As years pass, events usually become more simple in our collective memory. Details are shed or forgotten, and what remains is a basic narrative that’s easy for our minds to classify. It’s a human reaction to complexity.
It happens in all parts of life, including sports. As we look back at periods in history, we tend to simplify them:
The 1968 Tigers were a come-from-behind group of over-achieving characters.
The Bad Boys were a physical team who used dirty play to win championships.
The 1984 Tigers steamrolled over the competition and made it look easy.
It’s always more nuanced than that. Yes, the ’68 Tigers won a lot of games in their last at-bat and they were among the league leaders in comeback wins, but they were also a talent-rich team that won 103 games and ran away with the pennant.
Yes, the Detroit Pistons of the mid-1980s and early 1990s were a defense-minded team that had several brutishly physical players on their side. They earned more than their share of fines for rough play. But they also had very talented athletes who knew how to play the game of basketball as a team better than anyone else at the time. Those players, like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, had graceful skill that went far beyond simply being tough.
That brings me to the 1984 Tigers, a team that won the World Series in fairly easy fashion and outdistanced their nearest rival in the AL East by 15 games. When experts discuss the greatest teams in Detroit sports history, the ’84 Tigers are often near the top. They had the hottest start in baseball history and they won 69 of their first 100 games, one off the record. They also went 7-1 in the postseason. The season was a breeze, right? Their great start (35-5) means they were destined to win that year, right?
Wrong. The 1984 team entered the season with a lot to prove. They entered it unsure about their roster. And even after rolling out to a 35-5 start, they faced challenges and adversity. Here’s a different way to look at the 1984 season, a year when the Tigers, their manager, and their fans were often unsure, nervous and excited at the same time.
The Tigers vs. the Orioles
The ’84 Tigers won their first nine games, which is cause enough for celebration, but one of those games was epic. On the first Saturday of the season, in Chicago, Jack Morris pitched a brilliant game against the White Sox on national television. That afternoon, the Tiger ace tossed a no-hitter despite not knowing where his split-finger fastball was going most of the day. Morris had unusual movement on his signature pitch, and as a result he walked the bases loaded early in the game and surrendered six walks in total.
Morris wriggled his way out of the bases loaded jam and by the seventh inning it was obvious to everyone in attendance at old Comiskey Park what was happening. The scoreboard clearly showed the Sox were being shut out in the hit column. As Morris stalked off the mound in the seventh, he was confronted by a Chicago fan sitting behind the visiting dugout. “You’re throwing a no-hitter! Hey Morris! You’re throwing a noooooo-hittttter.” The heckler was trying to get into Morris’ head. But the righthander would have none of it.
“I know it,” Morris growled at the fan, “and I’m going to get the last six outs to finish it!”
And he did. Morris completed his gem and pitched the first no-hitter by a Tiger since 1958. The performance propelled Morris to a fast start, just like his team. By the end of May, the ace was 10-1 with a 1.88 ERA and eight complete games in 12 starts. It looked like he might win 25, or maybe even 30 games.
But not everyone was impressed. In Baltimore, the defending World Champions were still confident. Their catcher was a scrappy veteran named Rick Dempsey. While everyone in baseball was ready to declare the pennant race over, Dempsey wasn’t so sure.
“We’re not ready to crown them,” Dempsey said. “We beat them last year, and we can do it again.”
That didn’t sit well with a few of the Tigers, namely Morris, who made his feelings known to a few reporters as the team prepared for a weekend series in Detroit against Baltimore, the first meeting of the teams in 1984.
Manager Sparky Anderson fanned the flames. With the Orioles 10 1/2 games back of his club, the white-haired sage was feeling cocky.
“They’re done, we got ’em this time,” he told a group of writers in his office under Tiger Stadium. “This ain’t last year.” In 1983, Detroit had won 92 games, but still finished six games behind Baltimore in the AL East.
There was a playoff atmosphere for the first game of the Orioles series. More than 47,000 fans were packed into Tiger Stadium for the Friday night contest that pitted Dan Petry against Scot McGregor, a crafty lefthander. With the trash talking and bad blood between the two teams, everyone was prepared for a battle. But it didn’t work out that way.
In the second frame the Tigers erupted for six runs off McGregor and they eventually built a 13-0 lead by the end of the fifth to cruise to a 14-2 win. The battle had turned into a slaughter. The next day the Orioles beat Morris and they squeaked out a one-run win on Sunday, but notice had been served — the Tigers were the better team. A week later in Baltimore, the Tigers took three of four, including a sweep of a Sunday doubleheader. The O’s were 11 games back and never challenged that summer. A new champion would be crowned.
