When Will The Bubble Burst?

Even though they continue to win at a blistering pace, the Detroit Tigers recognize that it won't last forever
May 13, 1984

It's perhaps a true measure of success when a team can assess its victories in terms of esthetics. Consider last Friday night in Cleveland. Bozo the Clown threw out the first ball. It was 43° and drizzling. Cleveland Stadium is the sort of ramshackle horror you expect to be inhabited by gnomes and mad scientists. The Detroit Tigers beat the Indians 9-2, largely because the Indians made five errors and left a dozen runners on base. Winning pitcher Dan Petry, who had a no-hitter going for 7‚Öî innings in his last appearance, also against Cleveland, walked six, gave up six hits and threw a wild pitch in his five innings. In separate sections of the Detroit clubhouse afterward, the game was critically examined. "My god," said manager Sparky Anderson, "that was ugly." "Now that," said Petry, "is really what it means to win ugly." Winning ugly was something last year's American League West champion Chicago White Sox did. They enjoyed it. The Tigers, who've been winning beautiful, acted as if they were willing to throw this one back, so offended were they by its artistic shortcomings.

They aren't yet so sated with success, of course, that they can toss out a win just because it isn't pretty. Almost, though. The Tigers were 18-2 at the end of April, the most successful first month in the team's 83-year history, and an amazing 22-4 at the end of last week. The Tigers then dropped two consecutive one-run games to the Red Sox, on Wednesday and Thursday, but they bounced back from that appalling lapse by winning three straight from the hapless Indians over the weekend. The fact is, Detroit could easily have been 25-1 at week's end. The Tigers had the winning or tying run on base in the ninth inning in each of those two losses to the Red Sox, and it took the Indians 19 innings to beat them 8-4 on April 27. Only a 5-2 defeat by Kansas City after nine straight wins at the start of the season might be considered convincing. And it's not as if the home-field advantage was a factor. All four losses were at home. As of Sunday the Tigers were 11-zip on the road, five games ahead of second-place Toronto in the AL East, baseball's toughest division, and nine in front of the defending world champion Baltimore Orioles. Not bad for starters.

The Tigers are where they are, says the chronically optimistic Anderson, because they belong there. Indeed, Detroit leads the American League in team batting average (.291), earned run average (2.58) and is second in double plays (34). "We've caught everything," says Anderson, exaggerating only slightly. "We've pitched good and we've hit. There's nothing freaky about our record. We're 22-4 because we ought to be." Nevertheless, the fates do love a winner. On Saturday the Indians were trailing the Tigers 6-5 with two out and two on in the bottom of the ninth when Indian pinch hitter Broderick Perkins nailed an Aurelio Lopez fastball and sent it on a high are deep down the rightfield line. It looked for all the world like the game-winning homer. Base runners George Vukovich and Mike Fischlin were dancing on the paths, and Perkins had his hands held high as he went into his home-run trot. But then, as if by divine intervention, the ball hooked foul just before it plopped into the rightfield stands. Perkins struck out on the next pitch to end the game. The Tigers had win No. 21. They got No. 22 the hard way, trailing 5-1 after six innings, but scoring four runs in the eighth inning to tie the game, and winning in the 12th on Dave Bergman's double and Lou Whitaker's single.

Even obscure rules seem to work in Detroit's favor. In a May 1 victory over the Red Sox, the Tigers' Marty Castillo doubled in the fourth inning. The Sox were convinced, however, that he'd failed to touch first base. Pitcher Bruce Hurst put the ball in play by stepping on the rubber. He then threw to first baseman Mike Easier for what the Sox hoped would be an out. No, the umpires ruled, Castillo had touched the bag. That might have been that, had not designated hitter Darrell Evans, seated beside Anderson on the bench, spotted something amiss. Red Sox second baseman Jerry Remy, backing up Easier on Hurst's throw to first, had been standing in foul territory, and, as Evans hastily advised his manager, Rule 4.03 states that all players except the catcher must be in fair territory when the ball is in play. Anderson rushed onto the field to protest, and umpire Ken Kaiser called a balk on Hurst, sending Castillo to third, from where he soon scored.

