The Detroit Tigers are off to an absolutely miserable start this year. Relatively speaking, of course. After nine games in '84, for example, they were undefeated. This season they were 7-2, and it took a scrappy come-from-behind 4-3 win over the Kansas City Royals last Saturday to get them that far. Last year they didn't lose as many as two in a row until May—their 22nd and 23rd games. This year they lost their seventh and eighth games in the second week of the season. They even went so far as to lose again on Sunday, 3-2 to the Royals in 13 innings. Shameful.
At this rate the defending world champions will have little chance of bettering or even duplicating their slam-bang start of a year ago, when they won 26 of their first 30 games and 35 of their first 40. About all you can say for this bunch of paper Tigers is that by week's end they were still in first place in baseball's toughest division, the American League East, the same place they'd been for 195 straight days. But this year, unlike last, staying on top hasn't been easy. The Blue Jays were just a game behind. As Sparky Anderson, his silvery mane shrouded in contemplative pipe smoke, complained one day, "Why, I've had to manage harder these first two weeks than I did all last year." It just isn't fair.
Anderson began to suspect that his team was not about to enjoy another blissful romp through the schedule when his two best starting pitchers, Jack Morris and Dan Petry, were beaten in successive games last week. First Morris was beaten 2-0 by the Brewers on Wednesday, his teammates getting just two hits off Danny Darwin. Then, on Friday, Petry was knocked out of the box after two innings in a 9-2 shellacking by the Royals. Tiger pitchers had not yielded a home run all season until that game. Petry gave up two to the same man, George Brett, in his mercifully brief tenure, and his successors allowed three more. Five dingers in one game! Last year's team wouldn't have suffered that many in a month. Sparky spoke mournfully of his team's being in the "doldrums" after these two trouncings, and rightfielder Kirk Gibson was so upset he wouldn't even speak to his dogs, Nick and Duke.
About the only positive result of the week's misfortunes was that they allowed Dennis Sutton, a Grand Rapids radio broadcaster, to take leave of the home plate-shaped hut, affixed to a highway billboard, he had occupied since Opening Day. Sutton had vowed to remain there as long as the Tigers kept winning. They did win their first six games, some of which were played on days when the temperature was below freezing in that hovel off Highway 131. Sutton stayed on, sustained by free meals from local restaurants and comforted by visits from his wife and Grand Rapids Mayor Gerald Helmholdt. When the team finally lost, Sutton and, to be sure, Mrs. Sutton may have been the only persons in Michigan to rejoice.
The terrible losing streak ended on Saturday in Tiger Stadium. It was yet another game the Tigers appeared to have lost. They were behind 3-0 and struggling pitifully against K.C. starter Mark Gubicza, who had retired 13 of them in a row, when Darrell Evans hit a two-out, bases-empty homer in the seventh. Gubicza departed after that inning in favor of Dan Quisenberry, arguably the best short reliever in the game. But the Tigers scratched out another run in the eighth when rookie infielder Chris Pittaro beat out a drag bunt and scored on singles by Alan Trammell and Gibson (one could almost hear Nick and Duke howling with glee at the prospect of renewing communication with their master). And they pulled it out in the ninth when Chet Lemon singled in the tying run and Lou Whitaker knocked home the winner with the bases loaded. It was a rally kept alive once more by the callow Pittaro, who worked Quisenberry, a control pitcher, for a walk. To illustrate how difficult things have been this year, this was the fourth one-run win for Detroit and the fourth it has won after being tied or behind as late as the seventh inning.
Despite such squeakers, Anderson is convinced his 1985 team is actually superior to last year's world-beaters. "They've all matured." he says of his '85 players. "They know they can win now. We have tremendous depth. I could make four moves tomorrow and we wouldn't lose a thing. I'd match the top 10 kids in our farm system with any in baseball. We've worked ourselves into a hornet's nest of talent here. I can see us being like the old Yankees, a team that just gets better every year. And we've got new players who will help right now—[pitcher] Walt Terrell and Pittaro." Pittaro?
Certainly. He's only 23, barely three years out of the University of North Carolina and so apparently frail of physique and delicate of mien that he looks as if he should be re-creating Sal Mineo's old roles instead of scooping up hot smashes down the line and taking his cuts against the likes of Quisenberry. Yet Anderson thinks so much of him that he actually contemplated moving Whitaker, a Gold Glove second baseman in '84, to third to make room for him. Whitaker finally balked at this astonishing proposal, a stand vigorously supported by a number of his teammates, who, as catcher Lance Parrish put it, "didn't take too well" to the notion of supplanting an established veteran with a rookie.
But Anderson found room for Pittaro anyway, transferring him to third, a position he last played in American Legion ball when he was 15 years old. Pittaro's unfailing eagerness and his willingness to experiment quickly won him the favor of his teammates, and they have rallied behind him. "In the old days the rookies might have been treated as castoffs," says Pittaro, "but that hasn't been the case here. They couldn't have made me feel more welcome. And just looking at this lineup takes a lot of the pressure off. You know there's always somebody behind you who can do the job." Besides, he says, "Who am I to complain? If they wanted me to catch, I'd do it."
Pittaro didn't even expect to make the team when spring training started. He only began to show his true promise last year at Birmingham in the Double A Southern League, where he hit .284 and had 11 homers and 18 stolen bases. He had been a shortstop in high school and college but was shifted to second after an unpromising professional start at Macon (.229 average, 24 errors in 68 games). "I was so bad at short they had to get me out of there," he says with refreshing candor. He is as surprised as anyone by his rapid ascent in the Tiger system.
"Mentally, I was prepared to go back to the minor leagues after this spring training," he says. "I didn't think I had a shot at all. My father and I even argued about my attitude." Pittaro's father, Sonny, played in the old Washington Senators organization and for the past 15 years has been the baseball coach at Rider College near the family home in Trenton, N.J. "My dad had the approach that if you work hard enough, anything can happen," Chris continues. "He told me I shouldn't go into spring training with the attitude that I was going to be sent down again. Not until Sparky told me he was moving Lou to third with two weeks to go before the season did I know I was going to stick. And the Lou thing made me feel awkward. Anybody would feel awkward replacing a player who's had the years he's had. Now I'm adapting to third. But I'm still in shock just being here."
Anderson has by no means given up on his scheme of switching Whitaker and Pittaro in the infield. "That ain't over yet," he says. "I think this [Pittaro at third, Whitaker at second] is a one-year deal. Lou can play third. He's got the arm for it. The kid's got a great arm for second, not quite so good for third. And Lou's bat makes him a third baseman. I want him to have those extra years up here. He can get that playing third, not second, where you have collisions."
Anderson rather slyly slips Pittaro, a switch hitter, in at second on days when a particularly bothersome (for Whitaker) lefthanded pitcher opposes the Tigers. He waited only until the fourth game of the season to "rest" Whitaker and play Pittaro, and the youngster responded by starting a game-winning rally with a single off the Royals' ace lefty, Bud Black, and by participating as the pivot man in three double plays. On Sunday, Pittaro again played second, this time against K.C. lefthander Danny Jackson. For his first two weeks in the majors, Pittaro was batting .276, with three errors.
Last year the Tigers became one of only three teams in baseball history (the '23 Giants and '27 Yankees were the others) to lead a season from start to finish. If they can go from wire to wire again, certainly a long-shot proposition in the face of such severe competition in the AL East, they'll be the only team ever to do it two years in a row. The mere mention of such an epochal achievement brings puffs from Sparky's pipe.
"You know," he says, puff, puff, "I've gotten to the point where I've started to think about things like that." And he may not just be blowing smoke.