At the end of spring training the Detroit Tigers had more wins than any team in baseball. At the end of last week, those same Tigers were in first place in the American League's East Division with a 6-2 record. But despite his club's early foot, Manager Ralph Houk has not swallowed his tobacco chaw in excitement. After all, "great" teams invariably come in first, "good" ones finish second, and "good young" ones end up third. The Tigers are of the last category—"the best young team in baseball," says Houk. But young, nonetheless, with toddling players like 23-year-olds Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, who has won his first two starts, and heavy hitters Jason Thompson and Steve Kemp. "It's hard for kids to compete with proven stars," Houk says between spits. "But I sure couldn't complain about third."
Third would keep the Tigers' rebuilding program right on schedule. They were fourth a year ago, fifth in 1976 and sixth in both 1975 and 1974. Once a team of despair, or "non-competitive," as one player says, they are now a team of destiny—"a championship contender within a year or two," another Tiger insists.
Just how far Detroit has come—and how much further it has to go—was evident in games last week at Texas and Toronto. The Rangers finished second in the West last year and are favored by some experts to win it this season, but the Tigers beat them twice, 6-2 behind 21-year-old Dave Rozema and 3-2 behind Fidrych. That is as many times as Detroit defeated Texas all last season.
The Toronto Blue Jays are not expected to improve on their last-place finish of 1977. Nonetheless, against the Blue Jays in weather so snowy and cold that Fidrych wore socks to keep his hands warm (see cover), the Tigers last Friday committed three errors, three wild pitches and a passed ball, got two runners thrown out between third and home, blew a 3-0 first-inning lead and lost 10-8. Obviously, when a team is both good and young, anything can happen.
Last weekend, only good things happened to the Tigers. On Saturday, Ron LeFlore had three hits, including his third home run, as Jack Billingham, a Cincinnati discard, won his second straight start by beating Toronto 6-3. On Sunday, Thompson stroked a two-run single in the seventh that lifted Detroit to a 4-3 victory over the Blue Jays.
The Tigers are trying to improve in the traditional way, by developing players within their own organization instead of buying them in the free-agent market or trading for them at the expense of younger talent. Of the 18 players who have been in the starting lineup this season, 11 were originally signed by Detroit. Not only are they young (their average age is 25.5), but they are also new to Detroit (only Centerfielder LeFlore and Third Baseman Aurelio Rodriguez remain from the regular lineup of three years ago).
Detroit has been able to build from within because it has one of the best minor league systems in baseball. Last year Class AA Montgomery won its third straight Southern League pennant, and Class A Lakeland took its second consecutive Florida State League crown. In addition, two other farm teams, Evansville of the AAA American Association and Bristol (Tenn.) of the Rookie Appalachian League, finished third and second, respectively.
But as good a job as the scouting and development departments have done, there have been some foul-ups. In 1971 the Tigers made Shortstop Tom Veryzer, now a Cleveland Indian, their No. 1 pick and overlooked a Detroit schoolboy named Frank Tanana. The Angels have been grateful ever since.
Such slipups have been rare enough that Detroit believes it is starting another decade of success like the one that produced nine winning seasons between 1964 and 1973. The best years were 1968, when Denny McLain won 31 games and Detroit beat St. Louis to win the World Series, and 1972, when the Tigers, managed by Billy Martin, took the East Division. Of the six men who started on both those clubs, five—among them Catcher Bill Freehan and Outfielder Willie Horton—were home grown. "We did it once before," says General Manager Jim Campbell, "and we feel, God willing, we can do it again."
Houk has had a difficult time deciding which of his young players to put on the bench. "I don't think it's right not to use a player who did well in the spring," Houk says. Among those who have won their way into Houk's platoon system is Rightfielder Tim Corcoran, 25, who hit .356 in spring training. On Tuesday night against Texas he had three hits and two RBIs and scored two runs. Another is Rookie Catcher Lance Parrish, 21, the Tigers' No. 1 draft choice in 1974, who hit .325 in Florida and helped beat the Rangers Wednesday night with a home run.
Two other rookies—Second Baseman Lou Whitaker and Shortstop Alan Trammell, both 20—form one of Houk's two double-play combinations. They played together in Montgomery last season, where Trammell won the Southern League's MVP award. Whitaker was the MVP at Lakeland the year before. Although Houk has also used Steve Dillard, acquired from Boston, and Mark Wagner, a product of Detroit's farm system, at second and short, he expects to turn the positions over to Whitaker and Trammell eventually. "They'd have to do a backbend to be sent down," he says. "I've started them off slow because I don't want to put pressure on them. Once they get their feet on the ground, they'll be in there every day."