The Pesky Blue Jays
While the Tigers were bouncing out to the greatest start in baseball history, another team was enjoying a fine stretch of baseball too. As a result, even with a gaudy record in May and June, the Tigers could not build a huge lead in the AL East. The Blue Jays were too good to be left in the dust.
The Tigers and Orioles sized each other up in the early 1980s, but it was the Blue Jays who were Detroit’s biggest rivals that decade. The talented Jays were good enough in ’84 to win the division title, and maybe even the World Series, had it been any other year. On May 24, when the Tigers were sitting at an incredible 35-5, the Jays record was an impressive 27-14, a mark that was six games better than any other team in the league. Over the next week-and-a-half, Toronto actually outplayed Detroit, going 7-2 while the Tigers cooled off at 3-6. As a result, in early June the Tigers held just a 4 1/2 game lead over their division rivals as the teams prepared for a four-game series at The Corner of Michigan and Trumbull.
“Try as we might, we can’t shake them,” pitching coach Roger Craig said. “They’re playing great baseball and the pressure is on us.”
The game of June 4th, 1984 will always be a special one in Tiger history. On a Monday night, the Tigers pulled off an amazing comeback win in the first meeting against Toronto for the season. It was the “Dave Bergman Game” that featured a walkoff three-run homer by Bergman in the tenth inning off Roy Lee Jackson in the 14th pitch of the at-bat. But earlier in the contest another Tiger provided thrills with a clutch homer of his own that often gets overlooked.
In the seventh inning the Tigers were down 3-0 to Toronto ace Dave Stieb. The righthander was cruising, and it looked like Toronto would inch to within 3 1/2 games with a win. But Chet Lemon got nicked by a pitch (as he often did) and trotted to first with one out in the seventh. Bergman followed with a ground ball single between first and second. Stieb was still battling and his next test was Howard Johnson, the young switch-hitting third baseman. The Toronto hurler tried to sneak a fastball past Johnson, but HoJo lofted it into the lower deck in right field for a game-tying three run homer. That forgotten homer set the stage for Bergman’s epic homer in the 10th off Jackson.
The Tigers and Blue Jays weren’t done with each other. The Jays won the next two games before Morris smacked them back down with his 11th victory in the finale of the four-game set. The Tigers record was 40-13, but they were only 4 1/2 games ahead of the Blue Jays. The team couldn’t put Toronto in their rearview mirror.
The Worrisome Dog Days of August
After the All-Star break in mid-July the Tigers built a lead that stretched to 12 games. It was over, right? Not quite. There were still some anxious moments.
Thanks to several rain outs earlier in the season, the Tigers had to play five doubleheaders in 12 days in late July and early August, From August 5th through the 7th, they played three straight doubleheaders. That’s six games in three days. With the Detroit pitching staff stretched to a breaking point, it was a perfect opportunity for the pesky Jays to get back in the race.
By this time, Morris had retreated into a pouting standoff with the media. Acting like a toddler, just before the break, Morris had decided he wasn’t going to give interviews, a decision exacerbated by a stretch in which he cooled off. With the Tigers resting on a big lead, the nerves in the dugout were coming to the surface.
“If we blow this [lead], I’ll be run out of this town,” Sparky wrote in his diary of the ’84 season.
After Detroit lost both ends of the doubleheader in August 5th to the Royals, Sparky was beside himself. Always one to take a loss hard, Anderson was concerned that his team was wilting under the pressure of the long season and the grind of 22 games in 19 days.
“This is the low point of the season,” he wrote after his club was swept by the Angels in a doubleheader at Tiger Stadium. “We need a win, we need someone to come through.” The Angels outscored the Tigers 18-5 in the twinbill, beating up on back-of-the-rotation starters Juan Berenguar and Dave Rozema. The lead was down to seven games. The Jays weren’t going away.
That’s when Petry stepped up, pitching a strong game against the Angels on August 15th, going eight innings for a huge lift. The next day, trouble returned however when Morris was knocked from the game by the Halos after only 3 2/3 innings. The troubled Tiger ace gave up nine hits and seven runs and put his team in a 7-5 hole. But drama unfolded late in the game: Alan Trammell scored two runs in the eighth on a single to tie it; then pinch-hitter Barbaro Garbey delivered a run-scoring double for a walkoff win in the 12th. With the doubleheaders behind them, the thrilling victory seemed to propel the team. The Tigers won 10 of 12 and put the division race away for good.
When the Tigers clinched the division in mid-September, Sparky was relieved.
“That big lead was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my years of baseball,” he told the Detroit News. “We were up there all alone for everyone to knock down, and it gave me ulcers.”
The mark of a great team is what they do when adversity strikes. The 1984 Detroit Tigers bolted out to a huge start, but they were still challenged. And when they were, they answered the call.