Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Dead Milkmen and Sparky Anderson? Anything Was Possible With Jim Walewander

(another in a series of posts featuring memorable Tigers -- in one way, shape or form -- who played in Detroit since the last All-Star game here, in 1971. This series celebrates the return of the midsummer classic to the Motor City in 2005, and a new feature will appear each weekend until the game is played in July)

Jim Walewander scored the biggest run of the season for the '87 Tigers

The Tigers were desperate. After an 11-19 start to the 1987 season and a climb all the way toward the top of the AL East, the Tigers were watching their charge to overtake the Toronto Blue Jays fall apart in Canada on the second-to-last weekend of the season.

The Tigers went to Toronto that Thursday just 1/2 game behind the Jays. But after three straight losses, including a gut-wrenching "come from ahead" defeat on Saturday on national television, the Bengals were 3 1/2 games back. And now, on Sunday, they were behind going into the ninth inning, staring a 4 1/2 game deficit in the face, with only a week to play.

Enter two heroes -- one that you might suspect, one that was very unlikely. The likely rescuer was Kirk Gibson. The surprise guy was Jim Walewander.

Walewander -- "Wales" to his teammates -- had only joined the team in May, but already he had established a reputation of being one of the flakiest characters to wear the Olde English D since Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. Walewander was a carefree kid who himself suspected he had no real business being in the big leagues, but he was happy as heck to be there anyway. He was good for the media types with his offbeat quotes, and he had a fondness for a band called The Dead Milkmen. It was this fondness that eventually would involve Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, leading to one of the strangest encounters in a Tigers dugout ever.

As Walewander's interest in the Milkmen grew legs, every Tigers fan in the Tri County area knew of the band, even if they couldn't name a single song the lads performed. Inevitably, Sparky became aware of Walewander's near obsession, and before you knew it, a meeting was arranged by Walewander between Sparky and the Milkmen, in the Tigers dugout before a game.

Well, it only ended up being one of the biggest media events in Detroit sports history, if only for its unlikelyhood. Picture Liberace meeting up with Bob Probert in the Red Wings locker room, or Truman Capote chatting up Alex Karras at Lions training camp. It was that off the charts for Sparky to hobnob with the Milkmen, in the Tiger Stadium dugout of all places.

A deliciously odd moment in Detroit sports: Sparky meets The Dead Milkmen

As Wales beamed, Sparky held court with the Milkmen, and such antics kept the team loose as they zeroed in on Toronto and the divisional crown. Even though he was probably the 25th man on a 25 man roster, Walewander became one of the most sought out players by media and fans alike. Everyone, it seemed, loved Jim Walewander -- pinchrunner and utility infielder.

But back to Toronto on that next-to-last Sunday of the season. The Tigers were behind in the ninth until Gibby cracked a home run off Jays closer Tom Henke. Then, with the score tied in the 11th, Gibson was up again, pinchrunner Walewander on second base. Gibby hit a flare into short centerfield. Walewander raced to third, but against the wishes of the third base coach, he continued on toward home plate. Blue Jays infielder Tony Fernandez -- I think it was Tony -- fielded the blooper and, on the urging of his teammates and with his back to the infield, turned and threw a bullet to home. Wales, with a perfect headfirst, sweeping slide, beat the tag, scoring the go-ahead run. The Tigers held on and won, and suddenly a 4 1/2 game deficit wasn't to be, replaced instead by a 2 1/2 game gap. It was probably the difference between winning and losing the division for the Tigers.

Walewander may have very well saved the Tigers from AL East extinction with that aggressive, daring baserunning, a bi-product of his airy personality. Because, as you know, the Jays folded like a tent, losing their remaining games, including a 1-0 loss to Frank Tanana on the season's final day. The Tigers were AL East champs.

A large part of that comeback can be credited to the devil-may-care baserunning of a utility player who made a name for himself not from his baseball playing skills, but because of his flakiness and affinity for a punk band named The Dead Milkmen.

Walewander had 54 at bats for the Tigers in '87, 188 the next year, and after cups of coffee with the Yankees and Angels, he was done by 1993. But he quite possibly scored the biggest run of the season for the '87 Tigers.

Such is baseball.

(next week: Al Cowens and Ed Farmer)

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