Thursday, June 22, 2006

Best Since 1984? Guess Again

The 1984 Tigers stormed out to a 35-5 record. It's a numeric benchmark that is burned into the consciousness of an entire state's psyche. They won 104 games, the pennant, and the World Series. As if you needed reminding.

The 1987 Tigers had a substandard benchmark. They started 11-19. But then they ended up with 98 victories -- the most in baseball. They finished 87-45, a .659 clip. They won their division before they, as manager Sparky Anderson believes, ran out of gas in the ALCS following their heart-stopping final-week leapfrog over the Toronto Blue Jays. The Miracle of Michigan and Trumbull.

Today's Tigers play at the pace of thoroughbreds. Their record is a spiffy 48-25. A .658 rate of victory. Just .001 away from the '87 team.

It's an easy mistake to make, to say that this year's Tigers are playing the best ball of any Detroit baseball team since 1984. Often I've heard it.

"This is just like '84."

"Wow -- haven't seen this kind of winning since those 'Bless You Boys' Tigers of '84."

Then again, I've taken it one step further backward. Frankly, this season's club reminds me more of the 1968 team, with their power and late-inning comebacks and aggressive play. Of course, I can hardly expect a comparison to a team that many of today's fans with cell phones speed-dialed into sports talk radio stations weren't anywhere near being around to see.

Regardless, the '84 comparison is nice, but wrong. The '87 Tigers played better after their first 30 games -- much better actually -- than the '84 boys did. To wit:

1984 Tigers last 132 games: 78-54, .591
1987 Tigers last 132 games: 87-45, .659

The '87 team comparison is right in another way: neither team -- the '87 and '06 versions -- was picked to do much of anything in their division. The 1984 Tigers, though, were second-place finishers in '83, and after the Willie Hernandez/Dave Bergman trade, many folks placed them as the frontrunners. But in 1987, the Tigers were going to go without Lance Parrish, who had signed with the Phillies as a free agent. There were question marks on the mound, and on paper the club looked rather pedestrian. The 11-19 start did nothing to dissuade the naysayers.

But in early June, the Tigers picked up Bill Madlock, who'd been set free by the Dodgers. He was a veteran hitter, a former batting champ, and he was a non-entity in Los Angeles.

There can be something marvelously theraputic for a player whose scenery changes. Many pennant winners have had such a player -- the persona non grata of Team A who gets picked up by Team B and for a month, or two, or three, becomes Babe Ruth or Cy Young. The Tigers rescued Frank Howard from Texas late in the '72 season, and Hondo helped them win the division in return. They would get the same kind of help from Bill Madlock in 1987.

Madlock turned back ino vintage "Mad Dog", and the Tigers picked up a dour veteran pitcher named Doyle Alexander in August. He went 9-0, with three shutouts. Doubtless the Tigers would have been in peril without Alexander's contribution.

Already, the trade deadline still over a month away, possible pickups for the Tigers' presumed playoff push are being bantied about. More speculation and pretend trades by the cell phone callers to WDFN and WXYT radio. Some are fantasy moves, only benefitting the Tigers. The owners of the other teams better hope their GMs aren't as stupid as those Detroit callers want them to be.

So let 1987 be the better comparison to the 2006 Tigers.

1 comment:

Ozz said...

I'm leery about comparing these Tigers to any Tigers teams of the past. Everyone should just quit worrying about comparisions and let them be the '06 Tigers. Just enjoy it the season for what it is as it unfolds.