1984 Season Recap–April

A man who’s ready for a hot start | photo Mary Schroeder, Detroit Free-Press

At the top of the WDIV broadcast of the Tigers Opening Day game at Minnesota, Al Kaline said that there was no reason for concern over the team’s poor showing in Spring Training (11-17).  He outlined the new acquisitions of the team and concluded, simply, “I think the team looks great.  I think they’re ready to have a big year.”

And then he just glared at the camera.

“They’re ready to have a big year.”

It’s eerie in retrospect, how right he was.  Although, by “big” he may not have meant 104 wins, first place Wire to Wire, and a World’s Championship.

In that spirit, let’s start off the season chronicle with April.  Rather than going game-by-game, I want to focus on a few major themes and components of the month I’ve found that, to me, tell the story.

1) Tigers Jump Out 9-0

Is it too much to ask to be able to see the sky on Opening Day? No one in Detroit ever minded putting on a damn stocking cap and gloves to go see a ball game at the beginning of April.  But in 1984, the Tigers started the year on the road, playing in a stadium where a bunch of the seats literally faced the wrong way—centerfield seats pointing right at the left field bullpen. 

I’m speaking of the Metrodome in Minneapolis, where the Twins were about to surprise the baseball world by staying in the pennant race the whole year (which required the 81-81 record they’d put up).

Detroit casually strode over the Twins like so many giants.  Howard Johnson, starting at third, drove in the season’s first run with a double that just missed hitting the oversized perpendicular window blinds over the right field wall, which would’ve meant a home run. 

Darrell Evans did homer, and Jack Morris wasn’t taking any guff from the beefy offensive lineup the Twins sent up there.  8-1 Tigers.

The night before, both Baltimore and Boston had begun their seasons with losses; the night of Detroit’s opening win, every team in the East lost except Cleveland and the Tigers, though Toronto was apparently still trying to make it through border crossing, and didn’t play.  So after one game, Detroit was tied with the Indians for first place.

The next night Trammell tripled and homered off of Frank Viola, racking up four hits and scoring twice.  His b.a. was .667 after two games.  Dan Petry booked the win.  Willie Hernandez set the home team down 1-2-3 in both the 8th and the 9th, though it wasn’t a save situation.  The Tigers won 7-3.

The next stop was Chicago.  This provided a great early test, with the Tigers facing the defending Western Division champs, winners of 97 games in ’83.  The White Sox had incredible pitching, plus big ogres Ron Kittle and Greg “Bull” Luzinski and speed demons Rudy Law and Julio Cruz, not to mention all-around class act Harold Baines.

In the first inning of Friday night’s game, Evans singled in Trammell and Bergman singled in Parrish and Gibson to open up a 3-0 wound.  That would be all their scoring for the night, and just enough.  Milt Wilcox pitched 7 innings of one-run ball, and Hernandez let up another in his two innings, snagging his first save of the year in a 3-2 win.  For Hernandez, it was three appearances and five innings in three games.  There was a new sheriff in town.

On Saturday, Jack Morris went in for his second start of the young season.  His performance that cool afternoon deserves its own post, and its own post it shall have.  For now, let’s say it was another great example for Tigers fans of how tenacious Morris was, how lean he was when fighting out of jams.

In the fourth, protecting a 2-run lead, Morris walked the bases loaded with no one out. He hadn’t let up a hit, but was visibly frazzled and on the ropes.  Bull Luzinski checked his swing and tapped it right back at the mound. Morris pounced, gunned it to Parrish for one, who gunned it to Garbey for the double play.  Now with one runner remaining and two out, Morris punched out Ron Kittle.

The no-hitter rolled on.  Morris got great D from replacement Dave Bergman who fielded a grounder at the edge of the infield and threw it, from a sitting position, to Morris at the bag.

When the bottom of the 9th rolled around, the Tigers led 3-0 and Morris still had a no-hitter.  He got legendary Carlton Fisk on a groundout, then Harold Baines on a come-backer.  He walked Luzinski and faced Ron Kittle.  After thinking he’d gotten a called strike that he didn’t get, Morris wound up again and threw a strike past Kittle to seal his no-hitter.