Ever fair-minded, Anderson gave Evans full credit for this coup. Evans, after all, is his kind of player, which is to say dedicated, alert, knowledgeable and gentlemanly. Evans came to Detroit last winter as a free agent after 7½ seasons with the Giants and seven before that with the Braves. He has been—and will be—primarily a designated hitter, certainly an unfamiliar position for a lifelong National Leaguer. "I'd rather play defense," he says, "but then as a DH, you're still playing, you're still getting four at bats. It's not like pinch-hitting." Unlike many DHs, whose attention may wander between times at bat, Evans keeps his eye on the ball and the ballplayers. He was able to detect the Red Sox' peculiar infraction, he says, "because my dad used to read the rule book to me when I was a kid and ask me questions. I know the rules, and I like staying in the game. I've played too long not to be alert. Something like this is a way of getting the jump on somebody. It might mean a game, and one game can mean a pennant."

The Tigers' lightning start already has fans and even cynical reporters talking pennant in Detroit, and Anderson is dumbstruck by such presumption. The team is not likely to play .850 ball the rest of the way, he says. No one has yet. "I know there are for sure 58 more babies out there that are lost," he says, babies meaning games. He failed to say that 62 lost babies would still give his team 100 wins and, conceivably, the division title. "This thing could go the other way for a while," Anderson adds. "We're going to lose some games in the ninth like we're winning them now. And there'll be some freaky losses. We'll even lose some on balls that will go right through Tram and Lou," this last referring to his virtually faultless Gold Glovers, shortstop Alan Trammell and second baseman Whitaker. Trammell is inclined to agree. "We realize it won't last," he says. "We'll have our dry spells."

Another Gold Glover, catcher Lance Parrish, says he avoids even thinking about the extraordinary start. "I try not to figure it out. But I know this club is intelligent enough to realize that we've a long way to go, that the season isn't going to end tomorrow. All we can do is work hard and play well and try to build on our lead. It's too easy to get carried away. But there's one thing that'll keep us alert. Most of the teams from now on will be gunning for us. We'll have to play all that much harder to stay ahead."

Parrish is part of what utility infielder Tom Brookens calls "the backbone of our club," the middle defense. And Anderson says his "middle" is the best in all baseball. "I challenge you to name anyone better than Parrish, Trammell, Whitaker and Chet Lemon," he says. "Three of them are Gold Glovers, and it's a crime Lemon isn't. I never saw Mays in his prime, and I'll accept the word of those who did that he was probably the greatest, but I've never seen a better centerfielder defensively than Chester Lemon. If the ball hits the grass out there, it either means he wasn't playing or it was just plain uncatchable."

Lemon, a bright and ebullient 29-year-old, is spurred on by such lavish praise. "I tell you," he says, "I'll go from foul line to foul line to prove him right." In that ugly Friday night win, Lemon made a beautiful catch of a long drive by the Indians' Carmelo Castillo, soaring high above the fence at the 395-foot sign to take a home run away from him. After reentry and touchdown, Lemon impishly popped his bubble gum as if to say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

On offense. Lemon is off to the fastest start of his career. At week's end he was hitting .340 and leading the team with seven homers and 24 RBIs. "Now more than at any other time," he says, "I'm determined to put power and average together." He was 4 for 4 on Saturday with a homer—his seventh—three RBIs and three runs scored. Whitaker and Trammell aren't exactly patsies at the plate, either. They hit .320 and .319, respectively, last year and by week's end were batting .324 and .362. And Trammell has already had an 18-game hitting streak. Of the middlemen, only Parrish, who had 27 homers and 104 RBIs last year, is off to a sluggish start.

Parrish is the most powerfully built of all the Tigers, with Schwarzeneggerish biceps, and his relatively slight production—.227, five homers and 19 RBIs—frustrates him. "I've had guys in scoring position all the time," he says. "If I'd been hitting at all, I'd have 35 to 40 RBIs by now." As it is, he's second only to Lemon in that department.

