Gorillas of the Missed

June 10, 1991
June 10, 1991

Table of Contents
June 10, 1991

On The Scene
NBA Finals
Baseball Expansion
Jimmy Connors
Tiger Strikeouts
Venus Williams
Point After

Gorillas of the Missed

Detroit's lineup packs a mighty wallop, but an abundance of strikeouts is part of the bargain

There is a bad new record being pressed in Detroit. The label is not Motown, but K-Tel. The record features a quartet of men playing wind instruments. It has three big cuts, and then it's done. While this is a record that swings, it is hardly likely to result in a hit.

This is an article from the June 10, 1991 issue Original Layout

That sound you do not hear is the Mow-down sound, the sound of Detroit Tiger after Detroit Tiger swinging at baseballs—and missing. The Tigers are being mowed down at a near-record pace this season, led, if you will, by Rob Deer, Cecil Fielder, Pete Incaviglia and Mickey Tettleton. They are four beefy Tigers who render the phrase "meat of the order" laughably inadequate, but their considerable size is not the only thing these players share. There is another resemblance among the four that is more striking.

"You get what you pay for," says Tiger hitting coach Vada Pinson, whose club this past off-season shelled out big bucks—a combined $4 million for this year—to sign Deer, Incaviglia and Tettleton. "We knew when we got them that they'd strike out some."

And that is what they do—much of the time, anyway. Deer, Fielder, Incaviglia and Tettleton, teammates for the first time in 1991, struck out a collective 635 times in 1990. Thus far this year, they're on about the same pace, having already combined for 188 strikeouts through Sunday, with rightfielder Deer, whose 63 K's were the most by any one player in the majors, leading the way. Their mere presence in the same lineup makes a strong case that the American League team record for strikeouts in a season—1,148, set by the 1986 Seattle Mariners (the team that struck out 20 times against Boston's Roger Clemens to set baseball's alltime single-game mark)—will be, shall we say, struck from the record book by the end of this summer. There's also the chance that the Tigers, who at week's end were averaging seven strikeouts per game, could eclipse the major league record of 1,203, set by the '68 New York Mets. "There will be a lot of games [against the Tigers] this season in which, if a starting pitcher has his stuff, he can use the same baseball for two or three innings," says broadcaster and former pitcher Jim Kaat.

Clemens appeared to be doing just that in a recent outing in Detroit, striking out eight Tigers by the time he faced designated hitter Incaviglia with a man on base in the seventh inning. "Roger is a great pitcher," Inky would say afterward. "I hadn't done a whole lot of good in my last 11 at bats against him."

This was understatement of the most sublime order. "As a matter of fact," Incaviglia continued hesitantly, "I had struck out 11 times in a row against him."

This is true: 11 times in a row. On this night, however, in this at bat, Incaviglia doubled in the go-ahead run against the Rocket. When Incaviglia reached second base, he remarked to Clemens that this was the first time he had ever seen the pitcher's back. "I guess," Incaviglia would go on to say, as perplexed as anyone else, "the law of averages finally caught up with me."

Let us not forget that Clemens left that game with 10 strikeouts in seven innings. In other words, in case we have yet to make this perfectly clear, all the fans at Tiger Stadium are not confined to the stands. The Wave is done on the field there as well.

Of course, as with all unpleasant records, this one has a better flip side. Laid end to end, Deer, Fielder, Incaviglia and Tettleton not only would provide enormously entertaining photographic possibilities but also would stretch for nearly 25 feet and 900 pounds of power: Deer, Incaviglia and Tettleton alone lashed a collective 66 home runs last season while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles, respectively. This season, the trio has 24 homers and 73 RBIs among them.

If Fielder's 182 strikeouts last season were most in the majors—and four short of the American League record set by, you guessed it, Deer in 1987—well, his 51 home runs and 132 RBIs were best in the game too. These Tigers, then, will hardly subsist on nothing but K rations. "We'll lead the league in home runs," says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, whose team's 55 dingers did indeed lead the league as of Sunday. "That other thing, I don't care about."

They don't care. That is the Tigers' professed attitude toward the strikeout: K serà serà. "The only thing about strikeouts that concerns us is not to strike out with a runner on third and less than two outs," says Incaviglia. "It's not going to bother us whether we get a groundout or a strikeout in other situations."

"You can look at it a lot of ways," says Pinson, who has come to celebrate the whiff's virtues. "A team that has a lot of strikeouts is saved from hitting into a lot of double plays." Much as the toothless man is saved from flossing. Deer agrees: He has grounded into a double play only once in his last 218 games.

And did you notice what Anderson called the K? Certainly not "the K," the scoring symbol that baseball lore credits to the 19th-century rulesmeister, Henry Chadwick, for the prominent letter in the word "strike." No, Anderson called it "that other thing." Not the strikeout, punchout, whiff or fandango. You won't hear Sparky bemoan the fact that his team has been shopping at the K Mart, bowling a turkey, missing the cowhide bus or bowing to the Big Kahuna. And is it any wonder?

