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It's a Blast

May 31, 1993
May 31, 1993

Table of Contents
May 31, 1993

Perspective
Horse Racing
First Person
Triathlon
Detroit Tigers
NBA Playoffs
Carlton Fisk
Stanley Cup Playoffs
Steve Young
Track And Field
The Joneses
Reporter-At-Large
Fishing
Golf
Badminton
Steeplechasing
Point After

It's a Blast

With a cast of genteel giants, the Detroit Tigers have muscled their way to the top of the American League East

Brad Andress is shouting. As usual, it's the only means of communicating in the Detroit Tigers' clubhouse, where heavy-metal rock is almost always cranked up to teeth-rattling volume. "The players we have," yells Andress, the team's strength coach, "are gifted mesomorphic individuals." Mesomorphic? Was that before the Mesozoic or after the Paleozoic?

This is an article from the May 31, 1993 issue Original Layout

In any case the Tigers have muscled their way to the best record in the American League (27-15) and seized sole possession of the East lead for the first time in five years. They have done this primarily on the brute strength of an offense too mesomorphic to be contained by any park—be it Oriole, Fenway or Jurassic.

"When we get ahold of mediocre pitching, we just crush it," says Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, who, in the same breath, is also accurately describing much of the mound work seen in baseball this expansion year. "We can hurt you quick."

How quick? On April 25, Detroit came to bat in the seventh inning, trailing the Minnesota Twins 5-1. Five hitters later the score was tied. When the game ended, the Tigers had won 16-5. Detroit starter David Wells had exited on the losing side and had angrily heaved his spikes, glove and hat into his locker, and he thought someone was joking when he heard the final score after emerging from a few minutes of arm exercises in the training room. "I turn my back and look what happens," Wells says. "Guys were laughing at me. One minute I'm throwing stuff, and the next minute we score eight runs."

Until they beat the Oakland A's 20-4 in the Tiger Stadium opener this year, Detroit had scored 20 runs in a game only five times in its history, all of them before 1937. Four days later, the Tigers did it again, trashing the Seattle Mariners 20-3. The rout of the A's began a 12-game stretch in which Detroit scored 120 runs, went 11-1 and roared into first place—where it has remained since April 23.

The Tiger surge continued through Sunday, at which point Detroit had won 10 of its last 13 games. In taking two out of three in a weekend series with the Cleveland Indians, the Tigers extended their division lead over the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays to 3½ games. Homers by Mickey Tettleton, his ninth, and Cecil Fielder, his eighth, were the difference in Detroit's 4-2 win on Sunday.

Lest you regard the Tigers as mere brutes, Anderson would like it known that these are most genteel beings when they are without bat in hand. Anderson, who knows how to handle players, if not the English language, reinforces that proclivity for good behavior by his insistence that the Tigers dress properly and act civilly when in street clothes. "Stewardesses tell me, 'We never have no people like you,' " he says proudly, "We have guys who are tough—almost street-tough—but on the other hand they're very gentle. I enjoy being around them."

On most other teams players fling their dirty clothes on the clubhouse floor for attendants to fetch; the rule in the Detroit locker room is, If you don't put them in the hamper yourself, they don't get washed. "My wife tells me the same thing, but I'm not as good about it at home," says outfielder Rob Deer. "Sparky wants us to act a certain way. This year he finally let us wear cowboy boots and jeans on the road. It took him 24 years to give in on that."

This is a clean but mean scoring machine. The Tigers are on a pace to break the Yankees' 61-year-old major league record for runs in a season (chart, above). At week's end Detroit hadn't been shut out in its past 76 games and hadn't lost more than two straight games all season. Oh...did someone mention the Tigers' mediocre starting pitching? Their incendiary bullpen? A defense that has made more errors than every American League club but the Cleveland Indians? No problem. The Detroit offense is so prolific that it is on its way to destroying the theory that winning teams are built on pitching and defense. Even in games in which the Tigers have not hit a home run, their record is 12-5.

And after fielding three losing teams in the past four years, Detroit slowly is winning back fans. The team's average attendance of 19,194 through Sunday may sound ordinary, but for a franchise that relies heavily on walk-up sales and has drawn more than 2 million fans in a season only five times, that's an encouraging 35% increase over last year. While the improvements to Tiger Stadium and the nightly giveaways cooked up by Detroit's latest pizza-baron owner, Mike Hitch, CEO of Little Caesars, have helped pull in the public, the main attraction has been the team, which is as entertaining a club as there is in baseball. "If I were a fan, this is the team I'd root for," says Deer, who has eight homers. "How can you not like this team? We're fun to watch."

And there's a lot to like. The Detroit players are, by and large, so mammoth that Anderson, in a bit of classic hyperbolic Sparkyese, calls Andress "the most valuable guy on this team"—a claim that makes Andress fairly blush. Shucks, it's easy, he says, when you have players like the 6'3", 225-pound Deer, who are "so genetically gifted. If he wanted to play football, he'd be 270 pounds and playing tight end or linebacker in the NFL."