Trammell is sure he is ready right now. "I don't think I'm gonna fizzle," he says, having already beaten the deadline set for him when he signed as Detroit's No. 2 draft choice two years ago. "The scout told me if I wasn't in Double-A by the time I was 22 to hang it up. Everything has gone so fast, I haven't had time to think about goals."
The knowledge that people like Trammell and Whitaker were being cultivated on the farm helped Houk endure heavy criticism from the fans in recent years. "The fans and media didn't know what we had coming up," he says, "but I did. Before these kids proved themselves, I got a lot of guff, more than I expected. To give the young players a chance, I had to put some old favorites on the bench. The only one left is Mickey Stanley, and he's their big hero."
At 35 years of age and in his 15th season with the Tigers, Stanley is a living monument to the success of the '60s. A reserve now, Stanley has shared his vast defensive wisdom with youngsters like Corcoran and Kemp, the Tigers' No. 1 draft choice in 1976. "But the way things are in baseball today," Stanley says, "we have to develop players faster than the other teams can buy them."
Stanley's biggest contribution to the rebuilding program was an accident. When he broke his hand four years ago the Tigers called up LeFlore from Evansville. Since then LeFlore has developed into one of the best hitters in the American League, batting .316 in 1976 and .325 in '77. "I had heard of so many of the Tigers' players that when I came up I thought I was joining a good team," LeFlore says. "But then I found out that players lose a lot as they get older and I was getting here after they had lost most of their skills. For a while I was afraid we wouldn't be getting any better."
Those fears were aggravated in 1975 when Detroit had the worst record in baseball, but in 1976 the Tigers added the free-spirited righthander known as "the Bird." Fidrych won 19 games that season and led the league with a 2.34 ERA. First Baseman Thompson also joined the Tigers in '76, but it took him longer to develop. He batted .218 as a rookie but zoomed to .270 with 31 homers and 105 RBIs last season. "If there were such a thing as stock in a player, I'd invest in Thompson," says veteran DH Rusty Staub.
Two more key kids arrived last year, Rozema, who was 15-7, and Kemp, who hit .257 with 18 homers and 88 RBIs. Even though Kemp got off to a horrible start as a rookie, the Tigers were so confident of his ability that they traded the popular Horton to Texas in order to make room for him in the lineup.
Thompson and Kemp agree that the Tigers' strong showing in spring training has had a lot to do with their early success. "It proved to us that we could compete against teams with quote, unquote superstars," Kemp says. "Some teams, like the Yankees," Thompson adds, "know what they can do already, so it doesn't matter what kind of spring they have. Now we're not just hoping we can do well, we're optimistic that we will."
The main cause of Tiger optimism is Fidrych's good health. Last season a torn knee cartilage and tendinitis in his arm limited him to 11 starts and a 6-4 record. And with those injuries came a psychological burden. "I was a different person," the Bird says. "I had the bad leg and the bad arm and I was trying to get my head together. Everything I count on, my bread and butter, was missing, and it got me down. The doctors told me to relax, and some of the older players told me how they had come back from injuries, but I didn't really know about myself until I went down to the instructional league in October. Then I knew for sure. I said, 'Oh, wow! I can throw.' "
As well as ever, it seems. Fidrych was 4-1 in the spring, and he won his first two regular-season starts with complete games, a five-hitter against Toronto in the season opener and a six-hitter against the Rangers last week.
Fidrych started slowly against Texas, giving up a walk, a two-run homer to Al Oliver and another walk in the first inning. He did not seem to have his pitching rhythm or his theatrics. As the game progressed, however, his fastball heated up, and he became the fluttery Bird of old, manicuring the mound, giving himself (not the ball) pep talks and congratulating teammates for fine plays. "One of the good things about this team," Fidrych says, "is that if the ball is hit on the ground with a man on first, you know you're going to get the double play. I couldn't be sure about that before."
When the Tigers pulled ahead by one run in the seventh, Fidrych had all the working margin he needed. "He's the best young pitcher I've ever seen with a lead late in the game," says Houk. "Some of them get too careful. Not Mark. He goes right at them. He doesn't give a damn who's up there."
Fidrych ended the eighth inning by throwing a double-play ball to Bert Campaneris, and he started the ninth by striking out Oliver and Richie Zisk. The outcome was inevitable, because as someone yelled to the Bird from the Tiger dugout, "You're better than he are." When Fidrych proved it, by getting Juan Beniquez on a grounder to second for the final out, there were handshakes all around and appreciative shouts of "Tweety! Tweety!" from his teammates.
"That's a great moment when the last out is made," Fidrych says. "You've been out there with your team for nine innings, and it's something you want to share together."
The Tigers should share a lot more of those moments in the seasons ahead. That is what good young teams are all about.