1984 Detroit Tigers Season Recap–May

Check out all the monthly recaps of the glorious ’84 Tigers season. Today’s: May.

The ’84 Tigers slipped through the doorway into May on the highest of highs.  They had tied the all-time record for best 20-game start, were pitching great and hitting great, and weren’t showing signs of blowing it.

They were slated to go up against a lot of well-meaning but, frankly, mediocre Western Division teams like the Angels and Mariners, plus the Red Sox, who were talented and always dangerous, but spinning tires in the early going.

Here’s the May Season recap, not strictly chronological, but according to a few main themes. Enjoy!

1. Beating the Home Team

The 1984 Detroit Tigers carried an 8-game road winning streak into May.  They were undefeated on the road, and had a West Coast swing at months’ end, with a short trip to Cleveland and Kansas City first.  Before their first away game, they’d just dropped two in a row—for the first time in the season—to the Red Sox at home.  Their record was 19-4.

The Tigers would extend that win streak to 17 straight wins on the road, tying a Major League record.  They won in chilly Cleveland, Sunny Anaheim and Oakland, and the high plains of Kansas City. 

One of the crowning moments of the streak came at the latter, against the Royals.  After smacking the home team 10-3, the Tigers sent Morris to the mound for game 2 of the series on Tues., May 8.  Morris and Bud Black got into a pitcher’s duel.  In the bottom of the 6th,  Jorge Orta came to the plate with his club up 1-0.  Orta had homered off Jack in April, and he decided to do it again, making the score 2-0.

Well. Black was cruising along, but the Tigers were on a season-long roll and were probably spoiling for a chance to make up a measly 2 runs.  Three of them, Herndon, Evans, and Lemon put their heads together and came up with a plan to unite against the forces of mediocrity that were the K.C. Royals that month.  Coming up in that order in the 7th, they hit the patented back-to-back-to-back singles the team utilized so much in April.  Lemon’s hit drove in Herndon, with Evans to second.

Black was now on the ropes, with veteran manager Dick Howser hawk-eyeing him.  Dan Quisenberry got up in the bullpen.  Black rallied, whiffing Kirk Gibson, then getting the 9th hitter Tom Brookens to pop to short. Two out, two on.  But he crucially walked Lou Whitaker, loading the bases.

Out came Howser, and out went Bud Black.  Enter one of the premier relievers in the game, Dan Quisenberry.  The Quis had gone undrafted and had been signed as a free agent by the Royals in ’75.  He’d made a living off of his submarine delivery, an extreme version of side-arming it.  Quisenberry had hit his stride in ’82 and was riding a wave of consecutive All-Star appearances, and was the runner-up in the Cy Young Award voting in ’83.

To face the worthy opponent: Alan Trammell.  Clad in his grey-blue away jersey with the orange and black trim, plus his long-sleeved black undershirt, Trammell dug in.  Quisenberry delivered one near the inside of the plate, about letter high, and Trammell belted it near the left field line, clearing the fence by a few feet.  A grand slam, the first ever off Quisenberry.  Tigers win 5-2.

It would be a shame had this not happened, had the Tigers put up the exact same record, yet without their up-and-coming star grand-slamming an established league leader.

On May 24, the Tigers beat the Angels in Anaheim to tie the 1916 New York Giants’ record of 17 consecutive road wins.  For clarity’s sake, this was the same night the team broke the record for best 40-game start, at 35-5, but that will get its due adulation below.

2. Lopez and Hernandez Take Charge

May witnessed a huge turning point for the 1984 Detroit Tigers.  During this stretch, as the Tiges chased the record for most road wins, Aurelio Lopez and Willie Hernandez established themselves as a rock-solid, dependable duo anchoring the team’s bullpen.  The two combined for 9 saves on the month.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Aurelio Lopez pitching for the Tigers. Road uniform, gray with black and orange trim. Black glove
Lopez may not have been THE boss but he was definitely a boss

Lopez made his first appearance of the month on May 5, notching a save. May 9th, the night after Trammell’s slam on Quisenberry, the Tigers were finishing off the series, with Petry on the mound. Detroit took a 3-1 lead into the 7th, and still had it when Lopez came in for Peaches.  Senor Smoke lit up five Royals with strikeouts, earning another save and securing the series sweep. 

