It's 2:32 a.m., Detroit. Do you know where your Tigers are?
Well, the 15,000 or so fans at Tiger Stadium who stuck around for the finish of Saturday's after-midnight doubleheader with Boston knew that their team was in first place in the American League East, three games up on the Red Sox. This was a rather surprising and sudden—if a nine-hour twin bill can be called sudden—turn of events, and the men, women and children who pulled the all-nighter were at once giddy and puzzled. Great going, Tigers. But who are you?
"People think of us as a bunch of no-names," says Detroit first baseman Dave Bergman. "And I guess we are. If the shoe fits, wear it."
"There are racehorses and there are plowhorses," says Doyle Alexander, the team's cagey righthanded pitcher. "We're plowhorses."
August 14, 1988
As of Sunday, the plowhorses were still three games up on the racehorses belonging to the Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Detroit took four out of five from the too-hot-not-to-cool-down Bosox, and Boston had to go 10 innings in the finale to avoid a sweep. As Red Sox manager Joe Morgan said after loss No. 4, "The worm has turned."
When the Red Sox arrived in Detroit, they had won 19 of 20 games under Morgan and had moved from nine games out at the All-Star break to a tie for first place in just 20 days. Way back on July 24, when the Red Sox were just beginning to roll, Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, who is really the most recognizable star on his team, confessed, "You can smell 'em [the fast-gaining Bosox] like you can smell onions."
When the showdown began last Thursday, most everyone, save the Tigers, expected Detroit to be smothered in those onions. The Tigers had not been hitting lately; their on-base percentage since the All-Star break was .310, or 10 points lower than Boston's batting average. The best RBI man on the Red Sox, Mike Greenwell with 88, had 40 more than the Tigers' best, the versatile Venezuelan infielder Luis Salazar, who wasn't even in the lineup because of a slump. In an effort to get more offense for the Boston series, Anderson shook up his lineup, putting Bergman, who had never batted cleanup in his 13 major league seasons, into the No. 4 spot and Dwayne Murphy, a retread centerfielder just up from Toledo, where he batted .220, in No. 5.
With a quick glance at the two lineups, any armchair manager could see that only two Tigers, shortstop Alan Trammell and catcher Matt Nokes, could crack the Boston nine. And the pitching matchup in Thursday night's game was certainly racehorse vs. plow-horse: Roger Clemens, 15-5 with a 2.24 ERA, against the Tigers' Walt Terrell, 5-8 with a 4.14 ERA.
Actually, Anderson made his first strategic move of the series on Wednesday afternoon in Kansas City. On his suggestion, the Tigers flew all five of the pitchers who would start against the Red Sox back to Detroit, some 12 hours ahead of the rest of the team, which would take a post-midnight charter after the game with the Royals. "Getting in so late," said Anderson, "can screw a pitcher up, not so much the next day, but the day after and the day after that."
Flying ahead didn't particularly help Thursday's starter, Terrell, because he stayed up until 3 a.m. anyway. "I watched a few ball games on my dish," he said. "And then The Untouchables."
Neither he nor Clemens was untouchable that night. The Red Sox jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a two-run homer by Dwight Evans in the first and a solo homer by Jim Rice in the second, but in the bottom of that inning Clemens gave up a bases-empty home run to Nokes, a two-run double to Trammell and an RBI groundout to Bergman. The Rocket also walked two batters in the inning and hit another. Clemens, who has always had trouble in Tiger Stadium, may have had a hard time gripping the ball; as Tiger starter Jack Morris would say the next—and similarly humid—night, "With all the sweat, it was like trying to hold a watermelon seed."
When Clemens was finally removed, trailing 7-5 with one out in the sixth, he had thrown 124 pitches and had given up seven earned runs on nine hits and four walks. It was his 26th birthday, and the Tigers had lit him up like a candle and won 11-6.
Terrell had gone 8‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, Trammell had knocked in five runs and Nokes had had a single, a double and a home run, but it's probably safe to say that when the 40,980 fans left the park, most of them were thinking, "Sparky, what a genius!" George Lee Anderson has been on the scene so long that some find it hard to believe he is only 54 years old; he was just 36 and prematurely white-haired when he took over Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in 1970. Sparky has changed a lot since then. He is no longer Captain Hook, for one thing; in Detroit's last 16 games, every Tiger starter has pitched into the seventh inning. For another, he doesn't make the outrageous statements he once did, such as: "Before he's through, Mike Laga will make us forget every power hitter who ever lived."
But the biggest change has been in his outlook on life. "I'm never gonna lose sleep over a ball game again," says Anderson, who has devoted much of his time over the last two years to CATCH, a nonprofit group aiding indigent children in Detroit hospitals. "Come October 3, I'll either be setting up a tee-off time or preparing for the playoffs. It don't make no difference. Back in '84 [when the Tigers won the World Series], it meant a lot to me because I wanted to win titles in both leagues. What a silly thing that was. Who cares? The day after the season ends, everybody'll be thinkin' about football. Sports is fantasy; it ain't real. You know what's reality? The wards at Children's Hospital, that's reality."