One of the iconic images of the season is Morris and Parrish crashing into each other in celebration, the impact blasting breath from Morris’s mouth.  What a fitting performance for a season that was beginning with so much power and momentum!

Homestand in Motown

After completing a sweep of the defending West champs, the Tigers finally got to come home, sporting a 5-0 record.  Their home opener was against the Texas Rangers.  This was a down-on-its luck squad with a

lot of big dudes like Gary Ward, Larry Parrish, George Wright, and even Buddy Bell.  Their starting pitcher on the day was a young flamethrower by name of Dave Stewart.

It was a pretty Detroit afternoon, and the Tigers exploded to life for the packed house.  In the first, Whitaker and Trammell got on, and up came Darrell Evans.  On the second pitch, he catapulted it halfway up the upper deck in right field.[1]

Evans tees off on Dave Stewart…

“Welcome to Tiger Stadium, Darrell Evans!” shouted Al Kaline.

for a 3-run homer.

The Tigers would win the game 5-1.  As of this writing, it’s easy to find on youtube.  One funny element is that before Stewart got chased, the ball kept just frog-hopping out of catcher Ned Yost’s glove. Ball or strike, it would just jump out, over and over, until Kaline said Yost needed to let the air out of that balloon.

The next night, Morris was on the mound again. DH Rod Allen singled in Garbey in a rowdy first inning, and Trammell and Lemon each homered off of some guy named Frank Tanana, the Rangers starter on the night.[2] Hernandez mopped up in the 9th in the 9-4 win.

It was a Thursday night, and a lot of teams were traveling.  The only other AL East game was a Yankees loss to the Twins.  Here are the division standings at the time:

                  W   L

Tigers         7    0

Blue Jays   4    3

Indians       3    3

Yankees     3    5

Red Sox     3    5

Orioles       1    5

Brewers     1    6

It had to have been energizing to the guys to see the Orange Birds laying an egg in the early-going.  They had to know Cleveland wouldn’t be a serious threat, and having a 3-game lead this early was…kinda cool.

They went to venerable Fenway Park for a weekend series.  However, two of the games were rained out.  The game that did happen was Friday night, with a crowd of 35K.  The Tigers’ lineup had Garbey hitting third at 1B, Allen DH-ing, and Rusty Kuntz starting in RF, with Gibby having a night off. Wilcox started the game, matching up with left-hander Bruce Hurst.  The Red Sox sent up the likes of young catcher Rich Gedman, stars like Dwight Evans and Jim Rice, budding superstar Wade Boggs, and hard-hitters Tony Armas and Mike Easler.

In the little ballpark, two offensive teams really went at it.  The Tigers went crazy in the first, Lemon, Allen, and Kuntz singling in a row, driving in runs.  After Hurst left the contest, Brookens doubled in Allen, then Whitaker got Brookens and Kuntz in on a tapper mishandled by the catcher.

The Sox narrowed the lead in their half of the inning, but Parrish homered off Mike Brown in the 4th and the hitting would continue for Detroit, as the Tigers outlasted their division foes, 13-9. 

After the two rainouts for the rest of the weekend, Detroit faced another rainout Tuesday night, scheduled against Kansas City.[3]  Mother Nature hated the Tigers and was obviously trying to screw with their streak by stomping their momentum into the squishy, wet grass.  That’s a lot of time between games.

But Wednesday was game on.  Jack Morris vs. Bud Black.  Chet Lemon opened the scoring in the 2nd by doubling in Larry Herndon.  Parrish hit one of his patented solo homers in the 4th, 2-0, good guys.  Brookens extended the lead to 3 by singling in Garbey in the 7th.

But Jorge Orta got Morris for a 3-run homer in the 8th, tying it up.  Both teams went scoreless for the next two half-innings, and in came the Tigers for the bottom of the 9th.  Are you ready for some great team baseball? Trammell started the proceedings with a single off of Joe Beckwith.  Bergman did what he had to do, bunting Tram to second.  Parrish grounded out to Beckwith and Tram raced to third.

Larry Herndon was in the 5-hole that night, and he came to the plate.  He hit a sharp grounder right at 83’s Gold Glove winner, Frank White, a respected veteran for K.C. White juggled it from glove to bare hand, then dropped it to the ground, and dejectedly sank to the dirt, realizing Trammell was going to end the game by scoring.[4]  With a dramatic 4-3 win, the Tigers were now 9-0.

