It was to be the start of a dynasty, Detroit’s incredible 1984 season—something akin to the “Big Red Machine” Sparky Anderson had presided over as manager of the Cincinnati Reds back in the 1970s. The ’84 Tigers were shot out of a cannon, riding an unprecedented 35-5 start to a team-record 104 regular-season wins, a sweep of the Royals in the playoffs, and a rout of the Padres in the World Series.
A jumble of imperishable memories surround what remains the Tigers’ last championship year: Jack Morris’s no-hitter…Willie Hernandez’s screwballs…Senor Smoke’s speedballs…Tram and Lou turning two…Ernie in the booth…the bleachers at Tiger Stadium…Lance Parrish’s muscles powering homers into left field…Sparky puffing on his pipe…the gutsy performance by a sore-armed Milt Wilcox…the Wave…Gibby’s fist-pumping moonshot off Goose Gossage as an apoplectic crowd sang “Goosebusters.” From opening day to the final game of the World Series, the Tigers never spent a day out of first place. It truly was a one-of-a-kind season.
But the dynasty many predicted for the Tigers after their remarkable 1984 season never materialized. “I spent the whole year thinking it would all turn around the next day,” Lance Parrish later said of the summer of ’85. “It never did.”
For a short while, the ’85 club did live up to expectations, picking up right where they had left off six months earlier. On Opening Day, April 8, the Tigers battled snow and falling temperatures to come from behind to beat Cleveland. Trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth, Detroit scored two runs on Chris Pittaro’s single and Lou Whitaker’s sacrifice fly. Hernandez, who’d won the MVP and Cy Young awards in ’84, preserved the 5-4 win with a scoreless ninth. The game was notable for rookie third baseman Pittaro’s three hits in his major league debut. The young infielder had already earned high praise from Sparky, which would prove more of a curse than a blessing soon enough.
The home opener was the first of six straight victories to begin the season. Was another 35-5 spurt in the works? No. For the rest of the summer, the Tigers managed to win just one more game than they lost. Their last day in first place was April 28; by early September they had fallen to fourth. Eventually Sparky’s squad finished a distant third at 84-77. This despite Darrell Evans’ 40 home runs, which made him the first Tiger since Hank Greenberg to lead the majors in that category, and solid offensive seasons by Gibson (28 home runs, 98 RBI) and Parrish (29 home runs, 97 RBI).
Morris led the staff with 16 victories and started the All-Star Game on July 16 in Minneapolis, taking the loss. In a sign of how the season was going for Detroit, Whitaker started the game wearing a hastily assembled outfit of ballpark merchandise because he had forgotten to pack his uniform. This included a blank jersey on which he used a magic marker to draw his uniform number on the back.
The dive of ’85 was a mystery to the 2.3 million fans who came out to Tiger Stadium. How to explain the dismal 17-25 record against the weaker Western Division? Or Trammell’s batting average dropping like a stone, from .314 in ’84 to .258? Or the sudden ineffectiveness of Lopez and Hernandez, the magical relief combo of ’84? There were theories, ranging from the loss of pitching coach Roger Craig, who retired after the ’84 season, to key players like Morris, Gibson, and Parrish being distracted by dissatisfaction with their contracts. (All three players eventually would leave Detroit for fatter paychecks elsewhere.) Others, like Dan Holmes here on this blog a few years ago, points to the bench and the defense as the culprits for the Tigers’ failure to repeat in ’85.
Meanwhile, Toronto won the Eastern Division, then lost to Kansas City in the ALCS. The Royals went on to beat St. Louis in the 1985 World Series to capture the first championship in franchise history. Each time, the Royals had to rally from a 3-1 games deficit, making theirs as much of a one-of-a-kind season as the Tigers’ season had been a year earlier.
But here’s the thing about one-of-a-kind seasons. They’re one of a kind. “Last year was a dream,” Trammell said as the disappointing summer wound down. And 1985 clearly was not.