Mickey Lolich, the mad motorcyclist of Detroit, had just outpitched Bob Gibson to win the World Series for the Tigers, and now he stood on a stool inside his locker stall and alternately poured champagne over his head and into his mouth (more of it into his mouth, it seemed). "You all thought I was an improbable hero, but I came sneaking through," said Lolich, ducking to avoid a bubbly spray that Denny McLain was squirting in all directions. "There's always been somebody ahead of me. A hitter like Al Kaline. A pitcher like Denny. It was always somebody else—never Mickey Lolich. But now my day has finally come."
Until Lolich beat the Cardinals three times in eight days and personally gave Detroit its first world championship in 23 years, he was considered just another flaky left-handed pitcher with unlimited potential. The reputation derived primarily from the five Kawasaki motorcycles Lolich owns. During the season he drove one of them to Tiger Stadium—a round trip of almost 40 miles—for most day games, and this never enhanced his standing with the Tigers. "Driving those things through the traffic around Detroit has got to be a whole lot scarier than pitching to any hitter," said Tiger Manager Mayo Smith.
When he did pitch, Lolich was consistently inconsistent. In 1967 he went 84 days in midseason without winning a game; then he won nine of his last 10 decisions. This year he again slumped miserably, only to close strongly, winning four of his last five starts and finishing with a 17-9 record.
Still, he was the Avis of the Detroit pitching staff; McLain, who won 31 games and himself has a flaky reputation, was the Hertz. "Yes, I was always only the No. 2 or the No. 3 guy on this club," Lolich said.
October 20, 1968
When the Tigers were preparing to play the Cardinals in the World Series, it was suggested that Manager Smith avoid the obvious confrontation between McLain and Gibson in the first and fourth games, and instead use Lolich as the sacrificial lamb. Smith held course and pitched McLain as expected. It was McLain who was Gibson's sacrificial lamb, while Lolich won the second and the fifth games, and in the ultimate matchup in the seventh game beat Gibson himself.
Every World Series naturally prompts a certain amount of reflection. Always there are the obvious assertions, offered by the league presidents: "Our league won the Series, so our league is better than yours," and, "A seven-game Series doesn't prove anything." There is also that obvious question, particularly in a Series that lasts for seven games and one team—in this case the Tigers—rallies to win the last three games: "What was the turning point?" Finally, there is the matter of the two teams: "Why did the Series turn out this way?"
The American League now has won two of the last three World Series; the National League has won four of the last six. There is a fundamental difference in the playing styles of each league. The National League concentrates mainly on tight defense, the American League on home-run "happenings." The Cardinals hit 73 home runs this year, only two more than the Chicago White Sox, who hit the fewest home runs in the American League. The Tigers hit 185 and the league as a whole was lustier. One obvious explanation: seven parks in the American League cater to the home-run hitter, while only three National League fields—Cincinnati, Chicago and Philadelphia—offer batters a reasonable chance to reach the fences.
In the last four World Series the National League team relied on hit-and-run and strong defensive tactics in its attempts to cope with the Killebrews and Robinsons and Yastrzemskis and Kalines and Hortons and Northrups of the American League. The National League won in 1965, when the Dodgers beat the Twins, and in 1967, when the Cardinals beat the Red Sox. The American League won in 1966, when the Orioles beat the Dodgers in four straight games, and now in 1968. If this proves anything it would seem to be that there is no particular advantage to either style of baseball.
In the latest Series the Tigers hit eight home runs while the Cardinals hit seven. The Series, nevertheless, was not only a matter of home runs. The real turning point came on the base paths. In two instances, Lou Brock, the best base runner in the major leagues, was the victim. Brock stumbled first in the fifth inning of the fifth game. The Tigers, who were down three games to one and faced a humiliating five-game rout, were losing 3-2 after four innings. With one out in the St. Louis fifth, Brock doubled to left field. Julian Javier, the next batter, singled into left center. Willie Horton's excellent throw to the plate apparently did not impress Brock. He chose to battle it out standing up with Bill Freehan, the Detroit catcher, who outweighed him by about 30 pounds. Bad show. Freehan had the plate blocked and no amount of arguing would erase the fact that Brock should have slid. If he had, he would have scored and Detroit Manager Smith probably would have relieved Lolich. As it was, Lolich stayed in and three innings later his single started the winning rally.
Al Kaline, who played marvelous ball throughout the Series, won that fifth game with a bases-loaded single. He drove in four more runs in the diverting 13-1 sixth game.
In the seventh game came Brock's second—and probably most costly—stumble. There still was no score when Brock started the Cardinal sixth with a single to left field. In the second game of the Series he had stolen second twice on Lolich. Now he took an enormous lead—at least 20 feet. "Before a game I always make an indention someplace—in the dirt, in the grass—that automatically tells me how far I can lead away and not worry about getting picked off," he had said earlier in the week. This time he exceeded his own safety limits.
"I heard Norm Cash and Dick Mc-Auliffe both yelling to me at the same time," Lolich said. "I didn't know whether they were telling me to 'step off' or 'throw over,' but I decided I'd better throw over to first." When Lolich made his move Brock bolted for second base—a play he had worked successfully against Lolich in the second game. However, Cash relayed the ball to Shortstop Mickey Stanley, covering second, and Brock was out—just barely. Then, a few minutes later, Lolich picked Curt Flood off first base—and the Cardinals began to die. "I can't remember picking off two men in one game—let alone one inning," Lolich said later.
These blunders were typical of the baseball St. Louis played for most of the season. The Cards had only a 24-21 record at the end of May, but they were 22-9 in June and 24-6 in July. They established a 14½-game lead; for all purposes the season was over, and the Cardinals went to sleep. They woke up only occasionally the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, the Tigers had to play consistently good baseball all year, because the Baltimore Orioles were seldom more than six or seven games behind them until the middle of September, when the Tigers ran off 11 straight wins to claim first place as theirs alone. So many of their games were late-inning wins that it was no surprise when they rose up to go ahead in the seventh inning of both the fifth and seventh games.
For the Tigers the season is over, and now Mayo Smith will search for a shortstop to replace Stanley, the American League's best centerfielder who became Smith's mighty experiment in the Series. Stanley, after Lolich and Kaline, was Detroit's finest hero. He will return to center field next year, and Jim Northrup, the man who hits grand-slam home runs, will move back to right field. Kaline? Never fear—he will play, but just where has not been determined. Expansion may take care of that since Detroit cannot protect everybody in trying to keep its Series winner together.
The Cardinals leave for Japan in a few days, bolstered by the recent addition of Cincinnati's Vada Pinson, who will replace retired Roger Maris in right field.
"We'll be going as the second best team in the world," Curt Flood said after the Series.
"And every time we play there," said Orlando Cepeda, "the pitcher's going to look like Mickey Lolich."