Young Tigers nearly scratched their way into the playoffs in 1981

Jack Morris

Detroit ace Jack Morris tied for the American League lead with 14 wins in 1981. But a tough loss in the next-to-the-last game of the season in Milwaukee ended the Tigers chances to win the division.

When Sparky Anderson landed in Detroit midway through the 1979 season, he surveyed the talent on his club, quickly started to pull some bad weeds, and proclaimed that the team would be a winner within five years. His famous prognostication came true when the Tigers roared to a World Series title in 1984, but they almost sneaked their way into the playoffs in 1981, a year that featured a players’ strike, a controversial postseason format, and the emergence of several young Detroit stars.

Prelude

The Tigers were just another team in a stacked American League East as the ’81 season began. The Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees had both won 100 games the previous year, and Milwaukee, Detroit and Boston were lumped behind them. The O’s and Yanks were again favorites in the division, but the Brewers featured a core of young talent that seemed poised to challenge in the division. The Red Sox were less than three years removed from a 98-win season and they still had one of the best offenses in the game.

Sparky Anderson was coming off his first full season as manager in Motown and he’d already begun cleaning house. Gone were Jason Thompson, troubled Ron LeFlore, and clubhouse lawyer Rusty Staub. Mark Fidrych had finally been jettisoned, there would be no return of The Bird. Instead, the team’s foundation was built on strong catcher Lance Parrish (24 homers in 1980), and double play duo Alan Trammell (.300 average and first All-Star selection the previous year) and Lou Whitaker. The 25-year old Steve Kemp, a free-swinging left fielder, was the big bat in the middle of the order. Otherwise, the offense was sprinkled with retreads like first baseman Richie Hebner, right fielder Al Cowens, and designated hitter Champ Summers, who could crush right-handed pitching. The main exception was Ricky Peters, a rookie surprise in 1980 as Detroit’s center fielder when he hit .291 with good speed.

On most teams, Peters would have been secure after a freshman season like that, but the Tigers had a blue-chip prospect in waiting in Kirk Gibson, a former All-American flanker at Michigan State University. Gibson was a rare combination of power and speed. He played baseball with the ferocity of a football player. He was the fastest and the strongest man on the Detroit roster, and Sparky drooled at the notion of having his talents in his lineup. There were two problems however: 1) Gibson was a mediocre at best outfielder despite his speed, and 2) he was coming off a wrist injury that kept him sidelines most of the ’80 campaign.

There were other problems in the clubhouse: Cowens was whining about Anderson’s plan to platoon him with Gibson in right; outfielder Lynn Jones was unhappy about his diminished role; and outfield prospect Darrell Brown grumbled about his future so much that he was eventually optioned out. In addition, utility man Rick Leach, a former Big Ten quarterback who wasn’t shy about voicing his opinion, made a stink about his lack of opportunity. Anderson had a lot to handle, and that was before even mentioning the pitching staff.

Detroit entered spring training with three spots secure in their rotation: veteran 31-year old Milt Wilcox didn’t have the sexiest stuff, but he was a tough competitor; 24-year old Dave Rozema was entering his fifth season but was at a crossroads. Was he the rookie pitcher of the year he showed in ’77 when he won 15 games, or was he a middle-of-the-rotation guy? His off-field antics, which often landed him in Anderson’s doghouse didn’t help. Then there was Jack Morris, a tall, think right-hander with a good fastball and a slider who turned heads with his 17 wins in 1979 and followed it with 16 more in 1980 and a workhorse total of 250 innings. He was the Tiger ace.

After those three, Sparky had his choice of two among lefty Dan Schatzeder (acquired for LeFlore a year earlier), 24-year old farm hand Jerry Ujdur, lefty Howard Bailey, who many felt had a promising upside, and an intriguing 22-year hard-thrower named Dan Petry, who had won ten games for the club in ’80. Spring training flushed it out and talent emerged: Petry and Schatzeder joined Morris and Wilcox in a four-man rotation to start the season. Rozema and a few of the others would get spot starts as needed.

The Detroit Free Press polled their columnists and none of them chose the Tigers to finish higher than fourth in the AL East in 1981. The club had some interesting young players, and possible future stars, but it was felt that the stew needed to brew a little longer.

April: Hot start followed by a deep dive

The core of the team as they broke spring training was talented but extremely young. Catcher Lance Parrish was 25, shortstop Alan Trammell was 23, his second base partner Lou Whitaker was 24, while center field blue chip prospect Kirk Gibson was only 23, and left fielder Steve Kemp, already a two-time All-Star, was 26 years old. Jack Morris (26), Dave Rozema (24), and Dan Petry (only 22) were in the starting rotation. Sparky Anderson’s team was unusually young, something he was getting accustomed to as the Detroit skipper.

