting Morris stay in ‘til the bitter end as he often did, Sparky sat his thoroughbred down after 7, giving 2 innings to Hernandez.  In the 9th, Willie got Orta and Motley swinging, then capped it on a Balboni grounder to Bergman.

The Tigers had used the venue of the postseason to show the world Detroit baseball.  Their offensive attack was no-frills and absolutely basic.  In many cases, runs were scored on monolithic solo homers.  Simple and effective.  They’d put the Royals on their heels, causing the rag-tag mix of young and old players to play defense and mount a come-from-behind.  It’s what the Royals had done on the season, but could they pull it off against the Tigers?

[1] United Press International. Willie Wilson’s Life Has Changed, But He is Still Paying for Same Mistake. Los Angeles Times. Feb 10, 1985. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-02-10-sp-3789-story.html

[2] Fish, Mike. K.C.’s Maturity Is a Surprise. Sporting News. Oct. 1, 1984.

[3] — Royals Have Motley Crew. Sporting News. Oct. 8, 1984.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Onix Concepcion. Batting Splits. Baseball-Reference.com. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.fcgi?id=conceon01&year=1984&t=b

[6] Fish. Royals Have..

[7] 1984 AL Team Statistics. Baseball-reference.com. https://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1984.shtml#all_teams_standard_batting

[8] Zaret, Eli. ’84: Last of the Great Tigers. Crofton Creek. 2004.

[9] Anderson, Sparky. Bless You Boys: Diary of the Detroit Tigers 1984 Season. Contemporary Books, 1984.

[10] Attner Paul. Sparky: Tigers Are Best. Sporting News. Oct. 15, 1984.

Leave a Reply