The two key acquisitions made by the Tigers just prior to their 1984 World Championship season occurred when they landed slugging first baseman Darrell Evans and relief pitcher Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez, who would became their premier closer before capturing the 1984 Cy Young Award and American League MVP trophy.
The following are excerpts from a Detroit Free Press article that I wrote five years ago just prior to the 2004 reunion ceremonies at Comerica Park.
“There’s no question that Bill Lajoie (former GM) saved us by getting Evans and Hernandez because I don’t think we would have otherwise won,” says Sparky Anderson from his home in Thousand Oaks, California.
“After ’83 we came close to winning it, but we needed two things,” says Lajoie, now the Red Sox’s assistant GM. “A veteran leadership guy like Darrell who could put the ball in the seats and a closer, because we didn’t know if Aurelio Lopez was coming back.”
When the Tigers signed their first major free agent in December of 1983 Darrell Evans was 36 years old and a seasoned slugger who in 16 seasons with the Braves and Giants, hit 262 home runs and walked more than he struck out.
“People thought I was crazy signing with Detroit because I could have gone to the Dodgers or Yankees, but I knew the Tigers had a good young club and they gave me a nice three year deal,” says Evans, 57, from his home in Valencia, California.
“Looking back, I wish I had spent my whole career in Detroit,” says Evans, who over five seasons with the Tigers slugged 141 homers and became the oldest player to win a home run title.( 40 homers at age 38 in 1985)
“In the ’84 training camp the guys were so focused and pissed because they lost out to Baltimore in ’83,” Evans says. “The players really welcomed me because it showed the front office was on the same page in wanting to win it all.”
With Evans in the fold, Lajoie and Anderson turned their attention to Willie Hernandez, a left handed set up reliever with a wicked screwball and cut fastball who they had seen pitch for the Phillies in the ’83 playoffs.
“When we saw him it was some kind of heat coming to the plate,” recalls Lajoie, who was voted Executive of the Year in 1984. “Willie had that swagger like he was onstage doing MacBeth or something. From then on, Sparky kept telling me, ‘if you get me Hernandez we can win it.’”
After showcasing Tiger outfielder Glenn Wilson to the Phillies in spring training, (“Glenn hit homers in batting practice like Dave Kingman,” says Lajoie) the GM nabbed Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman in exchange for Wilson and John Wockenfuss.
Hernandez couldn’t have been happier.
“I never got the chance to be the closer with the Cubs and Phillies, so I was excited that Sparky was giving me the opportunity,” says Hernandez, 49, from his home in Puerto Rico. “Some of the other relievers were making names for themselves and getting great salaries. I welcomed the chance to show what I could do.”
Evans would make the first impact in ’84 before Hernandez began his remarkable string of 32 saves in 33 save opportunities.
On Opening Day in Minnesota he hit a three run homer in an 8-1 victory, and at the home opener, Evans, who was affectionately called “Pops” by his younger teammates, hit another 3 run homer with his first swing at Tiger Stadium.
“Although Darrell didn’t end up doing the offensive damage that year (16 homers, 63 RBIs .232 average) like he would do later, I believe those homers carried the team for weeks as other guys then picked it up,” Lajoie says. “And in the locker room, Darrell was the calm when things were a little edgy and offered a quiet leadership to the young players.”
After Lopez and Hernandez took turns as the closer for the first few weeks, Hernandez finally got the nod. (Together Hernandez and Lopez would combine for 46 saves and a 19-4 record.)
For the rest of the season, Tiger fans cheered as Hernandez confidently walked out of the Tiger dugout in the seventh inning with a cheek popped out with tobacco and headed to the bullpen. After Sparky gave him the ball, Hernandez would dig a hole in front of the rubber. Then, with his cut fastball and deadly strikeout screwball, Hernandez retired batters one by one.
“When I came in I was concentrating so much I didn’t hear anybody. I’d listen to Sparky and then I was goin’ at ‘em. When I’m on the mound, I always say, I am the one who runs the show.”
