Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sparky's Soothsaying Got It Right For Tigers In 1987

Sparky Anderson was best digested with a side order of salt, at least to those who had him figured out. To try him otherwise was usually a cause for consternation.

I tried Sparky, the old Tigers manager, without salt for the first couple of years he was in Detroit, and I can tell you that he was much easier on the tummy with sodium.

I believed him, or wanted to, when he told the reporters that Kirk Gibson was going to be “the next Mickey Mantle.” I listened, enraptured, when he announced before the 1980 season that his team would win “at least” 90 games.

I was still eschewing the salt shaker the next spring, when Sparky told us that between them, starters Jack Morris, Milt Wilcox and Dan Petry would win 50 games.

Then I got wise, and realized that Sparky was a lot more fun when you added grains and grains of salt to his words.

After that, Sparky amused me instead of bemused me.

Unknown rookie Chris Pittaro, so good that he’d be the Tigers’ second baseman, thus moving the great Lou Whitaker to third base?

HA—that’s a good one!

Pain don’t hurt?

Stop—you’re killing me!

But I found a Sparky gem, uncovered on the addictive site YouTube—a.k.a. your very own video home museum. And, had I heard it live, when he first said it, I’d have shaken my head, grinned, and said, “Oh, that Sparky!”

It was May, 1987. The Tigers were limping along, 9-15 and not showing much life. They had lost All-Star catcher Lance Parrish to Philadelphia before the season, via free agency. The pitching was a shambles, the hitting sporadic.

So Sparky was donning the TV headset and talking to the folks on Channel 4 during one of their pre-game shows. The Tigers were in Oakland.

“I want to tell people something right now,” Sparky said, and you knew you were in for a humdinger. “This is a very good baseball team. Make no question about that. And this will be a very good baseball team.”

Sparky’s words must have caused thousands of eyes to roll. But then he saved the best for last.
“I will say this: the people of Detroit will be very happy come October 4.”

The Tigers slipped to 11-19 in the week after Sparky’s boastful prediction.

The only happy that the fans would be come Oct. 4, it appeared, would be happy that the season was finished!

In early June, the Tigers picked up a former batting champ and aging veteran who was struggling to hit .200 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Bill Madlock’s signing looked like nothing more than a desperate move by a desperate team.

Madlock was 36 years old and looking like it, hitting a sickly .180 for the Dodgers.

But he bounced into town with the Tigers and things started to happen—for Madlock and for his new team. Immediately.

Madlock, in his very first game as a Tiger, in Boston, went 3-for-4 with a home run. The Tigers lost, but they wouldn’t lose very much the rest of the season.

Madlock went 12-for-23 in his first four games with Detroit. He had more hits in those four games than he had the entire season with the Dodgers (11) to that point.

Every time you looked up, it seemed Madlock was getting two, three hits a game.

And the Tigers started to win. Often.

They rose from the ashes of 11-19 and were battling the Toronto Blue Jays for supremacy in the division, along with the honors of having the very best record in all of baseball.

There was a crucial four-game series in Toronto the next-to-last weekend of the season.

The Tigers went into Canada one-half game behind the Blue Jays.

Three days and three one-run losses later, the Tigers were three-and-one-half games behind, including a gut-wrenching, come-from-ahead loss on national TV on Saturday afternoon, a game in which the Tigers blew a 9-4 lead.

The Blue Jays had seven games remaining, the Tigers eight. They started talking about Toronto’s “magic number” to clinch the division, which had now been whittled down to five.

The man who was not the next Mickey Mantle but instead the one and only Kirk Gibson, stood among the reporters in the tomb-like Tigers clubhouse in the wake of Saturday’s piercing loss.

Speaking softly but with determination, Gibson had a doozy for the press people.

“Maybe we’re just setting the greatest bear trap in history,” Gibby said of the Tigers’ seemingly insurmountable deficit in chasing the Blue Jays.

The Tigers won the next day in 13 innings, thanks to Gibson’s home run in the ninth to tie the game, and his game-winning single in the 13th.

They were two-and-one-half games back with a week left in the season.

The Blue Jays stumbled at home against Milwaukee, dropping three straight, while the Tigers split a four-game series at Tiger Stadium with the Orioles.

When the Jays hit Detroit for the season finale weekend, their lead was a measly one game. The bear trap’s jaws were about to clamp down.

The Tigers swept the series, winning all three games by one run. They won the division outright, avoiding the need for a one-game playoff. The bear trap worked. The Blue Jays finished the season 0-7 in coughing up the division flag in Chicago Cubs-like fashion.

It was Oct. 4—the date Sparky Anderson referenced on television back in May—when pitcher Frank Tanana fielded Garth Iorg’s tapper and lobbed the baseball to first baseman Darrell Evans, completing Frank’s 1-0 shutout and sealing the division for the Tigers.

Sparky got one right. The people of Detroit were, indeed, very happy—rivaled only by their surprise and shock.

The Tigers, after their 11-19 start, went 87-45 the rest of the way, nearly a two-out-of-three rate for 132 games.

That they fizzled out in the playoffs against Minnesota was almost forgivable after all they expended just to get there.

Sparky, in his book They Call Me Sparky, called that 1987 team his best in Detroit.

“We were finished,” Sparky wrote of his team’s state after those thrilling, season-ending matches with the Blue Jays, both in Toronto and in Detroit. “They (the players) had nothing left to give me against the Twins. I was very proud of them.”

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