After all, merely mention the word strikeout to Fielder and the first baseman endures an immediate, and quite visible, Maalox moment. Ordinarily an accommodating gentleman, he cuts off the conversation before it has begun. "I've answered every question I possibly can on strikeouts," says Fielder, turning a T-shirted back, which could pass as a drive-in movie screen. "That's not even something that's on my mind. Not now."

Fielder expressed similar exasperation last summer whenever the K-word was raised. Perhaps he fails to recognize the historical good company he keeps. Mickey Mantle, for one, revels in recalling that he struck out 1,710 times in his career. The Mick also doesn't seem to mind that when you mix in his 1,734 walks, he failed to put a ball in play for the equivalent of a full six of his 18 major league seasons.

Reggie Jackson, baseball's alltime strikeout leader, will join Mantle in the Hall of Fame. Reggie punched out so many times in his career that it seems as though Mr. October, like some goldbricking factory worker, must have been punching out for his friends, also. In fact, Jackson's 2,597 strikeouts are 13 more than his lifetime hits total.

All of which means that being labeled a whiff monster is no knock against Fielder. However, in this young season, no knocks have been precisely the problem for the Tigers, whose 23-25 record at week's end put them in third place in the American League East, three games behind the Red Sox. That is why the scene manufactured on May 19 in Detroit wasn't as comical as it may have first appeared. Without the aid of industrial-strength equipment, a photographer wedged the 6'3", 225-pound Deer, the 6'3", 240-pound Fielder, the 6'1", 230-pound Incaviglia and the 6'2", 212-pound Tettleton into the notoriously tiny visitors' dugout at Tiger Stadium. The space was made all the more claustrophobic by the presence of Minnesota Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, a 6'4", 253-pound onlooker.

The photo not only captured the grossest fire-code violation in Wayne County history but also froze in time four Tigers who were hitting a collective .217. Fielder took note of the anemic numbers and suggested to the others that they "get some knocks" before so brashly voguing for the camera again. Hours later, Fielder's three-run homer in Detroit's seven-run first inning against the Twins was meant to serve as an example.

What this group really needs is a nickname. "We were talking about the Slash Brothers," says catcher Tettleton. "Oakland's got the Bash Brothers; we've got the Slash Brothers." Not bad, but we prefer this: The Yankees had Murderers' Row, the Tigers have Savile Row, turning out collar after collar at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.

For instance, on May 4 in Detroit, Texas pitchers Bobby Witt and Goose Gossage combined to strike out 14 Tigers. Home plate umpire Greg Kosc appeared to be presiding at a swearing-in of some sort: Every time you looked, his right hand was raised. Fielder and Deer both struck out three times in the game, a 6-5 Detroit loss. Eleven days later, against the same two pitchers in Texas, Tiger third baseman Travis Fryman fanned four times in a 12-inning game.

"It's feast or famine," says Pinson, who points out that the Tigers haven't always walked away hungry from the plate. When the Chicago White Sox opened their stadium against Detroit on April 18, this same K-9 unit housewarmed new Comiskey Park by scoring all of its runs in the first four innings of a 16-0 shutout.

"When we get four or five guys up there rockin' it, we're going to win a lot of games," says Incaviglia. "A pitcher looks at this lineup—every one of these guys can jump the park on you. And that includes [shortstop Alan] Trammell and [second baseman Lou] Whitaker. It's not just the four big guys. It is intimidating."

Consider the sight of these four against Clemens, and then have a look at them in batting practice. It is the difference between, say, the '68 Mets and the '69 Mets. On successive BPs at Tiger Stadium in May, Deer alone: 1) snapped his bat at its fattest part, across the signature, prompting teammate Tony Phillips to walk the stick around the premises asking anyone and everyone, "You ever see that before?"; and 2) drove a ball into the second deck and partially down a walkway, where the missile hit an usher on the fly. (That is, the missile hit the usher in flight; where the usher was hit, we don't know.)

Yes, the sight of these Tigers in batting practice makes one almost forget that Incaviglia's first strikeout in this, his sixth season, gave him the very same number of strikeouts that Lou Gehrig had in his 17-year career. Or that actor Tom Selleck, who struck out as a Detroit pinch-hitter in spring training, might fit nicely into this lineup on a permanent basis. Or that Tettleton, whose wife once attributed his power to Froot Loops, is now noshing on Special K.

"We're going to blow some people out of the park," says Pinson as he watches the team take BR He's right. It's just that he probably didn't mean for those words to be taken literally.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANSWhoosh: Deer, the major league leader in K rations, takes a rip that finds only air.PHOTOANTHONY NESTEWhiff: Deer has helped make the path from the batter's box to the Tiger dugout a well-worn one.TWO PHOTOSANTHONY NESTESo what else is new? Incaviglia was fooled by a pitch; a Tettleton lick ended futilely (below).TWO PHOTOSANTHONY NESTEOf course, when the Tigers connect, as Fielder did on this blast, the results can be gratifying.