Friday, May 27, 2005

A Year After His Dream Season, 'Hot Sauce' Diluted In A Flash

(To help celebrate the return of the baseball All-Star game to Detroit this summer, each weekend between now and the game, "Out of Bounds" will look back at a different Tigers player who toiled for the club since the last Detroit All-Star game in 1971)

Kevin Saucier, like Mark Fidrych, had one year of mound fame for the Tigers

Sparky Anderson, while he managed the Tigers, wasn't much for the oddball types on his teams. He also didn't care much for those who tested the boundaries of his rules. Ron LeFlore, Jason Thompson and Steve Kemp, among other lesser-known players, were all out of Detroit within a year after Sparky took over in June 1979.

One character that Sparky tolerated was relief pitcher Kevin Saucier, a.k.a. "Hot Sauce."

Saucier arrived between the 1980 and 1981 seasons in a trade with the Phillies. The lefthander had a mostly nondescript two years in Philadelphia -- certainly I never knew of his on-field eccentricities, unless he invented them once he came to Detroit.

Baseball suffered through a strike in '81 that lasted throughout much of June and all of July. The decision was made to split the season into two halves; the first half winner would meet the second half winner in each division to determine who would move on to the LCS. I always wondered what the plan was if the first half winner won the second half, too. I guess a first round bye.

Anyhow, the Tigers muddled through Half One at a leisurely pace, finishing something like third. But in the second half, the team caught fire, ending up in a heated mini pennant race with the Milwaukee Brewers. The two players who keyed this surge were, on offense, Kirk Gibson, who hit around .375 after the strike, and on the mound, Saucier. In his glory season with the Tigers in '81, Saucier posted a 1.65 ERA in 49 innings, surrendering only one home run.

Saucier was the closer, and he had all the decorum of an untrained circus animal. After each save -- he had 13 that year, most after the strike -- Saucier leaped and hopped and bounced and pounded his mitt and hugged teammates and generally acted like someone with ants in his pants -- fire ants. He had a herky-jerky motion, his cap regularly flew off after pitches, and while he wasn't the overpowering, strikeout kind of closer, he nonetheless got the job done. The origin of his nickname, "Hot Sauce", I have sadly forgotten. Maybe it was coined in Detroit. Judging from the way Saucier behaved on the field after each save, perhaps it was in reference to the possibility of him having hot sauce oozing in his undershorts.

But like most characters, especially pitchers, Saucier flamed out -- or diluted -- in a hurry. However, his ending was just about as odd as his on-field personality. In the middle of the 1982 campaign, his numbers still respectable -- 3.12 ERA, 40 IP, 0 HR -- Saucier started worrying about his increasing wildness. By late July, Saucier had issued 29 walks in those 40 innings -- an average of about 6.5 per nine innings. Then his worry increased to paranoia.

"I'm afraid I'm going to kill somebody out there," Saucier said, not believing himself to be overdramatizing the situation. He kept telling folks that he felt like he had no idea where his pitches were going. He started freaking out, basically.

So, just like that, Saucier retired. No minor league rehab assignment, no time on the DL. His last game was July 25, 1982.

The Tigers' bottle of "Hot Sauce" was empty.

(next week: Jim Walewander)

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