This year marks the 35th anniversary of the 1984 season, a season that lives on as one of the greatest in the history of Detroit sports.
The 1984 Tigers did it all. They bounced from the gate to win 35 of their first 40 games, including a record 17 straight on the road. They were in first place every day of the season, and won a franchise-record 104 games. The team showed their greatness in the postseason, winning seven of eight games to claim the World Series title. It remains the last championship won by Detroit’s beloved baseball team.
We don’t love baseball because of the numbers, and we don’t love baseball only because of accomplishments. We love it because it connects with us, and over the course of a six-month season the game becomes part of our lives. The players are like members of our family. Over 180+ days through 162 games beamed into our homes via television or radio (or now the Internet), the game weaves into the fabric of our daily existence.
The 1984 Tigers are not only great because of their successes, they are great because of the men who wore the uniform. The players who came together to form that team were from various backgrounds, different regions and countries, and they had unique baseball stories. Some of them were young, some were veterans, some were in the primes of their careers. A few of them were legends, some were just hanging on in the big leagues. This is the first in a series of articles about the players of the ’84 Tigers.
This article is titled “Last Hurrah as Tigers” because both of these players were in their final stages as Tigers. Though he didn’t know it, Game Five of the 1984 World Series would be the last time Dave Rozema would wear the Old English D. Milt Wilcox would win only one more game for Detroit in 1985 before a painful shoulder injury ended his season. That injury stemmed from his stubborn insistence at giving his all to the team in 1984. Both men, both pitchers, are indelibly connected to the franchise and the state of Michigan. One of them was born in Grand Rapids, the other has made Michigan his home. Both are world champions, and their story is part of the magic of the 1984 season.
The Wild & Crazy Baseball Life of Rosy
In 1976, Detroit Tiger fans were delighted at the pitching and antics of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who won the American League Rookie of the Year Award that season. The following year, Detroit was blessed with another fine rookie season by a right-handed hurler, this time a Grand Rapids native with a vicious changeup. That youngster, Dave Rozema, would prove to be every bit as much a flake as “The Bird” in many different ways. He also contributed to the Tigers 1984 World Series championship.
As a rookie, Rozema arrived on the scene in style. After quality starts in his first two starts of the season, Rozema twirled a four-hit shutout of the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, allowing just four hits. He won three games in May and two more in June, receiving spotty run support as he took some hard-luck losses and no-decisions. He had quality starts in 11 of his first 15 starts that year. In July, Rozema went 4-1, spinning four complete game victories. He was even more effective, winning five games, with his only loss coming in a complete game where his teammates only scored one run for him. He had 15 wins on the season and was among the hottest rookies in the game.
In September, Rozema started two games but was beat around pretty good, losing both. Out of the division race, the Tigers chose to shut down his 21-year old arm for the season. He finished with a 15-7 mark and a 3.09 ERA (ninth in the league). Rozema finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting and eighth in the Cy Young vote. It was a promising freshman campaign, and with Fidrych on schedule to return from an injury, the Detroit rotation looked great with the two youngsters for 1978.
But, unfortunately things didn’t work out that way. Fidrych never returned to his stellar rookie form, injuring his knee and then tearing the rotator cuff nearly through on his pitching arm. Rozema was healthy in ’78, posting nearly the same ERA (3.12) in the same number of starts (28), but he managed to only win nine games. It was the most he’d ever win in a season after his rookie season. In 1979, the big right-hander suffered an arm injury and appeared in only 16 games. In 1980 and 1981, now playing under manager Sparky Anderson, Rozema continued to have injury problems and fell out of favor, being relegated to the bullpen.
Back in the rotation in 1982, “Rosy” was involved in his most infamous incident. After starting the year 3-0 with a glittering 1.63 ERA, Rozema seemed poised to give Sparky a full year of pitching excellence. With fellow righties Jack Morris and Dan Petry, an effective Rozema could give the Tigers a talented top three in the rotation.
