“Over the Hill” Tigers nearly won the 1988 division title

Key members of the 1988 Detroit Tigers from top left: Chet Lemon and Lou Whitaker, manager Sparky Anderson, Doyle Alexander, Darrell Evans, Ray Knight, and Alan Trammell.

The Detroit Tigers fielded several excellent baseball players in the 1980s. Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Chet Lemon were core members of those teams and were key contributors to the ’84 club that captured the World Series title.

But as great as talented as the Tigers were in that era, they were able to snag only one pennant and make the playoffs twice (adding a division title in 1987 to their ’84 World Series title). Based on expectations, it was a disappointment, although it was still an exciting time to be a baseball fan in Detroit.

In 1988 the Tigers made a few decisions that cost them a postseason run, and a few injuries — including a bizarre one to their star second baseman — also sunk Detroit as they were poised to win a third division title in the decade.

By 1988 the Tigers were a veteran team with lots of experience in pennant races. But the club was long in the tooth, several members having blown out 30 or more candles on their birthday cakes. Sparky Anderson’s team had won 98 games in ’87 to chase down the Blue Jays and win the AL East, but they had a lot of rust on them the following season. When they broke camp in Lakeland and headed north to start the ’88 campaign, the club was the oldest in the history of the franchise. No Detroit team since has been as old, based on average ave of the starting position players and pitching staff.

But rather than being fitted for rocking chairs, the 1988 Tigers were in first place by early summer and stayed there for two months. Ultimately they were just edged out for another division title. Here’s a look at the oldest team to ever take the field for the Tigers.

First Base: Ray Knight (35 years old) and Dave Bergman (35)

At some point in his tenure as skipper of the Tigers, Sparky Anderson lost faith in young position players. It happened somewhere during or just after the ’84 season. I’m not sure if he ever had a conversation like this with general manager Bill Lajoie, but it wouldn’t surprise me:

LAJOIE: Hey Spark, we need to add another corner infielder to fill out the roster.

SPARKY: How many we have now?

LAJOIE: We have 23 “for-sure guys” in place, but the league says we have to have 25 on the active roster.

SPARKY: A corner infielder? What’s Stev Garvey doing these days? I hated him when he was playing with the Dodgers against my Big Red Machine, but he’s a helluva ballplayer, and handsome too.

LAJOIE: Sparky, Steve is retired in Tampa. He’s 39 years old.

SPARKY: Oh, I see. Well, get me someone over 34, anyone who knows what the Vietnam War was, who doesn’t know how to program a VCR, and who can put on stirrup socks.

LAJOIE: Ray Knight is available, he used to play for you in Cincinnati and he just turned 35.

SPARKY: YES!

Knight was still living off his last good season, which came in the spotlight with the Mets three years earlier. He also had the bonus of being married to one of the best female golfers in the world, Nancy Lopez. Don’t underestimate the value of that on your resume.

Bergman had his best season at the plate for Detroit in 1988, but he missed time in summer with a pulled groin. He came back but struggled down the stretch.

Second Base: Sweet Lou Whitaker (31)

Entering his 11th full season, Whitaker was still a star and still batting at the top of the order for the Tigers. After a sluggish start, Whitaker hit six homers after the All-Star break (the most on the team) when he injured himself dancing on September 5 at an anniversary party with his wife. “We were doing a fast dance and I did the splits,” Sweet Lou said. He had hit safely in 16 of his previous 18 games when he suffered the injury, which ended his season.

Shortstop: Alan Trammell (30)

Like his double play partner, Tram got banged up a little in 1988, but he still hit well over .300 and showed good power from the cleanup position. He was hitting .330 in late June when he went down with a shoulder injury and missed almost a month. When he went out of the lineup the Tigers were in first place, when he returned they were in a dog fight with the Yankees. He missed more time in August and September with a pulled groin and was never fully healthy again that season. His absence cost the team dearly and when he did play his production slipped. Had Trammell been healthy in ’88 as he had been in ’87, the Tigers would have won the division title again.

Third Base: Tom Brookens (34)

Every year for about a decade the Tigers went to spring camp with a third baseman who was going to push Brookens to the bench. And almost every year Brooky beat away the challenge. The little man that Ernie Harwell called “The Pennsylvania Thumper” appeared in 136 games at the hot corner and (as usual) was just good enough to do the job. 35-year old Jim Morrison had come into the season with a chance to take the starting job, but his range was pretty damn small so Sparky started the season with Morrison in a DH platoon with Evans. In June he was released.

In September the Tigers called up the heir apparent, Torey Lovullo, who hit well in a cup of coffee, but never proved to be the solution at third for the Tigs.

Catcher: Matt Nokes (24) and Mike Heath (33)

Nokes was the only regular position player under 30 years old, and he was only in that spot because the Tigers had decided not to pursue Lance Parrish as a free agent after the ’86 season, which led to Lance bolting for Philadelphia. By ’88, Nokes was a better hitter than Parrish and especially suited for Tiger Stadium with his short left-handed stroke. He socked 16 homers and drove in 53 in 122 games.