The Tigers won on opening day at Tiger Stadium in front of a near sellout crowd 6-2 behind Morris. Whitaker had a key double, Trammell belted a triple, and veteran Richie Hebner, a former gravedigger in the offseason, launched a majestic three-run home run that clanged off a pole in the right field upper deck.

Detroit won seven of their first eight, with six different pitchers getting victories. But before they could celebrate their good start, the worm turned and the young Tigers lost ten in a row, getting swept by the White Sox and the Yankees twice. The topsy-turvy club ended the month with an 8-11 record.

May: Red-hot Morris but not much else

As a team the Tigers were mediocre in May, posting a 15-13 record while scoring 129 runs and allowing 128 for a not-too-good average of 4.6 runs allowed per game. But when Jack Morris was on the mound they were a different team. During May, their ace started six games, winning all six and completing five of the contests. He posted a 2,36 ERA during May to go along with the perfect 6-0 record.

Morris had a breakout season in ’81, later earning the All-Star Game start and posting a career low ERA of 3.05 in 25 starts. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. As May closed. Detroit’s record stood at 23-24 and five teams were ahead of them in the tough AL East. But the team was only 6 1/2 out of first place.

June: The players go on strike

Before 1981, Kirk Gibson had only done three things that had brought him attention as a baseball player. First, he was plastered on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1980 next to the title “Rip Roarin’ Rookie.” Second, Gibson had hit a home run on opening day in 1980, seemingly signalling that he was ready to be a major factor in the big leagues (he wasn’t quite ready). And third, later in 1980, Gibson had blasted a mammoth homer off Tom Underwood in a game at Yankee Stadium that nearly hit the facade in that historic ballpark. Gibby’s power was eye-popping, but thus far, before 1981, the Waterford native had not delivered on his immense potential.

In May of 1981, Gibson found himself sharing playing time in the outfield with Lynn Jones and Rick Peters. He got into 12 games that month and hit .257 with very little power, recording only one home run and one double. In June a frustrated Gibson didn’t fare better and he pressed, pouted, and popped up a lot. Gibson struck out 13 times in his last 20 at-bats before the players went on strike following the games of June 11th.

The strike couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the Tigers. The team won seven of eight games before the union ordered the players to halt playing. Morris won two more games in June, giving him eight straight wins and a 2.56 ERA. On June 5th he tossed a masterful three-hit shutout with seven K’s against the Twins. Five days later he beat the Twins again, improving his record to 9-3. The righthander seemed destined for a 20-win season and possibly a Cy Young Award.

I won’t go in to the reasons for the player strike in 1981, the second work stoppage in modern MLB history. Suffice to say it was a very disappointing time for fans. The two sides, owners and labor, faced off in a standstill for nearly two months. The Tigers record was frozen at 31-26, good for fourth in the AL East but only 3 1/2 games back of the Yankees.

July: Fans grow restless without baseball in the summer

At one point during the 1981 players’ strike, a union official said, “We’re willing to stay away from the ballparks until hell freezes over unless we get what we want.” The owners dug in, confident that popular sentiment would be on their side. After all, weren’t these ballplayers lucky to be playing a game for a living? A very good living in most cases.

But as the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, the fans and media started to clamor for a resolution, blaming the owners more. The headline on a cover of Sports Illustrated took an obvious anti-owner angle: “Strike! The Walkout the Owners Provoked.”

Finally, late in July the two sides started to make some progress. On the final day of the month a  settlement was reached, but not without bruised feelings. Union leader Marvin Miller and owner representative Ray Grebey refused to even pose for photos at the press conference announcing the settlement.

The strike took a toll: an estimated $146 million was lost in player salaries, ticket sales, broadcast revenues, and concessions. The players lost $4 million a week in salaries while the owners suffered a total loss of $72 million.

Major League Baseball announced that games would resume on Monday, August 10th. Teams quickly called their players to brief camps to get players back in shape, though many players had been keeping active during the absence.

August: A long home stand to restart the season

MLB made a controversial decision: the ’81 season would be split in two. Teams in first place when the strike occurred were declared first-half division champions. The second half would be roughly 50-55 games long, about the same as the first half. This meant not all teams would play the same number of games, a fact that would play a role in the pennant races.

In their first game back, the Tigs hosted the Blue Jays at The Corner. Milt Wilcox was on the mound for the second “opening day” of the season and he went six innings, leaving the game with it tied, 2-2. Detroit scored in the eighth to take a one-run lead, but flaky closer Kevin Saucier blew the save in the ninth and Toronto tied it 3-3. In the bottom of the frame, Gibson opened with a walk and worked his way to third after another walk and a bunt single by Sweet Lou Whitaker. One batter later, Trammell singled over the third baseman’s head to score Gibson with a walkoff win. The 15,000+ who buried their grudges over the strike and came out to Tiger Stadium, were pleased.