Toronto was starting to heat up, winning that night.  Detroit had a 3-game lead over them, 4 over Cleveland. Baltimore and Milwaukee had 2 wins between them at the East’s cellar.

Seattle was leading the West at 6-2, with Oakland just behind at 6-3.  Then came the Twins and the just-spanked Royals.  Over in the NL, the nifty Mets with their rookie, Dwight Gooden, led things 6-2. The team with the second best record in baseball led the West, the 8-1 San Diego Padres.  They had a bigger lead than the Tigers did by half a game.

2) Morris Dominates

Jack Morris entered the ’84 season having become one of the most feared and respected pitchers in the game.  He didn’t have the lowest ERAs from year to year, and when they’d invent a WHIP they’d find that his tended to be around 1.15 to as high as 1.28 in those years.  He was known to give up gopher balls, and his split finger pitch sometimes ended up at the wall behind home plate, but he won games.  As temperamental as he was, he was actually amazing at working out of jams. 

Here is as good a place as any to reflect on the difference between following baseball in the Stone Age of 1984 and now.  First off, there were no Sabermetrics, no WHIP, and people didn’t meticulously examine the game like a math problem as they do now.  Stats have always been a big part of the game, but they were more a point of interest than the Secrets to the Universe back then.

Part of this springs from the other major difference—media.  Back then, with basic cable, I could watch about 30 games a year, broadcast by WDIV, plus the handful on national TV.  There was radio, but no real-time updates on an Internet that obviously didn’t exist.  Stats came in—where I lived—the afternoon paper, and honestly, a full stat line was published only so often and required getting the Free-Press or Detroit News on the right day.

You literally didn’t know how many doubles a guy had at the moment,  or what his OBP was, much less his average against lefties two years ago.  Some of the more advanced stuff, you couldn’t get at all. Aside from stats, there was infinitely less jibber-jabber on sports: no twitter, no social media, no frequently-updated posts by online publications, fewer sports networks or other purveyors of analysis.

Baseball was a sort of private experience, and one shared with friends and family.  If you thought a player was good, he was good, damn it.  If you were watching the night Dave Bergman sprawled out to nab a line shot, you’d think he was better than if you were tuned in when he couldn’t reach one. 

This is all to say that a more impressionistic way of evaluating players benefited Jack Morris.  It’s also why he got in hot water with the HOF committee—inadequate WHIP—numbers not crunching right. One culprit was his tendency to let up meaningless homers late in games.

But at some point you ask, what is the point of all these things that are measured in numbers? To win games, right?  Morris won games.  You could see that on your TV, even the kind with aluminum foil wrapped on the ten-inch antennae to improve reception.  You saw it in the box score.  He was a winner, and opposing teams knew it.  He was one of the center posts of the Tigers structure when the season began, throughout it, and for years to come.

On Opening Day, Jack was in his hometown facing the Twins.  While the box score shows an 8-1 blowout, it was a pitcher’s duel  between Morris and Albert Williams through five innings.  Morris painted one of his canonical works, striking out Jim Eisenreich looking at a pitch on the black of the plate, punching out 8 Twins in 7 innings.

In the bottom of the 2nd, slugger Randy Bush ripped a liner right over Morris’s head.  Recovering lightning-quick from the end of his pitching motion, Morris leapt with a half twist, reached out and got a glove on it, sending it to Trammell in front of second base, who threw it over for the out.  With a lot of pitchers, that would have been a base hit.

And then came April 7, 1984.  I’ve outlined it above and will pen a post just for the special day in due time.  For now, let’s just let this picture tell the story of Morris’s no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox.

Photo Ron Vesely/Getty Images

It was the first no-hitter for a Tiger since 1958.  But it was a lot more.  It had to have energized the whole team, knowing Morris was on track, able to bounce back from, for example, the frustration he felt when a ball was assessed during Rudy Law’s at bat when Morris licked the fingers of his non-throwing hand—while on the infield grass.

