In the end, the little things counted. The lordly Detroit Tigers swept the Kansas City Royals in the best-of-five American League playoffs last week not so much because the Tigers' bats boomed, which they did on occasion, and their fastballs crackled, which they did frequently, but because of Detroit's mastery of the game's subtleties and some good old-time, down-in-the-dirt hustle. Little things. The game that clinched the pennant Friday night in Tiger Stadium was a case in point.
With one out in the bottom half of the second inning and Darrell Evans on first and Chet Lemon on third, Marty Castillo, a backup catcher and third baseman who appeared in only 70 games this season, came to bat for the Tigers. Castillo didn't figure to be a starter in this series, but on the last day of the season, in New York, he got the word that he would indeed start. With the division title long since sewed up and the Tiger spirits running toward horseplay, Castillo, kidding with manager Sparky Anderson said, "You know, you really are crazy."
"Yeah, well I'll show you how crazy I am," Anderson replied. "I'm going to start you next week in the playoffs."
"I'll show you how crazy that is," answered Castillo. "I'm going to win the MVP."
He didn't quite make good on his boast, but in that second inning of the climactic game, he did establish beyond question his manager is of sound mind.
At first it looked bad for the home team. Castillo hit a bouncer directly to K.C. shortstop Onix Concepcion, a ball that seemed certain to lead to an inning-ending double play. In Kansas City, where the game is played on artificial turf, it's an easy DP. But the grass is high and slow in Tiger Stadium, and though Castillo isn't fast, he knew that "if you run hard, you never can tell what'll happen." The grass slowed the ball just enough and Castillo, pumping furiously, ran just fast enough to beat Frank White's relay from second base to first. Lemon scored from third with the only run of the game, the deciding run of the series, the run that gave Detroit its first pennant in 16 years. It was only the second inning, it was an apparently unimportant ground ball, a little thing, but it was the ball game.
Milt Wilcox, a 34-year-old journeyman pitcher given new life this year (17-8), mowed down the Royals for the first three innings of this game by throwing mostly fastballs, but Tiger pitching coach Roger Craig was worried. Wilcox was becoming predictable. Soon he would become hittable. "You have to establish your curveball," Craig told Wilcox before the fourth inning. Wilcox did. He struck out four consecutive batters in the fourth and fifth, and, mixing his conventional fastball and curve with a split-finger fastball Craig had taught him, he allowed only two hits in eight innings before giving way to Willie Hernandez in the ninth. Craig had suggested a subtle tactical change, a little thing, and it had paid off.
However, Wilcox's progress through the Kansas City batting order wasn't without incident. With two outs and the tying run, in the person of Don Slaught, on base in the eighth, Wilcox faced Willie Wilson, the Royals' leading hitter (.301) and one of the fastest men in baseball.
Wilson slashed a hard ground ball to first baseman Evans's right. It appeared to be a certain hit, one that would move the potential tying run into scoring position and put the potential winning run on base. But no. Evans, a 16-year veteran, dived for the ball, backhanded it and plummeted face first into the infield dirt. Wilson was flying toward first. Wilcox was struggling to get there. Evans scrambled to his feet and made a calculated decision. "If I don't make a perfect throw, Wilson'll beat it," he said to himself. "I've got to get there whatever way I can." He ran forward a few steps, then slid into the bag at almost the same time Wilson himself was sliding into it. Evans got there first. Wilson slid across the bag and sat in the dirt as the Tigers, relieved, trotted off the field. Evans made a quick decision, a little thing, and it got Detroit out of trouble.
In the next inning, Castillo caught Darryl Motley's foul popup for the last out—"I'd always dreamed as a kid of making a diving catch in a situation like that, but this'Il do," he said—and flipped the ball and his cap to the fans in the third-base box seats. The Tigers had their pennant. The fans inside the park began chanting and singing. Multitudes outside started pounding on the gates to get inside so they, too, could be a part of history.
Three days before, it hadn't looked as if winning the pennant would be all that difficult. Detroit had won 104 games in the regular season and led its division from wire to wire. In fact, the Tigers had the best record in the league from Day 1 on, the first team in the majors to do so since the canonized 1927 Yankees. As catcher Lance Parrish, who had 33 homers and 98 RBIs during the regular season, so accurately put it, "We played very well at home, very well on the road, very well on grass, very well on [artificial] turf, very well at night, very well in the day, very well." In fact, Detroit was tops in the league in all those circumstances. Furthermore, the Tigers had won all six games they'd played at Royals Stadium, where the playoffs would begin. Their manager, Anderson, had won 14 out of 19 previous playoff games; the K.C. skipper, Dick Howser, hadn't won one in six tries. The Royals had won only 84 games during the season and had been outscored 686 to 673. "If there were just one division," said Castillo, "we'd have finished 20 games ahead of them."
K.C. certainly provided scant opposition in Game 1. Detroit's Jack Morris, a 19-game winner, held the Royals to one run and five hits in his seven innings, while his teammates amassed eight runs and 14 hits, including homers by Parrish, Larry Herndon and Alan Trammell. The Kansas City ace, 17-game winner Bud Black, lasted only five innings. Still, the outcome of the game may have hinged on a little thing. In the third, with the Tigers leading 2-0, George Brett, the Royals' most dangerous hitter, came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs. Morris was looking at the possibility of two, three, even four runs scoring and at a decided shift in momentum. He quickly got two strikes on Brett, a matter of small consequence, because Brett is an outstanding two-strike hitter. Watching all this—actually glowering at it—was Detroit rightfielder Kirk Gibson, his fierce look enhanced by a four-day growth of beard. "I'm not out there to win a beauty contest," he would say later.