Then the team lost three straight to fall into fifth place. Their record was 31-29, but they were about to enter the most exciting stretch of the torn season. On August 14th Wilcox out-dueled New York’s Rudy May to win a 1-0 contest at Tiger Stadium. It was the first of nine consecutive wins for Sparky’s team, all of them at home. Through a quirk of the schedule, the Tigers began the second half with 16 straight games in their own ballpark. They won eleven of them, four of them in walkoff fashion.

A few notes on an amazing month that had Detroit fans feeling pennant fever for the first time in about a decade:

On August 16, Gibby blasted a home run to beat the Yanks in a walkoff, 450 feet into upper deck in right field into a stiff wind blowing in. The home run had fans, teammates, and even members of the Yankees buzzing… Morris complained of arm soreness, also admitting he worked out very little during the layoff, which irritated Anderson… Champ Summers groin injury landed him on the 15-day DL… Trammell (.423) and Jones (.400) started the second half red-hot at the plate… On August 18, Rick Leach provided all three runs needed in a 3-0 win when he belted his first major league home run against the Twins…

The bullpen was a big reason for the success in August. They pitched 32 2/3 straight scoreless innings in the first ten games of the second season. “That bullpen’s been saving us the whole year. Our success is going to depend on that. If they pitch like that the rest of the year, we’re going to have a chance to be real tough,” Sparky said. The main studs out of the pen were Saucier, Dave Tobik (a longtime “can’t miss’ who was finally, albeit briefly proving to be a weapon), Aurelio Lopez, and Rozema, who was demoted from the starting rotation after inconsistent outings.

The most dramatic moment of the season came on August 23 with the team riding an eight-game winning streak. That Sunday afternoon the Tigers were finishing up a three-game weekend series against the Texas Rangers. The Tigers pounced out to a 3-0 lead but they saw the Rangers erase that. The game was knotted in the top of the ninth. That’s when Mickey Rivers used his speed to manufacture a run and give the visitors a one-run lead. Leading off the bottom of the ninth, Lynn Jones produced the biggest hit of his career, a solo home run into the stands in right field at Tiger Stadium to tie the game. Relief specialist Jim Kern came into the game for Texas but the Tigers were riled up. Steve Kemp singled, was sacrificed to second base, and scored the winning run on a single to right field by Rick Peters. It was a thrilling walk-off victory in front of more than 21,000 at Tiger Stadium for Detroit’s ninth straight win. With their “second-half” record at 10-3, the Tigers were at the top of the AL East.

But after that stretch of winning, the team lost five of six to slip down to third place. The AL East was wide open: the Brewers, Orioles, and the first-half winning Yanks were all within range of the top spot.

Gibson was phenomenal in August: hitting .462 (30-for-65 in 19 games) with three homers, 11 RBIs, and five stolen bases. His success finally convinced Anderson to play him every day. Cowens was relegated to the bench.

The Tigers won five straight immediately after their slide, two of the wins coming for Morris, who captured his first victories of the second half. They were now a half-game up on the rest of the AL East as September’s first week commenced.

September: “Hot Sauce: out of the bullpen

Sparky’s young club ended up going 15-12 in September, but it was good enough to keep them in the thick of the division race. It was Gibson’s furious hitting and Saucier’s must-see pitching out of the pen that fueled their charge for first place, as they sparred primarily with Milwaukee.

On Saturday, September 12 the Tigers won a wild game at Tiger Stadium, once again with last-bat heroics. This time the home crowd didn’t like what they saw as the game opened — ace Jack Morris was frazzled as he allowed four runs as he failed to get out of the first inning. Morris was wild, walking two batters, and that got him flustered as he balked in a run as well. After a triple cleared the bases, Jack was done for the day. But the Tigers gamely battled back and in the eighth they completed their uphill battle. That frame, backup catcher opened the scoring with a two-run homer, his only one of the season. A few batters later, Peters delivered a two-run double to tie the game 8-8. Two batters later with Peters at third with two out, Gibson faced southpaw reliever Sid Monge, who seemed to win the battle when he got Gibby to hit a groundball to second base. The ball was hit slowly and the rampaging Gibson barreled his way down the base paths and beat the throw to first for an infield hit, allowing Peters to scamper home with the go-ahead run. But the Tiger bullpen allowed the tying run to score in the top of the ninth and the game went into extra innings. After Dave Rozema provided scoreless relief of three-plus innings, it was time for dramatics. In the bottom of the twelfth, with a runner on first, Lance Parrish, who had replaced Fahey behind the plate in the ninth, sent a pitch from Monge into the lower deck stands in left field for walk-off home run. Detroit was one-half game out of first with three weeks left to play.