When the first game of the twi-night doubleheader began at 5:39 p.m. Friday, a tornado warning was in effect, and everyone in the park knew this was not going to be an ordinary night. The Red Sox scored first against Detroit's Morris on a double by Dwight Evans, a wild pitch and a passed ball, but the Tigers tied it up in the second against Mike Smithson on a single, a walk and an RBI single by designated hitter Darrell Evans. In the top of the third, it started raining cats and dogs, and the game was delayed an hour and 39 minutes. Then in the bottom of the fifth, the rain came down again, postponing action for another hour and six minutes. Morgan elected to do the humane thing by pulling Smithson, even though he had been pitching well. "No way I'd make a starter come back twice in the same game," said Morgan. Anderson, however, sent Morris back out for a third time after consulting with the pitcher. "My arm felt fine," Morris said after the game, having gone through seven undershirts and four uniform shirts during his seven interrupted innings.
The Tigers got two more runs, but Boston was never again able to get a man past second. When Morris came out, Mike Henneman, Detroit's Baby Face Nelson of a reliever, preserved the 3-1 win with two easy innings.
Even more encouraging for the Tigers than their two-game lead on Boston was the return to form of Morris, their former ace. He was 8-11 with a 4.79 ERA going into the game, but he had recently corrected a flaw in his delivery. "It has been a humbling experience," he said.
A surprising number of fans decided to stick around for the second game, which began at 11:43 p.m. Mercifully, and thanks to a generous strike zone by home plate umpire Dale Scott, the game moved along fairly quickly. The Red Sox seemed to have the pitching edge, with their latest acquisition, Mike Boddicker, going against the Tigers' talented but erratic righthander, Eric King. But Detroit got off to a quick 2-0 lead on two sacrifice flies and made it 3-0 in the sixth when Darrell Evans homered into the upper deck in right.
King ran out of gas in the seventh, loading the bases with one out, and first baseman Todd Benzinger doubled off reliever Don Heinkel to close the gap to 3-2. But Henneman came on in the eighth and notched his second save of the night. Or was that night and day? When Benzinger grounded back to the box to end the game at 2:32, his teammates glumly watched from their bunker; the Tigers poured out of their dugout to wild cheers from their fans.
They may not be famous, but the one distinguishing characteristic of these Tigers is their affection for the game. There it was, 3 a.m., and they were in no particular hurry to get home, like a bunch of blue-collar guys on the lobster shift. Players sat around eating meatballs and taco salad, just as they always do, to let the game soak in.
"Even though I've been here 11 years, this team is special," says Trammell. "We don't look that impressive, we don't blow you out. We just win." Even Trammell, who is simply the best shortstop in baseball, doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Detroit general manager Bill Lajoie would like to make a trade for another hitter, but he says, "Frankly we don't have a lot to offer. We're a first-place team without a lot of marketable talent. But we look for what's inside a player: heart."
Heart the Tigers have, and they also have arm. They own the third-best team ERA in the league, 3.47. On Saturday, they sent out Alexander, and he shut out the Red Sox through six innings. In the meantime, Bergman, who was looking more and more like a real cleanup hitter, drove in two runs with a double and a single off Wes Gardner. In the sixth, Nokes hit a tremendous two-run homer off the third deck in rightfield. Ben-zinger answered with a two-run homer for the Red Sox, but that was all Alexander would permit.
"It's tough to say if this is the best pitching staff I've ever been on," Alexander said. "In 1972 I was the fifth starter on an Oriole staff that had four starters who won 20 or more games the year before. But this one is close."
One of the reasons the pitching staff has been so effective is that it is well rested, and this has nothing do with special airplane flights. Not since April 21 has a Tiger starter gone to the mound on fewer than four days' rest. The bullpen is also remarkably sound. Henneman has made good on 18 of 21 save opportunities, and the 1984 American League MVP, Guillermo Hernandez, also known as Willie, has a 1.58 ERA in his last 35 outings.
We haven't even mentioned the Tigers' best pitcher this year, the lanky righthander with the same name as the Pittsburgh Pirates' relief pitcher. Going into Sunday's game with the Red Sox, Jeff Robinson was 13-4 with a 2.69 ERA, having held opposing hitters to an amazing .191 batting average. "He's probably the guy we're going to whack around," Morgan said Saturday night.
The Red Sox did win on Sunday, but they didn't exactly whack Robinson around. In fact, he and Boston lefty Bruce Hurst threw goose eggs for nine innings before the Red Sox broke free for three runs in the 10th. Said Morgan afterward, "If we didn't win today, all that good work we've done would have been halved in a hurry."
In the Tiger clubhouse, Sparky said, "There's still 50 games left. But if we get the pitching, we're gonna win it. It's as simple as that."
And just to make sure his pitchers get enough shut-eye for their three-game series in Boston this weekend. Sparky is sending the cagey righthander, the lanky righthander and the talented-but-erratic righthander on ahead of the rest from Texas—where the Tigers were scheduled to play a three-game series with the Rangers—on Wednesday.