One of his biggest outings of the month was on the 22nd in Anaheim.  In the Top of the 8th, Herndon drove Tram in with a sac-fly, giving the Tigers a bit of breathing room with a 3-run lead.  Sparky sat Juan Berenguer down after a great 7-inning start, and brought in Aurelio.  In the bottom of the 8th, Lopez surrendered a single to the great Rod Carew, but struck out the side in the persons of Dick Schofield, Gary Pettis, and perennial All-Star Fred Lynn.

In the 9th he struck out Reggie Jackson, and booked his save by getting Bob Boone to fly out. On the month, Lopez saved 4 games and won 2, finishing 11 games and amassing a lovely 2.01 ERA to go with his 1.03 WHIP.  Sounds like the ace of the pen, right?

Well, not exactly.  Now, fans of the ’84 Tigers remember Willie as an incomprehensibly-good game saver, who saved 32 in 33 opportunities.  He was, and he was a huge part of the team’s success.  But at the time, fans weren’t able to discern his dominance until sometime in May.  Recall, while he’d had a good April, he hadn’t been invincible.  He’d come into a few games that were in hand, sometimes letting the lead narrow a bit.  He actually had the team’s highest ERA of the month, at 4.86.

But Willie really hit his stride in May.  He became a single-inning specialist, coming in game after game, relieving Wilcox or Morris after their strong performances, protecting narrow leads.  However, on the night the Tigers beat the Angels to go to the tantalizing record of 34-5, it was two innings for Hernandez. In the 9th, he struck out the side of Downing, Jackson, and Wilfong to close the door, 4-2.  I’d imagine there are only so many things in baseball that feel better than whiffing Reggie Jackson.

For the month of May, the Tigers reliever saved 5 games and put up a scorching ERA of 1.11 with a WHIP of 0.78. 

No doubt, Willie’s individual dominance was huge during the Tigers’ May of ’84; but with Lopez’s amazing month, how did opponents stand a chance?

3. 35-5

OK, here it is, the “Freebird” you’ve been waiting the whole concert for.  This is the “you’re killin’ me, smalls,” you’re waiting for the kid to say.  This is the number of the 1984 Detroit Tigers.  The best 40-game start ever, a record yet to be broken.

The team approached the record by winning a couple of one-runners against Oakland and two two-runners against California.  They broke it Thursday, May 24, in front of 43,000 Angels fans.  Trammell and Parrish homered in the 5-1 win, Jack Morris going the distance.

At that point, the national attention really hit a crescendo.  A 9-0 start hadn’t led to what a lot of fast starts lead to, a quick fizzle.  The Tigers had kept it up and had done something that no other team in baseball’s hallowed history had ever done. Team members expressed amazement; the Detroit media was goo-goo eyed. Sports Illustrated featured the meteoric rise, with Trammell on the cover.  Sparky was appearing on “Good Morning America” and other TV shows.

Lance Parrish with an exited look, in profile, toward Jack Morris, in profile. Black and white photo.
Winning is Fun.

OK, let me indulge a personal story. Around this time, I decided I had to have an outlet for my excitement about the 1984 Tigers and their great start. I liked writing and was, so far as I could tell, pretty good at it.  I was always inventing things, little scenarios, baseball teams, TV pilots, whatever. 

So I decided on something that made sense based on the media I’d been consuming and the technology available to me at the time.  I started a weekly newsletter called “Tigers Weekly,” which I sold to friends and whomever for a dime each.  I wrote them longhand and my mom would type them on an electric typewriter.   She photocopied them for me, and we’d collate and staple.

The first line on the first edition was “35-5.”

But Sparky has a better story.  Some shock, right?  It happened in Anaheim the morning of the 35-5 win.  Spark was having breakfast with his wife when a man came over to him.  Loudly, he enthused that he was from Ohio and had really loved the Big Red Machine.  It was a real honor to meet the former manager of the Reds.  He then asked, “by the way, what are you doing now?”

Puts things in perspective, right?  Life is a pretty big thing.  But in the particular world of baseball, the Tigers really were getting all the attention, and deserving it.