Then again, the Tigers do have some before-and-after success stories, such as catcher Chad Kreuter, who finished last season weighing 190 pounds and hitting .205 for his career. Kreuter, 28, decided to skip playing winter ball in the Caribbean for the first time in five years. "It's a struggle to keep down what you eat there," he says. Instead, he adhered to a rigorous weight-training program and added 15 pounds of bulk, as well as some pop to his hitting. Kreuter, who had hit just two home runs in 92 games since 1989, had ripped four already this season as of Sunday—including a 471-foot shot into Tiger Stadium's upper deck beyond right centerfield—while batting a team-high .369. "I'm just staying asleep as I go," he says. "I'm going to ride this as long as I can and not think about what's going on."

This newfound prowess at the plate has made Kreuter, a career backup, Detroit's regular catcher and required that Anderson move his erstwhile starting receiver, the 6'2", 212-pound Tettleton, to leftfield, rightfield or first base, depending on how the manager is using his other interchangeable parts. Anderson also has at his disposal veteran utilityman Tony Phillips (.344), who has started at second base, third base, all three outfield positions and DH, and former All-Star shortstop Alan Trammell (.312), who has returned after missing all but 29 games last season with a broken right ankle. In moving over from third base to fill in for Trammell last year, Travis Fryman (.306, 31 RBIs) emerged as one of the premier shortstops in the game. Thus Trammell has become available to play shortstop, third base, leftfield and centerfield (to say nothing of the fact that he has warmed up pitchers in the bullpen).

Got all that? Even Anderson, who also juggles a 12-man pitching staff, can get confused. He brought in closer Mike Henneman to pitch what he thought was the ninth inning of a May 12 game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Actually, it was only the eighth. When Henneman retired the side, Anderson bounded from the dugout to shake his hand. After about 10 steps, Anderson realized his gaffe and sheepishly returned to the bench. He later admitted, "Somewhere in the middle of the game, I lost track of what inning it was."

Excepting that lapse, Anderson has done a splendid job of employing the right combination of players and fostering their confidence. Half of the Tigers were abandoned by other organizations, either through selling off their contracts or releasing them. Two of those castoffs, lefthanded pitchers Bob MacDonald and Wells, had gone a combined 8-2 with a 2.20 ERA through Sunday, even though Toronto gave up on them in spring training. When Wells joined Detroit, the first thing Anderson told him was to lose his earring. Once that was resolved, the 6'4", 225-pound Wells, with his considerable appetites for food and heavy metal, has fit in perfectly with the Tigers. "I had one bad year in Toronto, and it was, 'See you later,' " Wells says. "Now Bob and I are here sitting back laughing."

No castoff, though, has been more important to Detroit than Kirk Gibson, who played for the Tigers from 1979 to '87. Upon being released by the Pittsburgh Pirates after only 16 games last season, Gibson retired to his real estate company in suburban Detroit. It was actually a blessing for his baseball career, as his battered legs were allowed to recover from four years of assorted ailments. When Tiger assistant general manager Gary Vitto approached him over the winter about rejoining his old team, Gibson grew excited about playing for Anderson again. By January he had begun working out regularly at Tiger Stadium with veterans Trammell and Frank Tanana, now of the New York Mets. "They talked a lot about how the game has changed and how it has moved away from teammates wanting to be together," Andress says. "Gibby wanted it to be like the old days, with everyone waking up and thinking world championship every day, not waking up and thinking today is just another day."

Talk about prehistoric. But Gibson, the man with the perpetual Flintstonian stubble, is actually succeeding in keeping individual agendas out of a modern-day clubhouse. While he has been among the league's leading hitters all year (.342 through Sunday) and reached base nearly 50% of the time, he also has been starring for Detroit on air guitar and lead vocals. His heavy-metal gospel rules the clubhouse. "You see where the stereo is, don't you?" he barks. Well, of course. It sits right above Gibson's locker, with a collection of CDs not fit for the faint of heart, nor the faint of ear. "Guns N' Roses, Metallica, AC/DC...we get a little crazy, I guess," Gibson says. "Certain guys like the words. Certain guys like the strings. I like the strings. Listen to that string! Twaaang! Wow, that's sweet."

Gibson plays everything to the max, especially baseball. During a lengthy rain delay on May 4, with Detroit trailing the Kansas City Royals 3-2 in the sixth, Gibson began screaming at his teammates once he heard the rain was slackening. "Those guys are sitting over there hoping they call the game," Gibson said. "Well, we're going back out there, and we're going to be playing until one o'clock in the morning if we have to, and we're here to win it. Let's go!" The Tigers, chin straps firmly buckled, rallied for a 5-3 win.

