Saturday, July 16, 2005

30 Years Ago, The Only Thing The Tigers Could Beat Were The Odds Against A 19-Game Losing Streak

I’m not usually one for anniversaries -- except my wedding one, of course. It’s kind of amusing to me, really, that we have a fascination with anything that is divisible by five, when it comes to how many years since a particular event. If the 29th anniversary of something passes, we yawn. But just one year later, we throw a party. Then, the next year, back to snoozes. It’s funny when you think about it.

But there was absolutely nothing funny about what happened to the Tigers 30 years ago this month. For it was in July 1975 that the team commenced to go on a 19-game losing streak, second longest in major league history for a single season.

Consider the magnitude of that for a moment. It’s amazing to me, frankly, that a major league team can go that many games between victories, no matter how bad it is. Nineteen games. That’s five or six series and about three weeks, with days off included. You’d think that at least the law of averages would rear its head and provide the Tigers with a win or two in 19 games.

The Tigers of ’75 were managed by Ralph Houk, and it was in the deepest depths of a painful rebuilding process that wouldn’t truly end until Sparky Anderson was hired in June 1979. Tracing the source of why the wheels fell off, one must go all the way back to the core of the 1968 World Series team.

Norm Cash. Al Kaline. Bill Freehan. Jim Northrup. Willie Horton. Mickey Stanley. Dick McAuliffe. All these guys made up the backbone of those ’68 champs, yet Tigers management squeezed them dry, until finally the fruit could produce no more juice. The team was longer in the tooth, but still managed to win the AL East flag in 1972, coming two runs shy of advancing to the World Series. But instead of replenishing the team and phasing the vets out so younger players could take their places, the Tigers realized too late that their drafts of the early 70’s were mostly flops, and precious few players were climbing the minor league ladder. Finally, the bubble burst, and the Tigers found themselves old and slow and devoid of any serious young talent.

Instead of Horton, Kaline and Northrup, the Tigers had to throw in not-ready-for-prime-timers such as Danny Meyer, Leon Roberts and that ex-con, Ron LeFlore. In the infield, Cash, McAuliffe and Eddie Brinkman gave way to such non-luminaries as Jack Pierce, Tom Veryzer and Gary Sutherland. Freehan was ready to retire, too, and it would be a few years before a youngster named Lance Parrish could be an anchor behind the plate.

The results were predictable; the Tigers were awful. After a relatively surprising start in April, the team nosedived and before long they were holding up the rest of the division. Although, at 46-55, their record was hardly embarrassing.

Then came mid-July.

Suddenly, the Tigers did their best impression of the 1962 Mets until their next one in 2003. They often fell far behind in the very first inning, and their hitting, pitching and defense all went south at the same time. They became a joke. And, in three wretched weeks, 46-55 turned into 46-74. The Tigers finished 57-102, which means they went 11-47 for their last 58 games, not even a .200 winning percentage. The ’62 Mets would have made mincemeat of them.

I remember attending a game at Tiger Stadium in the middle of the 19-game madness, with Baltimore in town. As usual, the Tigers bumbled and fumbled it away, dropping balls and making errant throws and not being able to get anyone out. All that probably happened by the third inning. Anyhow, I remember when a couple of Tigers let a fly ball drop between the outfield and infield, and the crowd started booing and my father was derisively clapping and "cheering" their ineptitude. It should have been funny, but I was almost 12 years old and the whole scene made me practically sad enough to cry.

The whole city was depressed back then, too. The recession of 1974 was still spidering out its after effects, especially in the Motor City, and none of the four major teams in Detroit were worth a hill of beans. None of them were remotely close to championship caliber play.

And until Ray Bare beat the Angels in California, 8-0, to snap the losing streak, the only reason anyone talked about the Tigers, locally or nationally, was because of that God awful 19-game skid.

So there you have it -- I have become what I have often mocked. I am "glorifying", or at least recognizing, the 30-year anniversary of one of the darkest periods in Detroit Tigers history. I guess to make my point, I should have done it last year, or waited until next year. Oh well. Pop open a cold one and drink to the memories of Danny Meyer, Leon Roberts, Vern Ruhle and Dave Lemanczyk. They managed to go a few weeks without a victory back in 1975. And that ain’t easy to do.

Happy Anniversary!

No comments: