Controversial Trade Wakes up Sleepy Spring Training

This Champs in Context post looks at controversies surrounding Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss, which helped shape Spring Training 1984.

With the Florida sun carving wild slices from their old English D’s, the ’84 Tigers strode confidently into Spring Training.  And why not?

The Tigers had finished the ’83 season with the third-best record in baseball, only the Orioles and White Sox winning more regular season games.  Detroit finished with 92 wins, one more than the Dodgers in the NL West,  and two more than the Phillies in the East, who’d go on to face the O’s in the series.

So, the team could lay claim to some very real confidence and pride—they were truly were among the league elite, even if, due to the Division-winners-only playoff system of the time, they hadn’t landed a playoff appearance the previous year.

What made the beginning of the Tigers’ 1984 Spring Training so promising was that the ’83 team was very much intact.  They’d lost few players to free agency (Enos Cabell being the notable exception) and hadn’t made any trades that could be questioned.  They had basically everyone back, plus the free agent acquisition Darrell Evans, who was a better fielder than Cabell and who brought a 32-home run ’83 into the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium, thus figuring to boost the team’s left-handed power hitting.

Not a Lot of Roster Controversy

The main theme at the outset of Spring Training in ’84 was just how boring it would be—not great from a sports writer’s perspective–but what every player was looking for.  You could button a veteran into every position, including DH and at least 8 of 9 pitchers. (The only pitcher on the Tigers’ Opening Day Roster  who didn’t start Spring Training with the team was Willie Hernandez.)  According to Tom Gage’s Spring Training overview for The Sporting News, the youngsters vying for the last pitching spot were John Martin, Dave Gumpert, and Howard Bailey.[1]

While giving honorable mention to the eventual September call-up Roger Mason, Gage curiously failed to mention Jerry Ujdur, a young hurler who’d gotten 25 starts in ’82, mostly after Rozema had gotten injured kung fu fighting against the Twins.  With Rozema back in ’83, Ujdur got the short shrift and was shelled to the tune of a 7.15 ERA in ’83 (which, incidentally, was eerily similar to Martin’s numbers on the year).  Gumpert may have leap-frogged him by the beginning of training, while Bailey had enjoyed a better ’83 with the big club than Udjur had in ’83, driving Jerry further into the land of the also-rans.

Other than the final pitching slot, there wasn’t much room for anyone, what with Herndon, Lemon, Wilson, Gibson and Grubb making five outfielders, the very same number Sparky said he’d take north.[2] As for the infield, there were eight projected spots: Brookens, Johnson, Trammell, Whitaker, and Evans had a hammerlock on five of them.  The sixth would probably go to first baseman Rick Leach, leaving a potential two additional spots (because Sparky named 3 catchers, he had to be classifying both John Wockenfuss and Marty Castillo at that position).

According to Gage, top contenders were minor leaguers Barbaro Garbey (first and third base), Scott Earl (second), and Pedro Chavez (second). 

But while there weren’t a lot of nervous ballplayers running around Lakeland, hoping they’d keep or win a spot, there were still a couple of important kerfuffles with a couple of players, one of them involving a switch in position.

Why Was Glenn Wilson in the Doghouse?

The strange energy that was present throughout 1984 Spring Training emanated from the Glenn Wilson situation.  One might say it was emanating, specifically, from Sparky and from Bill Lajoie, since Wilson had just been minding his own business when the brain trust started looking for places to send him.

From the beginning of Spring Training, Sparky was touting Wilson as a third baseman.[3] Actually, Wilson had been drafted as a third baseman out of Sam Houston State.  However, he’d been error prone in the minors, and thus moved to the outfield.  There, he had a great, and very promising half-season in ’82, while cooling off in ’83.  Still, he was looking as good after a year-and-a-half as a lot of future stars had.  I can recall the buzz about him.

So, what was going on?  Well, if we think of moving a player as a component of dog-housing him (which is how the Wilson move has always been discussed), the chilly treatment of Wilson seems to have come, not from any animus on Sparky’s part, but from two very pragmatic considerations:

  1. Gibson’s attitude adjustment over the off-season and Sparky’s decision—made before Spring Training—to give him every chance of being the everyday right fielder.
  2. A need to trade for a reliever.  Someone of some talent had to go. As for outfielders, it wouldn’t be Lemon.  Sparky is well known for having a soft spot for Larry Herndon, and it’s hard to imagine other players of the caliber of Wilson being on the block.  Wilson would later say Howard Johnson would’ve been the other candidate, with teams looking for young talent.

A New Kirk

Kirk Gibson entered 1984’s Spring Training at a cross-roads.  He’d been injured for much of ’82 and had hit a troubling .227 in ’83.  He wasn’t really living up to his potential, wasn’t allowed to hit against lefties, and wasn’t happy.  He was known to be surly to fans and others, and probably could’ve been on the trade block himself, a situation he may have relished.

But he took control of the situation, attending the Pacific Institute in Seattle, a sort of self-help retreat for people looking to think more positively.  Whether or not the apparent results were the reason, Sparky entered Spring Training convinced that Gibson should be given the first shot at right, a near 180 from his stance six months earlier.

Sparky committed materially to this idea, bringing in Hall of Famer Al Kaline to work with Gibson.  This really had to have put the writing on the wall for Wilson.

The idea of playing Wilson at third, then, came from a hunch Sparky had that Gibson’s amazing athleticism was finally ready to pay dividends.  But it was lubricated by one other factor, Sparky’s persistent doubts about Howard Johnson.  Third base was a half-open position after the departure of Cabell, who toggled between the hot corner and first.  Sparky was famously hard on Brookens because of his anemic hitting, meaning he wasn’t likely to give him more than eighty or ninety starts.  As for the other seventy-some, Sparky said of HoJo, “I don’t know if he can ever become a good third baseman.”[4]

Spring Training Program

He broached the idea of Johnson playing DH, an option a lot of Tigers fans probably wish he would’ve pursued over the long haul.  In any event, Wilson was a perfectly good line shot hitter with some speed, so swinging him to third seemed like a creative fix.

            Pitcher Number Nine

However, Wilson would later call the move a “ploy” of Sparky’s to “not look as bad” if he’d go on to trade Wilson.  The implication is that Wilson wouldn’t play as well at a new position and thus diminish in fan’s eyes.  This interpretation was probably occasioned by Sparky criticizing Wilson to the press after the latter made an error in the opening game of Spring Training. In any event, what the move did was to make Wilson not feel as bad after being traded.  If the forthright—often blunt—Sparky was up to any ploys, perhaps prompting his young outfielder to envision greener pastures was it.

Sparky needed to make a trade.  In his mind, none of the above-mentioned pitchers—Gumpert, Martin, Ujdur, and Bailey—was the man for the ninth slot if the Tigers were to win a pennant.

These are the guys who went north. (back L-R): Willie Hernandez, Glenn Abbott, Juan Berenguer, Aurelio Lopez, Dave Rozema, pitching coach Roger Craig. (front L-R): Doug Bair, Dan Petry, Milt Wilcox, Jack Morris

Without rehashing the standard lore at any length, Sparky was high on Willie Hernandez after seeing him pitch for the Phillies in the World Series.  Roger Craig was on board, and the quest for Bill Lajoie to make a deal was on.

In one of the ’84 World Series broadcasts, Vin Scully outlined a deal that had been bandied about in the Apr. 2 issue of The Sporting News (which apparently had a deadline before the Mar. 24 trade that brought Hernandez over): the Royals would send utility infielder U.L. Washington to the A’s for pitcher Tim Conroy, then ship Conroy to Detroit for Wilson.[5]

It’s hard to know how close that deal ever was to reality.  Royals GM John Schuerholz denied the trade to Mike Fish of the News, but by then it could’ve been scuttled, with the Tigers moving on to the Phillies.  It was a bit odd: Conroy had been a starter most of his brief career, moving to the swing slot in ’83 when he appeared in 39 games, starting 18.  But the Tigers were looking for a short reliever. Of the 8 men on their staff, only Bair and Lopez were dyed-in-the-wool relievers, with Rozema and Berenguer slated to split time between relief and starting. 

Conroy’s lifetime record was just under .500, not far from that of Hernandez.  But he seems a bit light even up for Wilson, and he’d go on to have an awful ’84.

While all of this was gurgling behind the scenes, Wilson was, in the words of Eli Zaret, “beside himself, feeling completely iced out.”[6]  Sparky’s criticism of Wilson’s fielding made it up north, where Tigers fans responded with letters to the editor second-guessing the skip.

Wilson tried to cope with his insecure position by getting answers from Lajoie, who couldn’t or didn’t really give any. Finally, on the 17th, Wilson turned the tables: instead of wringing his hands about possibly being traded, he asked Lajoie to just go ahead and do it.

Wockenfuss at the Same Time

So, with a good squad and a lot of guys secure in their jobs, there was still a bit of discontent in TigerTown.  But it didn’t end with Glenn Wilson.  John Wockenfuss was miserable too, mostly because he thought he wasn’t paid enough.

Wockenfuss was a 33-year-old West Virginia native who’d been drafted by the Washington Senators way back in ’67, yet had spent his entire major league career with Detroit. The righthander split his time between Right Field, First Base, Catcher, and DH.  He had some swat and had put up a high batting average in more than one season.  Not lacking for self-confidence, he seemed to honestly feel he should be paid as much (or nearly as much) as Jack Morris, Dan Petry, and the newly-acquired Darrell Evans.  He’d always been told the money wasn’t there for a fat raise, and watching new owner Tom Monaghan pay nearly a million a year for Evans was his last straw.

Showing either a lack of a self-preservation instinct or just exasperation, Wock told the press that “those clowns” didn’t deserve to make so much more than him.  He also started openly telling the press he wanted to be traded—and it turned out it was mutual.  The Tigers actually—however bizarre this sounds—went to Philadelphia attempting to trade just Wockenfuss for Hernandez!

The Dumbest Move Tom Brookens Had Ever Seen

The Tigers played the Phillies on the 12th and Wilson hammered three hits.  Now, with the knowledge that the Phillies wanted more for just Willie, Lajoie figured he could get a second player.  For the rematch against the Phillies, Lajoie figured if Wilson looked great in b.p., the team would be in a better bargaining position.  Sure enough, Wilson–now a chess piece more than a person in Lajoie’s eyes—hammered pitches in b.p. and threw darts from the outfield.

The Phillies now asked for him and Wockenfuss for Hernandez.  This gave Lajoie permission to ask for someone else—basically a backup for Evans (even though they had Leach).  Lajoie specifically asked for Dave Bergman, and the Phillies got him by sending (future Tiger) Alejandro Sanchez to the Giants.

Therefore, on the 24th, Lajoie and Sparky took Wilson and Wockenfuss aside and announced the trade. Both of them got what they wanted: the hell out of Detroit.

But another guy with a one-way ticket—an unconditional release–had no such desire: Rick Leach. He was shocked by the news.  It would be just over a week before the Ann Arbor native would be picked up by another team—the Toronto Blue Jays.

Sneer and Mourning in Lakeland

Now, the Tigers had a controversy.  Immediately, fans began to send vitriolic letters to the editors of the Detroit press, all aimed at Sparky. (Incidentally, a pro-trade vote would be cast by national sports writer Peter Gammons in the pages of the Apr. 9 Sporting News: Gammons wrote that the Tigers “weren’t going to win without a left-handed pitcher, and they can win with Hernandez”.)[7]

But along with Detroit fans, the players also hated the trade—most of them, according to Zaret.  For Parrish, it was because he was close friends with Wilson (not to mention Leach, who’d been cut to make room for Bergman).

But the guys mostly thought it was just a bad trade.  Brookens, for one, has gone on record multiple times saying he was dead wrong about the deal. In 1994, he told the Associated Press, “I thought that was the dumbest move I’d ever seen,” adding the jaw-dropping confession that he’d never heard of Hernandez or Bergman.  Um, you’d never…what now? Let’s just move on.

Someone who did have the time and energy to, you know, know the people who play in their sport, was Whitey Herzog, Cardinals manager.  The Cards played the Tigers in Spring Training, and multiple sources have reported that not only was Herzog a believer in Hernandez (having faced him a number of times as an intradivision rival) but he said as much to Sparky.

On the national radio broadcast of the World Series, Brent Musburger said that right after the trade had been made, Herzog told Sparky he’d just won the pennant.  This serves, to an extent, to validate Sparky’s intuition on a pitcher who was barely over .500 on his career and was generally thought of as just some player by non-Herzog major league managers. It makes his talent and skill appear as something a good manager can sniff out: while no one would predict the details of his amazing ’84 season, his success–as opposed to failure–looks like less of a lucky guess when echoed by another manager, particularly one of Herzog’s caliber.

In the end, that’s what Sparky contributed during Spring Training—the keys to the championship.  Whatever the vibe may have been regarding the departure of Wilson and the possible damage to the Tigers’ pennant hopes that many players thought had been done, behind the scenes, Sparky (with the assistance of Craig and the skill of Lajoie) had made two brilliant calculations: investing time and faith in Kirk Gibson and making the big trade.  Eli Zaret writes, “Sparky had a sixth sense about players and correctly believed that Gibson had a far greater upside than Wilson did.”[8]  And so it was with his hunch on Hernandez.

If fans—and Brookens and Parrish and others–had had their way, the ’84 Tigers would have been the ’83 Tigers.  Instead, Anderson used his head to make two last-minute moves to deliver on the promise he’d made when brought to Detroit: give me 5 years and we’ll win the World Series.

For their part, though, the players seemed to do something very important: keep their mouths shut about their doubts and discontent.  Tom Brookens told Zaret in so many words that he’d done so[9], and one can’t find any contemporaneous criticisms of the trade from players.  They surely talked it down behind closed doors, but didn’t gripe to the media or to the coaching staff.

This seems to be a very significant factor in the team’s success on the season, and that’s largely because of one man: Dave Bergman.

While Bergman always seemed to be mild-mannered, even stoic, that’s not quite the case.  In fact, he doesn’t suffer complainers lightly.  Of the idea—put forth by Sparky, among others—that Jack Morris’s temperamental nature was a part of what made him brilliant, Bergman would later say, “that’s a crock of shit.”

Bergman also liked to tell a tale of badassery starring himself, in which he “more than once” went to the mound and told Morris, when the pitcher was pouting over a missed catch by a fielder, that he better strike out the side because if it was hit to him, he wouldn’t catch it.  He added, “that was our way of telling him to shape up,” which, one hopes, demonstrates Dave’s recognition that he was making an idle threat, even if it was one that by his telling, resulted in strikeouts.

But an incident just before the big trade illustrates the kind of teammate Bergman could be.  During Spring Training with the Giants, Bergman was playing his role in pitcher-cover plays when he noticed that many of the pitchers were lollygagging, wearing their hats backwards, just not being professional.

By his own telling, he snapped and starting calling the slackers “no good sons of bitches,” and threw such a tantrum that he was sent back to the clubhouse, with uber-veteran Vida Blue as an escort. 

Now, flash forward a week, and the Tigers clubhouse has a new guy: Dave Bergman.  The players were reportedly down in the tooth about losing both Wilson and Wockenfuss, at least the ones who hadn’t been called clowns by the latter.  But there aren’t any reports of loud complaining, factions forming, carping, or allowing the play to suffer.  No one froze out Bergman or Willie, the new guys, a dumb and irrational reaction to trades that does happen in some sports clubhouses.

Bergman would let teammates know if they weren’t working hard.

Had Bergman faced such treatment, he may not have blown up as he had with the Giants, but the author of the “crock of shit” theory wouldn’t have just endured either a cold shoulder or whining and complaining, even if he was the new guy.

Instead, quite the opposite happened.  Bergman, obviously disgruntled with lax former teammates on a losing team, got the perfect greeting in Detroit.  Former teammates Darrell Evans and Larry Herndon both told Bergman there was something special going on in Detroit, that these were a special group of guys.

Around the same time, Sparky addressed the entire team, asking them to look to their left and to their right and ask themselves if there’s anyone there they wouldn’t want to be in the metaphorical foxhole with.  Bergman concluded, “there isn’t a guy in this clubhouse I wouldn’t want to be in a foxhole with.”[10]

This was the impression the guys made on a tough customer like Bergie. After an appreciable disruption at the end of Spring Training, they not only inspired the praise of Evans and Herndon but apparently carried themselves as good guys and real warriors.

And then they’d win it all.

[1] Gage, Tom. Few Spots Open on Tigers’ Roster. The Sporting News. Feb 27, 1984.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gage, Tom. Anderson Quiet this Spring. The Sporting News. Feb 13, 1984.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fish, Mike. Royals Are Showing Surprising Optimism. The Sporting News. Apr. 2, 1983.

[6] Zaret, Eli. 84: The Last of the Great Tigers. Crofton Creek. 1984.

[7] Gammons, Peter. Hernandez Deal May Put Tigers on Top. The Sporting News. Apr. 9, 1984.

[8] Zaret.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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