4. Blue Jays Take Flight

The story of the Tigers ’84 season has a prominent role for our “friends” to the North, the Toronto Blue Jays.  At the end of May, the Tigers were 37-9, having broken or tied some records set by famed classic teams.  Their thanks for it? A 5 ½ game lead over the Jays.  Now, it isn’t easy to get that much distance going into June, but 5.5 is the kind of lead that can mostly disappear over a weekend.

The lead had been 7 ½ on the 25th when the Tigers rolled into Seattle to play in the Alien Classification and Probing Unit the team called a stadium.  The Mariners found a way to sweep our Tigers, and that cut down the lead. That showed how vulnerable the team was, even after their mind-blowing success.

The Blue Jays were coming off an 89-73 year, by far the best in franchise history.  Their squad was relatively young, featuring great defense up the middle, a la Detroit, with Ernie Whitt catching, Alfredo Griffin at short, Damaso Garcia at second.  

They still had veteran DH/1B Cliff Johnson for some swat, and George Bell and Willie Upshaw were developing.  Their outfield—stump your friends with this—was primarily Dave Collins in left, flanked by Moseby and Bell.  Rising star Jesse Barfield got plenty of at-bats, but far fewer than Collins, who’d go on to hit .308. 

As far as pitching, you recall the ace Dave Stieb, and he was helped considerably by Doyle Alexander, Luis Leal, and Jim Clancy.  From the bullpen came Roy Lee Jackson, Jimmy Key, and Dennis Lamp.  The team had no real closer, much like the Tigers in ’83.

But they cruised in May.  They racked up a torrid 19-6 record on the month[1], with two of their losses coming to the defending champ Orioles.  While they’d picked the wrong season to get hot, they were hot, and went into June a few days from their first series against their nemesis, the Detroit Tigers.

Miscellaneous May

Here are a few other items of interest from May.

Morris Hadn’t Cooled Off

Morris’s 1984 May was a fitting encore for his sizzling April. In fact his major stats were roughly as good, with a 1.79 ERA and 1.03 WHIP comparing nicely to his April 1.98 and 0.92.  His record was 5-1 for the month and 10-1 total.  His one loss was a 1-0 loss to the Red Sox’s Bob Ojeda.

People were starting to talk about a 30 win year for Morris.  In a playoff broadcast that October, ABC’s Al Michaels made the apt point that one of the reasons for that talk was that Morris was playing in Detroit, where the last pitcher to pull off that feat, Denny McLain had played.

Mathematically, Morris was on pace.  He’d won 20 the year before, and was playing for a team putting up runs.  But it’s a nearly-impossible thing to do, and he’d end up with the very good 19.

Tough Times for Sparky

You really had to feel for Sparky in May of 1984.  First, the pressure that he felt along with his players.  But there was something far beyond baseball for him to contend with: the illness and subsequent death of his father.  Before the May 16 win at home against the Mariners, Sparky’s daughter, Shirlee called the manager in tears to tell him about a tumor and her grandpa’s lung.

He passed away on the 17th.  Sparky spent a few days out in California, away from the team, for the funeral and time with family.  Dick Traczewski was the field manager for those games.  In a serendipity that would soften the blow, the team was about to take a road trip to California, so Sparky could rejoin them and still spend time with his family.[2] 

Role Players Rollin’

Dave Bergman, with mustache, holds three baseball bats behind his back, stretching
Bergie had a knack for getting hits at the right time in ’84

May was a huge month for the likes of Rusty Kuntz, Dave Bergman, and John Grubb.  Some of these guys had either big nights or timely hits when placed in the starting lineup or clutch hits late in the game as pinch hitters.  The Tigers’ pinch-hitting average was .375 for the month[3].  One more time: if the Tigers sent a guy to the plate in a pinch-hitting role, almost four in ten times he got a base hit.

At the time, a lot of players were telling the media that the Tigers had a “different hero every night” theme, and it became one of the -isms for the whole year.  Throughout the season, Bergie and Johnny Chaptail (Grubb) would come up with huge hits.  The main five or six can’t do it every night, and it’s common for clubs to have guys on the bench hitting .212 or .220—that’s why they’re on the bench.

AL East Standings—End of May

                  W    L    GB

Tigers     37     9     —

Blue Jays 32     15  5.5

Orioles    28     21  10.5

Brewers  22     24  15

Red Sox  21     26  16.5

Yankees  20     27  17.5

Indians    17     28  19.5

Detroit Tigers pitcher Milt Wilcox throwing a pitch in profile. Black and white photo
Milt Wilcox, May 11th, a winning start vs. the Angels

Tigers in Context—the world around the Tigers

One of the major developments in the baseball world in May was the emergence of Ryne Sandberg as a major driving force for his Chicago Cubs.  Sandberg hit .373 on the month, bringing his season b.a. up to .288, with 31 RBI.  He and leadoff hitter Bobby Dernier were emerging as a quality one-two punch for the Cubs.  The team finished the month leading the Phillies by a game, with the Mets 3 back.  If the Expos decided to get hot, they could be a threat in a division loaded with talent.

In the N.L. West, the Padres were looking to the baseball world as if they may be a year away.  They’d tumbled, now trailing the Dodgers by half a game and tied with the Reds.  The story of the season for the Padres was shaping up to be the play of youngster Tony Gwynn.  Coming off a .309 half-year in ’83, Gwynn was now hitting .343.  Centerfielder Kevin McReynolds had belted 8 homers and had driven in 29 runs.  So the Padres had a couple of good young position players to go with veterans Steve Garvey and Graig Nettles, who they’d gotten through free agency and a trade, respectively.

In the A.L. West, despite being drubbed by the Tigers, the Angels were actually in first place (stump your friends), one and-a-half in front of the 23-25 (not a typo) Minnesota Twins.  The Royals were in 6th (of 7), but only 5 back. 

Speaking of the Twins, Kirby Puckett made his big league debut on May 8, hitting 4 singles.  A few days earlier, the A’s Dave Kingman hit a fly ball in the Metrodome that landed in a drainage pipe  on the roof and has never been seen since.  It was a ground-rule double.  Take off the roof, you catch the ball.

On the 20th, a young hopeful with the Red Sox, Roger Clemens, won his first big league game. Big deal.

The Edmonton Oilers out-hockeyed the New York Islanders to win the Stanley Cup.  At month’s end, the NBA Finals were just beginning, with the Celtics going up against the Lakers.  The Michigan Wolverines’ baseball team outlasted Northwestern to win the Big 10 Tournament.  The team had shortstop Barry Larkin, pitcher Scott Kamieniecki, and freshman Hal Morris.

May 8 was Day One of the epic Olympic Torch relay, in which a series of more than 3 thousand runners carried the torch from New York to L.A. for the opening ceremonies.  The route went through all 50 states, with participants running on public roads.  In each town, school classes and other folks would be at the right location when the torch-bearer came through.

If the Olympics weren’t enough to stoke patriotic fervor, the Statue of Liberty was also in the midst of a restoration, with attendant media fawning.

In music, Top 40 stations were playing the holy heck out of singles like Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)”, Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,”[4] and “Borderline” by a young Michigander with a dream, Madonna[5].

Yeah, it was wearing down the grooves of the Footloose soundtrack, too, but I’m going to devote a whole post to music in due time.

It was not a bad month for movies, either.  I don’t have to remind anyone of the cinematic triumph Hardbodies that hit theaters that month.  Later, on pay cable, it would give adolescent boys a chance to see an awful lot of skin.  What could surpass it?  Well, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Natural opened in May.  So did the John Hughes teen comedy Sixteen Candles.  A final May release was the future cult classic This is Spinal Tap.  Hello, Cleveland!

It’s what’s inside that counts –Mr. T.

The ’83-’84 TV season was winding down, so we’d have to wait ‘til fall to catch up with our fave characters on shows such as “Trapper John, MD,” “Happy Days,” “Dynasty” “Family Ties” and “Cheers.”  Those staying in on Saturday night could follow Arnold through middle school on “Diff’rent Strokes.”

[1] 1984 Toronto Blue Jays. Baseball-reference.com https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/TOR/1984-schedule-scores.shtml

[2] Sparky Anderson. Bless You Boys: Diary of the Detroit Tigers 1984 Season.

[3] Eli Zaret. 84: The Last of the Great Tigers.  Crofton Creek, 2004. Contemporary Books, 1984.

[4] The Hot 100. Week of May 12, 1984 Billboard.com.  

[5] The Hot 100. Week of May 26, 1984 Biilboard.com. https://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100/1984-05-26

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