On May 14, in a game against the Minnesota Twins in Tiger Stadium, Detroit batters Enos Cabell and Chet Lemon were brushed back, and Lemon was hit by a pitch from Twins pitcher Pete Redfern. When a brawl occurred, Rozema came charging from the Tiger dugout intent on delivering a karate kick to a Minnesota player. Unfortunately, Rozema missed and fell to the ground, having twisted his knee. Once the dust was settled, Rozema was carted from the field on a stretcher. His best friend, teammate Kirk Gibson, later won the game on a walk-off extra-innings homer. But the damage was done – Rozema had surgery on the knee the next day and was out for the remainder of the season.
Two years later, Rozema was a contributor to the magical ’84 Tigers team, winning seven games in 16 starts. He didn’t appear in the post-season, but he has a ring. Less than a month after the team won the World Series, Rosy declared for free agency. The following month he signed a deal with the Rangers for more than $600,000. He was out of baseball two years later after battling arm problems, he won only three games after leaving the Tigers.
The infamous karate kick wasn’t the only goofy episode of Rozema’s career. The pitcher once playfully shoved a drinking glass in the face of teammate Alan Trammell, a stunt that caused Trammell to have 47 stitches near his eye. Once, Gibson shoved Rozema off his stool in the Tiger clubhouse. Unfortunately, Rozema had a bottle of cough syrup in his back pocket, and after landing on it, had to have stitches in his ass. Rozema remains the butt of jokes for some of the (supposed) airhead moves he made as a young Tiger farmhand, including washing his new car with brillo pads.
On the mound, when he was right, Rozema was a fine big league pitcher. Only once over a full season did he post an ERA as high as 4.00, and he had a career mark of 3.47. In eight years with the Tigers, Rozema was a phenom, a bust, a goofy sidekick, an effective bullpen swingman, and an entertaining teammate.
1984: The Most Wonderful and Most Painful Year of Milt Wilcox’s Career
Even though the Detroit Tigers won the 1984 World Series, that season was the most painful of Milt Wilcox’s career. The righthander gladly accepted his place on the wire-to-wire championship club, but his price for that glory was enduring a season of agonizing pain in his shoulder.
A veteran by 1984, the 34-year old Wilcox was determined to pitch a full season for the Tigers. He’d missed starts the previous three years due to shoulder troubles. In 1984 he knew the Tigers were poised to make history and he wanted to be a part of it. He also didn’t want to let his teammates down.
“When the 1983 season ended we knew we were the best team in the league,” Wilcox recalled. “I also felt like I’d let Sparky down by missing starts. In 1981 and 1982 the same thing had happened. I didn’t want that to happen again.”
Wilcox knew his ailing shoulder needed surgery, a procedure that would shelve him for months, possibly for the full year, and perhaps end his career. The only way that he could get through an entire season with the shoulder was to take a radical approach. He determined that he would get cortisone shots to numb the arm and mask the pain. The shots would allow Wilcox to pitch but it would have side effects too. The tissue in his shoulder would get re-injured each time he pitched and cause more damage. Only by getting it numb again would he be able to withstand a full season of wear and tear.
The gamble paid off: Wilcox didn’t miss a start and he performed well as the team’s #3 starter behind ace Jack Morris and Dan Petry. Wilcox pitched just about as well as he had the previous season, but he won six more games, earning a career-best 17 victories as the Tigers seemed to score seven or eight runs each time he toed the rubber. For Wilcox it was a career year, but his shoulder required eight cortisone shots throughout the season, with two coming in back-to-back starts in August.
“I was in pain, but that’s what I had to do,” Wilcox explained. “I knew 1984 would be my last season, most likely.”
The magic of the ’84 season continued for the Tigers and Wilcox in the post-season. The righty started one game each in the playoffs and World Series, winning both. He went eight innings without allowing a run against the Royals in Game Three of the playoffs as Detroit clinched its first pennant in 16 years. He won Game Three of the World Series over the Padres in Tiger Stadium as well.
The following season, Wilcox had the surgery on his shoulder and won just one game for the Tigers. He pitched for Seattle in 1986 but went 0-8. His arm was done. He’d put all of his heart and his shoulder into the ’84 season, and even though he was never the same pitcher again, Wilcox, his teammates, and Detroit fans, are grateful that he did.