The most surprising and gratifying performance has been rightfielder Kirk Gibson's. A powerful 6'3", 215-pounder with wide-receiver speed, Gibson is one of those blessed two-sport athletes. As an undergraduate at Michigan State he was confronted with deciding whether to enter the baseball or football Hall of Fame. The grim reality has been that he has looked more like another Clint Hartung, the legendary can't-miss bust of the late '40s, except that he has lacked Hartung's sunny disposition. Last year he groused through a miserable .227 season in which he feuded with fans, press and management. He didn't like being platooned in the outfield, and he couldn't stand criticism. In truth, he was simply playing ugly baseball. And yet that great promise was still there. Last June 14 he became only one of 11 men to hit a ball over the Tiger Stadium roof, joining the august company of, among others, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard. But that was small consolation for the low average and, in the eyes of purists, proof only that he swings too hard.

Gibson did some soul-searching this past winter. "What happened to me last year I wouldn't wish on anyone," he says. "But I got through it, and it was a lesson in life. Everybody grows up. I've just had to do my growing up in public. It was hard for me to understand that I was a public figure. I had my heroes as a kid—Al Kaline and Bill Freehan—but I never ever asked anyone for an autograph. This is a very humbling game, and I haven't got it down yet, but I hate to accept failure. I'm not a loser."

Gibson first got his psyche straightened out—"I dropped all my vendettas"—and then got his body in shape with five-a-week workouts so that by spring training he seemed to Anderson and his staff to be essentially a new man, a former malcontent who had suddenly become a cooperative hard worker. His old hero, Kaline, now a Tiger broadcaster, took him on as a personal charge. "I'd always had a terrible time in rightfield. I was a wild stallion out there," Gibson admits. "Al Kaline, who was only the best rightfielder, taught me how to play it. He got me charging ground balls and throwing after one step instead of two or three."

At the plate Gibson found himself more relaxed, more willing to wait on pitches and drive them to the opposite field. In a four-hit game against the Red Sox May 2, the lefthanded Gibson singled, doubled and tripled to left and singled to center, proof of sorts that he'd learned his lessons well. "He realized that he was his own worst enemy," says Tiger hitting coach Gates Brown. "He's mellowing. He's not trying to hit every ball over the roof. With his strength, all he has to do is make contact and the home runs will come. Rocky Colavito once told me that a home run is a home run if it goes 300 feet or 500 feet." The homers have been coming, along with everything else. At week's end Gibson had four of them, with a .293 batting average and 14 RBIs. And he's playing the outfield with unaccustomed gusto.

Anderson is no longer platooning Gibson, and, of course, he leaves his middlemen in place, but there are crowds of eager candidates at first, third and DH. So, in the early going at least, Anderson is playing just about everybody on the roster. "When you're winning," he says, "you should give everybody a chance to feel a part of it. When it comes down to a struggle, we'll have to go with the same nine every day."

He'll certainly have some intriguing choices to make if and when he settles on a final nine. At third there are Brookens, Howard Johnson, Barbara Garbey, Evans and catcher-infielder Castillo. And at first he can choose among Garbey, Dave Bergman and Evans. Garbey (pronounced gar-BAY), the Cuban refugee (SI, June 13, 1983), was off to a torrid start at the plate, but he has lately cooled down to a still impressive .392. Anderson likes his quickness and defensive skills at first. For the time being, however, he's platooning there with Bergman.

The Tigers' pitching has been superb, and the bullpen is vastly improved with the addition of lefthander Willie Hernandez, acquired from the Phillies, and with the full-time availability of Lopez, injured part of last year, and middle reliever Doug Bair, who came over from the Cardinals late last June.

Oh, it's a rosy picture, all right. When the Tigers knocked the Indians over Friday after the two losses to Boston, Lemon said to reporters in all seriousness, "I knew we'd come back." From what, pray tell? The depths of a two-game losing streak? What if he played for the Yankees? And it won't get any better for the rest of the division if Sparky is any kind of seer—and he seems to be. "Just wait until it gets hot," he said after the Saturday game, played in 49° weather. "Then we'll pick up our hitting. The home runs are just gonna start flying." Now there's something to think about.

TWO PHOTOSLemon, 4 for 4 on Saturday with three RBIs and three runs, has been fantastic afoot and afield so far. PHOTOSparky is sure the "babies" will come. PHOTOTrammell is one of three Gold Glovers. PHOTOBrookens and four other Tigers are trying to get a solid grip on the third-base job. PHOTOSlow starter Parrish has swung the team's short stick. PHOTOThings are finally looking up for Gibson. PHOTORookie Garbey is sitting pretty with a .392 average.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)