Kevin Saucier had been acquired in the offseason after having been an afterthought in the Phillies bullpen in 1980 when they won the World Series. Saucier was known more for his crazy personality than his pitching. The lefty was a flake and a practical joker. He was not only goofy outside the lines, he was also a sight when he was on the mound. Saucier liked to stomp around the mound in between batters and after he saved games. He was a nervous performer on the mound, seeming to move every part of his body when he pitched. In September, the southpaw was in the zone, enjoying the best stretch of what proved to be a brief career. He appeared in 11 games that month, entering as early as the sixth inning, and he allowed just two earned runs for a 1.69 ERA. While he had saved five games in August, Saucier found himself in more tie games in September and saved just one game. He managed to win twice.

On September 22 the Tigers defeated Baltimore 6-3 at Memorial Stadium and assumed first place. It was the latest the Tigers had been in that position in nine years. Over the next seven days they went just 2-5 but still managed to hang within a game of first as the division-leading Brewers stumbled too. After losing to Baltimore on October 1st in ten innings the Tigers were one game back as they boarded a plane in Detroit to fly to Milwaukee for a three-game series with the Brewers to decide the division title. Fans in Detroit were beside themselves with fevered anticipation. Could Sparky lead this team to the postseason just two years after riding into town?

October: Winner takes all weekend in Milwaukee

Three games with one game separating the Brew Crew and the Tigers in the standings. On Friday night the visitors sent young Dan Petry to the hill. He did not handle the assignment well. The potent Brewers lineup hung five runs on Peaches in less than five innings, knocking him out of the game. They went on to win easily, 8-2. The Tigers managed just five hits, four of them from Parrish, Trammell, and Whitaker. Adding insult to injury, former Tiger Ben Oglive belted a home run for the Brewers, who needed one win in the final two games to clinch their first division crown.

On Saturday the game was broadcast on national television and it turned out to be one of the most exciting pitching duels of the season. Morris toed the rubber for Detroit, facing the pot-bellied unshaven Pete Vuckovich. Neither starter would flinch, and as the game went to the sixth it was scoreless. But Detroit got the game’s first run, and again Gibby was in the middle of things. The young, long-haired Tiger outfielder slashed a single to open the sixth. He moved to second on a fielder’s choice and advanced to third when Ron Jackson reached on an infield single fielded in the hole at short by Robin Yount. The Milwaukee star prevented a run by getting his glove on the ball, but Gibson came home a batter later when first baseman Cecil Cooper let a ground ball go through his legs. But with Parrish at the plate, Jackson broke for third and was gunned down trying to steal. It was a curious choice, and when Parrish proceeded to fly out to right to end the inning, it seemed like a rally-killing play to have sent Jackson to third.

Cooper doubled to open the sixth for Milwaukee but Morris hunkered down and retired the next three batters to escape the threat with a 1-0 lead. The righthander struck out two batters in the seventh to maintain the lead and seemed to be gaining steam. The 14-game winner was showing his “big game” chops on the big stage for the first time.

But the eighth inning proved to be frustrating for the Tigers. Morris walked Paul Molitor to start it and that free pass set the tone. The Milwaukee standout was bunted to second by Yount. On the play, Parrish fired the ball to second but was a split second too late to get Molitor. Now two runners were on base with no one out. Then Cooper dropped down a bunt, trying to sacrifice his teammates up 90 feet. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Cooper’s bunt was so good that by the time third baseman Tom Brookens got to it, all three runners were safe. Morris was in a huge jam, still guarding a slim 1-0 lead. Detroit was in a must-win game and now in the eighth inning the Brewers had the bases loaded with no one out. Sparky stayed with his ace.

Ted Simmons was next and he bounced a ball that ricocheted off Morris and to Trammell. The Detroit shortstop fired to first for the out, the only option he had. An out was recorded, but Molitor scampered home to tie the game. Anderson instructed Morris to intentionally walk Oglivie to load the bases. A ground ball to an infielder and Morris could escape the jam with just one run scoring. But free-swinging Gorman Thomas punched a Morris split-finger pitch to right for a sacrifice fly, giving the Brewers the lead. Morris got the final out on a strikeout, but County Stadium was thundering with noise.

The top of the ninth belonged to Rollie Fingers, having one of the greatest seasons ever by a relief pitcher. The man with the handlebar mustache got three easy outs, the last two via strikeout, and closed out the win. The Brewers celebrated their first division title, albeit it half a title. The Tigers postseason hopes were sunk. Sparky made his young team stay in the dugout to watch the other team celebrate. He wanted them to learn.

Detroit won a meaningless game the next day, finishing the second half two games behind the Brewers. Their overall record was 60-49, nothing too special, but their inspired play after the players’ strike provided seven weeks of excitement to their fan base. It was the first sign that Sparky had the horses in place and could build a contender. Within two years they were among the best in the league and three years later, in ’84 the club ran away with everything.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.