Ten days later Gibson yelled at Henneman from the dugout after Henneman allowed a game-tying home run to the Baltimore Orioles' Brady Anderson in the ninth inning. "I'm standing out there," says Henneman, "and I can hear this guy screaming at me, 'Let's go! Battle, battle! We're going to win this——game.' " Henneman pitched out of the inning, and the Tigers won in their next at bat.

Henneman broke in with the Tigers in 1987, Gibson's last year in Detroit, and he sees a different Gibson this time around. "Yeah, less hair," he says. Actually, Gibson admits he is a smarter hitter and a less angry person. "He's a better player than he's ever been," Henneman says.

Says Gibson, "It's no secret I like to win. I get pumped up. It's my release. The good Lord gave me more adrenaline than most people. You've always got to keep the foot to the floor."

Can Gibson and the Tigers maintain this pace? "It depends on the pitching," Anderson says. The Detroit staff needs only to be serviceable for the Tigers to stay in the race. As starter John Doherty says, "We know all we have to do is go out and pitch decent games with this team behind us." So powerful is the Detroit offense that Mike Moore, who was supposed to be the ace of the staff, put together one of the more remarkable eight-game unbeaten streaks in recent memory. Despite a 6.70 LRA, he was 2-0 in that stretch because the Tigers scored 73 runs in those eight games.

Doherty (4-2, 3.28 ERA), who appears to be Detroit's best homegrown starter since Jack Morris, has been consistent, as has Wells. But the rest of the rotation is suspect, what with Moore struggling, Bill Gullickson rehabbing from knee and shoulder ailments, and the fifth spot serving as a starter's tryout slot for pitchers in the bullpen. Because of Detroit's ability to score and give up runs so quickly, no lead is safe in a Tiger game. Detroit already has lost six times when it held a lead in the seventh inning or later. It has lost eight times when it has scored at least five runs. Neither of those stats includes the May 3 exhibition game against Triple A affiliate Toledo, in which Detroit blew a two-run lead in the eighth and lost 10-9.

All of that makes for excitement at Tiger Stadium, where $8 million worth of improvements to the ancient structure were ordered by Hitch, the onetime Tiger farmhand who purchased the club last August from rival pizzaman Tom Monaghan of Domino's. Foremost among the changes is an area of 3,750 box seats, called the Tiger Den, that is situated between the dugouts. The club put in chairs with cushioned seats and wooden armrests, installed wrought-iron grillwork, offered waitress service and on-demand cellular phone service, and raised the price of those seats from $12.50 to $20. They sold out in a flash.

The Tigers' marketing department scheduled 55 promotional dates, which, it likes to brag, is the most in baseball. Detroit is giving away five different pieces of headgear alone this year. Moreover, hot dogs, peanuts and key chains and assorted other bric-a-brac are handed out free in some part of the stands at every game. And with the daily volley of baseballs being launched into the outfield seats by Tiger hitters before and during games—at the rate of about 23 dozen baseballs a week—most every fan takes home something for nothing.

The Tigers are having such a good time that Anderson, who used to cross off games on his wall schedule like a prisoner marking time, has left his 1993 calendar untouched. "I don't cross 'em out no more," he says. "I don't do that when the games are fun. And it's fun this year."

Deer is in a perfect position to pass summary judgment on what's happening in Detroit. A home run hitter whose locker is beneath one of the clubhouse's throbbing speakers, Deer likes to put the season so tar this way: "It's a blast."

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PHOTOJOHN BIEVERAll it takes is one mighty swing by a slugger like Fielder...PHOTOJOHN BIEVER...to instantly turn a game in the Tigers' favor.TWO PHOTOSJOHN IACONODetroit has thrived on the shear power of Deer and the revived swiftness of Gibson.PHOTOJOHN IACONO (ANDERSON)Despite his absentmindedness, Anderson well remembers how to roll up tidy wins.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (WELLS)At 225 pounds, Wells has been a perfect fit in Detroit.

Motown's Greatest Hits
At week's end the Tigers led the majors in runs, hits, home runs, total bases, runs batted in, walks and strikeouts. If they maintain this pace, they'll rank as one of the most prolific offensive teams in American League history. Here are Detroit's 42-game totals in the aforementioned categories and how its projected 162-game figures compare with team and league records.

42-Game Stats

Projected '93 Stats

Tiger Record

American League Record

Runs

275

1,061

958, in 1921

1,067, by 1931 Yankees

Hits

432

1,666

1,724, in 1921

1,724, by 1921 Tigers

Home Runs

51

197

225, in 1987

240, by 1961 Yankees

Total Bases

685

2,642

2,548, in 1987

2,703, by 1936 Yankees

RBIs

264

1,018

873, in 1937

995, by 1936 Yankees

Walks

229

883

762, in 1947

835, by 1949 Red Sox

Strikeouts

315

1,215

1,185, in 1991

1,185, by 1991 Tigers