Heath was the exact opposite of Nokes in many ways. He was righthanded, didn’t hit much, and played brilliant defensive behind the plate. Where Nokes was relatively quiet, Heath had a terrible temper. Nokes was content to allow his pitching staff to guide the games he caught, while Heath (a shortstop in the Yankee organization before former Tiger Birdie Tebbetts made him a catcher) liked to take charge on the diamond. In ’88 the duo were a very capable tandem for Sparky behind the mask.

Left Field: Larry Herndon (34) and Pat Sheridan (30)

Given the anemic offensive output the team got from their outfield, it’s astounding that they stayed in first place as late as they did. In all, Detroit received 34 homers and 167 RBIs from their top four outfielders, which included Herndon, Sheridan, Gary Pettis, and Chet Lemon. By this time, Herndon was a platoon player who couldn’t

Center Field: Gary Pettis (30)

What did it take to push Chet Lemon out of center field? It took a great defensive player like Pettis, who blanketed the expansive middle outfield acreage at Tiger Stadium. Pettis didn’t hit much, but he could run like Secretariat. This was his first season in Detroit, having been acquired in a one-for-one deal with the Angels the previous December. The trade proved to be a good one for the club. Pettis gave the Tigers two full seasons as their center fielder, winning a Gold Glove Award each time. He swiped 44 bases in ’88, the highest total by a Tiger since Ron LeFlore nine years earlier.

Right Field: Chet Lemon (33)

Chet was still a valuable player in 1988, his seventh season as a Tiger and 14th in the big leagues. Ha had 29 doubles and 17 home runs and was still an excellent outfielder, this time in right field. He hit eight homers and had a .581 slugging percentage in September/October.

Designated Hitter: Darrell Evans (41)

One of the most underrated players of his era, Evans had his final good season in ’88, which happened to also be his last in a Detroit uniform. The 41-year old veteran appeared in 144 games, and while he only produced 91 hits and batted .208, he walked 84 times and socked 22 homers. He was still sure-handed enough to play about 1/3 of the schedule at first base for Sparky. He left the team as a free agent after the season and finished his distinguished career where it began, in Atlanta.

Bench: Luis Salazar (32), Dwayne Murphy (33), Jim Walewander (26), Fred Lynn (36)

Sparky Anderson was defined by two managerial characteristics that rarely wavered over his long career. First, he loved to use his bullpen, and he probably made more pitchers into relief aces than any other skipper up to his time. Second, he favored veterans on his bench. In 1988 the Tigers gave most of their at-bats off the bench to three players on the wrong side of thirty: Luis Salazar, who played all over the infield, and Dwayne Murphy, a former Gold Glove center fielder who filled in at the three outfield slots.

At the September trade deadline, GM Bill Lajoie acquired 36-year old former All-Star Fred Lynn from Baltimore for the stretch drive. At the time of the deal the Tigers were in first place. There was some controversy surrounding the trade: Lynn arrived after the September 1 deadline and thus was not eligible for the postseason. At least that’s what the league office initially said. But the Tigers appealed and Lynn was later made eligible. In mid-September he hit a pair of game-winning homers within a week. On September 25 he hit a dramatic pinch-hit grand slam in Baltimore to win a game. But by that time the club was barely hanging on to their slim postseason chances. In all, Lynn hit seven homers and had 19 RBIs in 27 games after coming to the Tigers.

Starting Pitchers:
Jack Morris (33), Doyle Alexander (37), Frank Tanana (34), Walt Terrell (30), Jeff Robinson (26)

Morris was enjoying his final good season with Detroit, winning 15 games and still serving as an innings-eater. But his velocity was diminishing and he was no longer the stud he’d once been.

In ’87, Alexander went 9-0 down the stretch to make the difference as the Tigers clipped the Blue Jays for the division title. In 1988, the old-timer did his job, making 34 starts and performing well enough to keep the team in most games. But Detroit went 17-17 in his starts, and in a crucial stretch from August 1st to September 11th, Detroit was 1-8 when Alexander took the hill. He was done a year later.

Tanana started the season 5-0 utilizing his soft and deceptive breaking ball repertoire, but he didn’t win after August 19th. His righthanded counterpart Terrell was a hard-luck case in ’88, going 7-16 despite pitching better than that in 29 starts.

Robinson was in a sense the ace of the staff and he got his ERA down to 2.65 through his 21st start, but a sore shoulder shelved the youngster in late August. After that, Sparky spotted Steve Searcy as the fifth starter but largely relied on the old arms.

Bullpen: Mike Henneman (26), Guillermo Hernandez (33), Paul Gibson (28)

Baseball was a bit different in 1988. That season the Tiger starting pitchers worked about 75 percent of the innings. There were only four relievers who saw a lot of action. Henneman and Hernandez made almost 60 percent of the relief appearances, with southpaw Gibson, Erik King, and Don Heinkel handled the smattering of the rest. The team only converted 36 saves, ten by Hernandez, who lost his closer role to Henneman, who saved 22 games. In 1988 the Tiger bullpen ERA ranked second in the league.

On October 2 at Tiger Stadium, Gibson got the victory when Evans singled to score Sheridan in a walkoff win in the final contest of the season. The Red Sox had lost earlier, and so the Tigers finished one single game out of first place. They had been officially eliminated on Friday night when Morris beat the Yankees but Boston won to maintain a three-game lead. It was the last time a Sparky-managed team was in contention in September.

What are your memories of the 1988 season? Share them below.

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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.