Baseball, as William Saroyan once so wisely observed, is basically a matter of caring. Few cities in this country have cared so much through the years as Detroit, a town that for 22 long and frustrating seasons has seen heroes, owners, managers and several close finishes come and go but never a championship flag waving over Tiger Stadium. During that span every team in the American League over the age of 7 has won at least one pennant. Now as the league contests its last valid championship, there is a growing conviction that Detroit's loyal followers may be about to parade down Woodward Avenue for the last hurrah.
Next season, of course, the league will be split into two divisions of six teams, and thus the 1968 champion will be the final one to earn its title by being the best of an entire league over a full season. How great that would be for Detroit—and how great for the Tigers, who this year have already overcome a sick and maimed list that would have pushed other teams so deep down in their hospital beds they never would have recovered.
Al Kaline is a fine example. Nobody ever dreamed that the Tigers could lead anything without their plagued right-fielder, a member of 16 consecutive All-Star teams. Well, four weeks ago in the horrendous twilight of Oakland Stadium, Kaline failed to pick up the flight of a pitched ball and only at the last instant was he able to throw his hand up in front of his face. The ball broke the ulnar bone in his right forearm. The very next day Jim Northrup was hit by a pitch from the A's Jack Aker. He ran to the mound and started a melee that has had the Tigers fired up ever since. The team has won 20 and lost only 12 of its last 32 games. At one point last week the Tigers were so far in front of the rest of the league that the second-place Orioles were as close to 10th place as they were to first. At the end of the week Detroit held a 6½-game lead over Cleveland.
Kaline is not the only Tiger who looks like he is held together with Ace bandages and adhesive tape. Willie Horton, the home-run-hitting strong boy who draws tremendous cheers because he grew up in Detroit and once, as a 16-year-old, pounded a ball into the right-field pavilion of Tiger Stadium, comes to the plate with huge adhesive supports on his heels and spikes to help ease the pain from an Achilles" tendon operation last year. Bill Freehan, the fine Detroit-born catcher, functions with a sore arm that he claims doesn't exist and with bruises from being hit by pitches 28 times in the last two years. Northrup plays with a sore knee, and Mickey Stanley, the spectacular defensive centerfielder, goes on despite cuts and bruises suffered while making a magnificent catch at Comiskey Park several weeks ago—a catch on which he dove headlong on the hard warning track, tumbled over and doubled a runner off first while tearing his arm and leg wide open.
Nobody knew what would happen in Detroit this year after the disappointment of last season, when the Tigers lost the pennant on the final day. With both the Detroit News and the Free Press closed down since November 1967, Detroit was groping desperately for almost any form of publicity. The tinder-box situation in the ghettos was not helping much, either. Season-ticket sales stayed at what they had been the year before, but orders for individual-game tickets dropped off drastically. Once the spring exhibition schedule started, however, sales began to climb, and by the end of July more than one million people will have paid their way into the home park.
There are several reasons for the strong box-office showing, not the least of them the pungent local flavor of the team itself. Management has established an identity with its followers by signing players from Michigan and Ohio—areas it considers its breadbasket—and by developing its own talent through the farm system. Often the Tigers will start a complete lineup made up of products of their own organization, and in this day of mass trading few teams in the majors can match that.
The team's fast start has also been a factor. The Tigers have shot out before, but never so successfully as this year. After losing on opening day they ran off nine straight wins, their longest winning streak in 19 years. But what has really kept the fans coming is the way the team has been playing. Its defense, always good, has been superb this season. Even better has been the bullpen, which was responsible for more than half of the wins in the early streak. Gone are the Fred Gladdings, Hank Aguirres, Larry Sherrys and Dave Wickershams, whose weak relief pitching killed the Tigers' 1967 pennant chances. They have been replaced by youngsters who either gained slight experience late last season or who had never performed in a major league game before this one.
One member of the bullpen is John Hiller (5-2), a lefthander signed out of Scarborough, Ont. for no bonus at all; another is Pat Dobson, a righthander from Depew, N.Y. who got a $25,000 bonus and quite frankly admits that he "blew it all on cars and good living and enjoyed every second of it." The instant sensation, however, is Jon Warden, a 21-year-old in only his third year of organized baseball. After pitching three and a third innings this season, Warden's record was 3-0, and big league baseball should never really be quite that easy. The fourth member of the bullpen is Fred Lasher, whom the Tigers drafted off the Minnesota Twins' scrapheap for $4,000. A submarine pitcher, Lasher has already won four games and saved four others.
Detroit, finally, has the basic starting rotation of Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain, Earl Wilson and Joe Sparma. The four have seen their combined earned run average drop by well over a run a game from what it was last year at this time. McLain, a colorful and often bewildering character, is the American League's biggest winner with a record of 12-2, and his legend grows almost daily. Two seasons back he won 20 games and worked three perfect innings as the American League starter in the All-Star game. He stirred Detroit earlier this year by saying that the Detroit fans were the worst in baseball. McLain missed the last two weeks of the 1967 season when he dislocated a few toes after waking up one night and trying to chase away raccoons that were scratching at the garbage pails at his home.
This season McLain has switched from glasses to contact lenses and is once again throwing some of his sidearm pitches with great effect. "When I switched to the contacts," he says, "I began to see things I seldom saw before." What things? "Baseballs. Three years ago I used to be able to throw sidearm real good but then it hurt me to do it. My arm was strengthened through bowling this winter and it feels fine to throw sidearm again." How much bowling? "Oh, about 15 or 16 lines a night."
Another legend grows around Lolich. Each day the quiet outside of Tiger Stadium is shattered by the sound of his motorcycle as he comes to work. Lolich loves motorcycles and things like that. Last season he set a team record by going 84 days without a win, yet near the end of the year he was among the best pitchers in the game, winning nine of his final 10 decisions.
Wilson was injured early in the season when he jumped on first base and got a painful bruise on his heel. After missing five starts and three weeks, he has returned in fine form. He has already hit two homers to drive his career total to 28, only nine behind Wes Ferrell's American League record for homers by a pitcher.
This Tiger, in short, is a beast of different stripes. Of its first 66 games Detroit won 20 by scoring while tied or behind from the seventh inning on. As the enemy gave up 48 unearned runs, the good Detroit defense booted only 16. In the vital one-run games that normally decide pennants it has won 18, all but four of those on the last time at bat. This Tiger is biting so hard, in fact, that even Manager Mayo Smith, who went through the entire 1967 season without being thrown out of a game, has been bounced twice already. Unless somebody in the American League puts down some big traps fast, the only thing that is going to be seen of a Detroit Tiger this year is a tail wagging happily in the distance.