It happened against the defending AL West champs, against whom the team was now 2-0, and put them up 4-0.  A fast start doesn’t just happen.  Everyone talks about the numbers themselves: 18-2, 35-5, summoning a circular reasoning that asserts it made sense for a team capable of going 35-5 to go 35-5. But it took individual moments and games, and…individuals.  Morris was asserting himself as a mount of granite the others could depend on.  He’d allowed one run over his first two starts.

His third would be TH, Apr 12, against Frank Tanana, who was starting for Texas.  In the top of the first, a wild pitch sent leadoff hitter and former Yankee star Mickey Rivers  to 2nd with one out.  But Morris got out of the inning by popping up both George Wright and Larry Parrish.

In the third, Morris would make an error on a grounder that scored Rivers, setting the count at 2-1 Tigers. He then delivered some 1-2-3 and other easy innings, while his mates started hammering Tanana.  He would let up one more run through the 7th when replaced by Lopez.  Senor Smoke let up a two-run homer to Bob Jones, but the lead was too big, and Detroit won 9-4.  It sent Morris to 3-0 with an ERA–that isn’t a typo–of 0.39.[5]

Morris’s next outing was again versus the Twins, this time at home, again versus Albert Williams.  This one was one where only Jack Morris would get a complete game, giving up 5 runs on 7 hits.  Lou Whitaker saved the Morris bacon with a game-winning hit in the 9th (more on this game below), the team went to 13-1, Morris 4-0. 

Morris capped his amazing 5-0 month by destroying Cleveland, affording only three hits, in a 6-2 win that sent the team to 18-2. His ERA. was 1.98.  It was the sort of one-month stretch his career had been suggesting for years now.  And it was a big part of the team’s amazing outburst.  Rarely did he rely on the offense during the stretch, and rarely did he require the services of the bullpen.

Imagine being a member of the Twins or Rangers or Indians and seeing Morris as the probable starter, and for that matter, the Tigers on your schedule.  Opponents had to be intimidated, the Tigers increasingly confident.

3) Alan Trammell, Human Fireball

Trammell finished the 1983 season hitting .319.  He’d proven himself offensively, while being among the best fielding shortstops in the game.  He was well-known to be highly focused and serious, and he no doubt entered ’84 ready to catch fire.

For the month of April, he hit .403, with 6 doubles, 21 runs scored, and 10 RBI.  The MVP talk was beginning, and it was he who made the cover of Sports Illustrated in late May.

Night after night he relentlessly got on base, moved men over, drove his teammates in, and scored. Over the course of the year, he had a major impact on the fortunes of his team: his batting average in games they won was .355.  In losses: .241.[6]

Tram, Lemon, and Whitaker were the offensive dynamos for the team that month, with Barbaro Garbey hitting over .400 in about half as many at-bats as any of those three. If Morris was the team’s foundation, Trammell, Lemon, and Whitaker were the framework  at the end of the month.  Their consistent hitting kept the machine whirring with grace.

Tram faces Tom Seaver, Apr. 8. Photo Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

4. Great Team Pitching

Nobody talks about the great team pitching the Tigers got in April ’84.  They talk about Willie’s year and Jack’s no-hitter, and the big number 35-5.  Those numbers, like the Hollywood sign, have become a towering edifice, and when people marvel at it, they forget to consider how it was built.

Admittedly, the answer, great hitting and great pitching, is kind of basic, but let’s look at the details a bit. Here are the leading win-loss records and ERAs of the Tigers pitchers for the month:

                  W   L                                  ERA

Morris        5    0          Berenguer        0.67 (14 2/3 IP)           

Petry          3    1          Lopez              1.40 (19 1/3 IP)

Lopez        2    0          Morris              1.98

Wilcox       2    0          Bair                  1.98

Bair            2    0         

The team’s ERA was 2.50 for God’s sake, with a WHIP of 1.063 to go with.  Opponents hit .202 against us.  Only 3 pitchers had ERAs of 4 or higher, and the highest on the staff was that of Hernandez, who was 1-0 with 2 SV’s in as many chances.

Great play was contagious for a bunch of players who were definitely capable of it. There was a circuit of good baseball juice flowing through the whole team, and you’re not going to go 18-2, a major league record, without it.