Gibson, whom Anderson once regrettably referred to as the new Mickey Mantle, hadn't distinguished himself in the big leagues until this year, his fifth in the majors. A former college football star, he'd hit a ball over the Tiger Stadium roof and he'd dazzled the fans with his speed on the bases, but he also struck out regularly and his play in the outfield was generally execrable. In 1983, he batted only .227. This spring Gibson decided to reinvent himself. He would curb his quick temper, stay in good shape, shorten his big swing and somehow learn to play rightfield. It worked. He hit .282, scored 92 runs, batted in 91, belted 27 homers and stole 29 bases—an almost Mantleian effort. Al Kaline, the Tigers' Hall of Fame rightfielder, taught him the niceties of catching and throwing. Though Gibson got the hang of most of what Kaline sought to teach him, he lacked a certain flexibility of body, which made it difficult for him to field low line drives.
A low line drive is exactly what Brett hit to rightfield off Morris's l-and-2 forkball. The new Gibson gave chase. "Kirk," he had told himself before the playoffs, "you're an aggressive player. Go for broke!"
"I thought the guy must be crazy," Brett said later. "I thought it was a clean base hit." It wasn't. The unsupple Gibson reached low for the ball, caught it and then sprawled on the ground. It was a circus catch, one of two—the other was off Slaught in the ninth inning of the second game—Gibson would make on his way to becoming the series' Most Valuable Player. He also hit .417. "A year ago," said Anderson of the catch, "Brett would've been running a long way around the bases."
Game 1 was the easy part. Game 2, said Gibson, was "the most nerve-racking game I've ever been in."
"I was so spent emotionally after that game I could hardly move," said Evans.
"It's hard for me to feel confident after a game like this," admitted Howser, ordinarily the most upbeat of managers but conspicuously downcast that night.
Howser chose as his starter, Bret Saberhagen, a youth of 20 with an incipient mustache as luxuriant as down on a peach. Though Saberhagen, a 10-game winner, would be the youngest starting pitcher in playoff history, Howser insisted that he had the poise of a veteran. However, Saberhagen appeared shaky in the beginning, giving up two runs in the first on an error by Concepcion and successive doubles to right by Gibson and Parrish and another run in the third on Gibson's long homer over the centerfield fence. Then he settled into a groove, and the Royals got back in the game, scoring two runs off Detroit starter Dan Petry and the tying one in the eighth on pinch hitter Hal McRae's double off Hernandez, who was suffering from a sore throat. Hernandez nearly collapsed after his one inning of pitching, and Anderson apologized for using him at all. "It's my fault, not his," said Anderson of the tying run.
The Tigers brought in Aurelio Lopez—Se√±or Smoke to the outside world, the Mexican Raven to some of his teammates—to pitch for as long as it took to finish this one. He was opposed from the ninth on by K.C. relief star Dan Quisenberry. And it was Quisenberry who ultimately faltered. With one out in the 11th and Ruppert Jones on first and Evans on second, John Grubb, Detroit's designated hitter, was at bat. Grubb, 36, is another Tiger veteran, a part-timer in the outfield and at DH who understands his role in the Anderson scheme of things and seems happy enough about it. Grubb, for that matter, is so humble and pleasant-natured—"They've all been nice to me here," he said—that he seems happy just to be in uniform. This time, he was on the spot. Grubb is a lefthanded hitter, but the righthanded Quisenberry, who pitches low and outside to lefties, is difficult to pull to rightfield, so Wilson was playing in left center. Unaccountably, rightfielder Lynn Jones was playing Grubb straightaway, not compensating for Wilson's departure from the right-center gap.
With the count 1 and 2, Quisenberry threw a non-sinking sinker that Grubb hit precisely into the gap between Wilson and Jones. "Where was the pitch?" Quisenberry was asked after the game. "Right center," he replied. Evans and Jones scored in tandem. "Don't pass him, Ruppert!" Grubb cried out as he rounded first on his way to a stand-up double.
The Royals had lost both games at home. All that remained for them was Friday's gallant losing effort, a game in which their starter, Charlie Leibrandt, pitched nearly as well as Wilcox, allowing only three hits. Alas, K.C. couldn't score. For the series, Kansas City hit only .170 with just two extra-base hits. "We weren't much credit to the American League West," said Brett. "In a way, we should be embarrassed, but the way our young pitchers pitched, we've a lot to look forward to."
In the Tiger clubhouse, when the din of celebration had finally quieted, Anderson sat ingesting his postgame meal. Was he looking forward to the World Series, he was asked. The reply was surprising from a man who has appeared in so many of them (four). "Now, I ask you," he began, "what does the World Series prove? That the winner is the best team in baseball? I hope nobody walked away from the '69 Series thinking the Mets were better than Baltimore. And I hope in '73 they didn't think the Mets were even the best in the National League [Sparky's Reds lost to them in the playoffs]. What happened then could've happened to us here. We win one in extra innings and another one 1-0. We could be playing for our lives right now. But I'll tell you something, we've got nothing more to prove. Whoever's in the World Series, we've already proved we're the best team in baseball. Absolutely." And he returned to his victory meal.