What was the secret to his success in ’84?
“I had great control of my pitches and had great confidence,” Hernandez says. “It’s simple. If you paint the corners and get ahead of the hitters then you have no problem at all. If you don’t have that control and get behind, you can kiss it goodbye.”
The memories of ’84 still resonate in the homes of Evans and Hernandez as both proudly display their uniforms, gloves, team photos, and World Series trophies.
“I just need to look at the ring on my finger and it makes me think of everything,” says Evans. “Sports is the greatest especially when you win. You throw 25 guys together from all over, you fight for each other, and when you go through all of that and get the ultimate prize, you’re family forever.”
Both men fondly recall the final out of the Series when leftfielder Larry Herndon came charging towards the foul line to snag Tony Gywnn’s blooper.
“Larry had a bad knee and when the ball was hit I think he went back a bit,’ says Hernandez. “ He was a little late and I thought oh my God, but he caught it right below the knee. It was fantastic. Larry gave me the ball in the dugout and said, ‘you deserve it.’ I have it in my trophy case.”
Evans, who had been substituted by Dave Bergman at first base, tore out of the dugout for the mound after Herndon made the catch.
“I knew it was an out as soon as it was hit,” Evans says. “I had seen those victory celebrations my whole life and I wanted to get right in the middle of it. Looking back, I regret not going back on the field and enjoying it with the fans. But my biggest regret is that my Dad, who had died in the middle of the season wasn’t there to share it with me.”
Following the ’84 championship, Evans and Hernandez were unable to help their teammates capture another World Championship title though the team came close in 1987 when they lost to the Twins in the playoffs despite having the over-all best record in the majors.
In the fourth game of the ’87 playoffs, down 2 games to 1, Evans was picked off third base to end a late inning rally to the dismay and anger of Detroit fans.
But what happened the next day according to Evans became “the best thing that happened to me in baseball.”
As he came to the plate in the fifth game expecting to be showered with boos, Evans, who baseball statistician guru Bill James has called “probably the most underrated player in baseball history,” received an unexpected standing ovation from the Detroit fans who showed their support to a player they respected.
“I couldn’t believe what those fans did. They were hurtin’ and knew I was hurtin’.”
Evans played with the Tigers through 1988 and ended his 21 season, 414 home runs career at age 42 with the Braves in 1989. He later coached one year for the Yankees and also served as a minor league coach with the Tigers, Yankees, and Rockies before briefly managing in the Northern and Atlantic Leagues. Presently he is out of baseball but hopes one day to return as a coach or preferably a manager in the majors.
Although Hernandez, who later insisted that he be called by his given name Guillermo because he didn’t want his son Guillermo to be called “Willie,” had 31 saves in 1985 and was an All-Star from 1984 through 1986, he was never able to recapture the success or the fan’s adulation from 1984.
“I feel that I threw the ball better in ’85” but I think people thought I was going to be perfect every time,” Hernandez says.
It wasn’t long before boo birds at Tiger Stadium got on him while injuries and a lack of confidence reduced his effectiveness. “For me to perform well I needed to get the ball everyday, but they took it away from me,” he says. An elbow injury ended his major league career in 1989.
“Nobody could ever do what Hernandez did for us in ’84, because that’s as good as I have ever seen,” says Sparky Anderson, who believes fans were looking to make Hernandez a scapegoat for the Tigers not repeating. “It’s like anything, once you’re that high, and the high goes, there’s one place to go. I never expected him to be able to do that again.”
Today, after recently selling his construction business in Puerto Rico, Hernandez owns and operates a farm, another boyhood dream. But given the opportunity, he would consider coaching in the major leagues. “Right now, I’m just looking forward to seeing my teammates again,” he says.
Darrell Evans is also excited about returning to the Motor City.
“I can’t believe it’s been twenty years,” he says. “But every time I run into a Tiger fan they tell me where they were when we won the championship. How many things effect people like that? Unfortunately, it’s usually a tragedy. I’m just one of the lucky ones who helped make those great fans feel good.”