5) Coming Through in the Clutch

Here’s more on the game I promised to elaborate on, the win against the Twins on the 24th.  Morris was on the mound, and becoming human all of a sudden, he got behind against the Twins’ lineup of big ogres.  We were down 4-1 at the end of 4-and-a-half.  Then, Alan Trammell singled toward Brunansky in right to score Lowry and Whitaker.

The Tigers went into the bottom of the 9th down 5-3.  Veteran-and talented—stopper Ron Davis toed the slab for the Twins.  Gibson opened the proceedings with a triple, then Grubb dribbled a grounder to get on first without scoring Gibson. Kuntz came in to run for Grubb, and the Tiges had two runners on with one out.  Dave Bergman came up and whacked one the opposite way, between Gary Gaetti and Ron Washington, to score Kirk and move Kuntz to third.

With Johnson up, Davis threw wild, scoring Kuntz to tie it.  Bergman moved up to second on the play. Johnson popped to third, for the first out of the inning.

Minny gave a pass to Chet Lemon, and up came Lance Parrish, pinch-hitting for Lowry.  The wily Davis got him to line out to second. Two out.

So, here’s Lou Whitaker, with Bergman at second and two out.  Whelp, he lined a hit to right to bring in Bergie and win it dramatically.  Jubilation at The Corner!

Now that’s an inning, a nice grind of three runs inch by inch.

The Tigers had an uncanny knack that month for back-to-back-to-back singles, with other hits sprinkled in too.  The big inning was their thing, though it wasn’t always early in the game, as many remember.  Rarely did they let a walk or error go unpunished.  And they won 3 games of the 20 they played in the bottom of the last inning. 

When the month closed, the Tigers were king of the MLB mountain, with a record-breaking 18-2 record.

Here are the AL East standings

                  W   L    GB

Tigers         18  2     —

Blue Jays   13  9     6

Indians       10  9     7.5

Brewers     9    11   9

Orioles       10  13   9.5

Red Sox      9   13   10

Yankees     8    13   10.5

The Orioles’ vaunted pitching staff, led by Mike Boddicker, Mike Flanagan, Storm Davis, and Scott McGregor (with relievers Tippy Martinez and Sammy Stewart) had served up a month-long ERA of 4.05.[7]  Offensively, they’d scored 92 runs, to the 120 of Detroit—the problem was their pitching.

In the West, where teams were getting bested by the East all month, Oakland’s 14-10 record was good for the top spot.  Then came the Angels and Mariners. 

The Cubs were starting to make a statement in the NL East, and were tied with the Mets 12-8.  The always talented Cardinals, with speed and pitching, were muddling along at 11-12, but were only 2 and-a-half back.

The Padres had cooled off near month’s end and trailed the Dodgers by 2 games.  Everyone else in the division was bad.

On the 27th, the NBA’s Pistons were outpaced 127-123 in OT by the Knicks, dropping a first-round playoff series 3-2.  Their starting lineup was Thomas-John Long-Kelly Tripucka-Kent Benson-and Bill Laimbeer, and Isaiah scored 35, to Bernard King’s 44.

On the 9th, Johnny Carson hosted the Oscars, with Terms of Endearment taking home Best Picture.  In theatres were The Neverending Story, Romancing the Stone, and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.

The nation was readying itself to watch a bit of track and field and boxing and gymnastics during the 1984 Olympics, to be held in L.A.

But across the country, a lot of sports editors were sending their writers to cover the Tigers, the story of the ’84 baseball season.

[1] Video: 1984 04 10 Rangers at Tigers. ClassicMLB1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDYNAMFD2QY

[2] Texas Rangers at Detroit Tigers Box Score April 12, 1984. Baseball-Reference.com. https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/DET/DET198404120.shtml

[3] Eli Zaret. ’84 The Las o the Great Tigers. Crofton Creek: 2004.

[4] Video: 1984 Detroit Tigers- The Roar of 84. Alex Weaver. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0H0-M0aES5E

[5] Texas Rangers at Detroit Tigers Box Score April 12, 1984. Baseball-Reference.com

[6] Alan Trammell. Batting Splits. Baseball-reference.com. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.fcgi?id=trammal01&year=1984&t=b

[7] Baltimore Orioles. Pitching Splits. Baseball-reference.com. https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/split.cgi?t=p&team=BAL&year=1984

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