As spring training was winding down in 1984, Sparky Anderson asked general manager Bill Lajoie to meet with him in his office at the Tigertown complex in Lakeland. He had a specific topic in mind.
Sparky knew his team was poised to make a run at a division title. But he also knew it wouldn’t be easy. Their challengers would be many, starting with the defending world champion Orioles, but including the talented Brewers, the always dangerous Yankees, and even the young Blue Jays. All of those teams had won at least 87 games in the tough AL East in 1983.
Lajoie had barely gotten into his chair when Anderson started his sales pitch: he needed a lefthanded reliever to balance his bullpen. Sparky wanted a marquee relief pitcher, preferred someone who had experience pitching late in games. A few names were thrown out: Sparky loved Gary Lavelle, the lefty in San Francisco, and he liked Al Holland of the Phillies. Terry Forster and Sid Monge were mentioned. Lajoie liked a young pitcher on the White Sox named Juan Agosto. After several minutes with Sparky promising that a lefty reliever would make his team championship quality, Lajoie agreed to make some calls.
Just a few weeks before the Tigers broke camp to start the regular season, Lajoie pulled the trigger on a trade with the Phillies to get first baseman Dave Bergman and a relief pitcher named Willie Hernandez. When he told Sparky about the deal, the silver-haired Tiger skipper didn’t even mind that the cost was young outfielder Glenn Wilson and catcher John Wockenfuss. Sparky was just ecstatic to get Hernandez. “When they got Hernandez,” Sparky said, “I said ‘No one can stop us’ “.
The trade that brought Bergman and Hernandez to Detroit has become known as one the greatest in Detroit sports history. Hernandez was nearly unhittable in 1984, and the Tigers won the World Series. But there’s a lot more to the story of the two players that came to Detroit in that March 1984 deal.
This is the third in our series on the players of the 1984 Detroit Tigers.
MVP and Cy Young winner Willie Hernandez
The left-handed relief specialist had two lives with the Detroit Tigers. In one he was heralded as the savior in a championship season, the golden arm entrusted with striking the final blows of victory, his hands thrust triumphantly into the air at the climactic moment of the season.
In the other he was a fall guy riddled with boos like a villain in a Saturday matinee. In the first life he was known as “Willie,” in the other he went by “Guillermo.”
When the team announced that they had acquired Hernandez in a last-second spring training trade in 1984, the reaction was swift and universally negative. Hardly anyone knew much about Willie and Dave Bergman, the other player who came to the Tigers in the trade. But it was who the Tigers lost that peeved their fans. To get the lefthanded reliever, the club had parted with young outfielder Glenn Wilson and popular utility man John Wockenfuss. It didn’t matter how excited manager Sparky Anderson was about the deal, the fans were not happy.
“When they got me [Hernandez], I knew we’d won the pennant,” Sparky later said.
Whether the Detroit skipper was really that confident or not, we’ll never know, but Hernandez was brimming with confidence. It was a key component of his game.
When Hernandez entered a game from the relative mystery of the bullpen he was a picture of poise. His back was straight, his posture perfect, his chest thrust forward. There was no fidgeting once he was one the mound, he was all business.
By the time the Tigers had bounded out to a 35-5 record the anger over the trade was largely forgotten in Tiger Nation. The team was winning rather easily and Willie was not drawing much special attention. But by the end of the 1984 season the fans, his teammates, and the rest of the American League realized how special the lefty was as he produced one of finest seasons ever by a relief pitcher.
Hernandez was 32-for-33 in save opportunities in 1984, his only failure coming late in the season. He pitched in an amazing 80 games and finished 68 of them while logging an incredible 140 1/3 innings. It was the type of workload rarely seen from a bullpen warrior, but Hernandez strutted in each time he was summoned by Sparky, slaying opposing batters time and time again. He struck out 112 batters and posted a 1.92 ERA, serving as the exclamation point in victory after victory.
Willie was on the mound when the team clinched the division title, the pennant, and finally the World Series at Tiger Stadium. It was a dream season.
In true “what have you done for me lately” fashion, two years later Hernandez was hearing boos when he entered games. His crime? He wasn’t as perfect as he’d been in 1984. In truth, Hernandez had been very effective in 1985 and 1986 before suffering an injury the following season. But what happened in 1988 was truly unforgivable as far as Detroit fans were concerned. That year, Hernandez decided that he no longer wanted to be called by the Anglicized version of his first name and instead preferred to be known by his given name: Guillermo.
Under the “new” name, Hernandez was hounded by fans and retaliated with a surly season. He eventually got himself into a controversy when he poured a bucket of water on a sportswriter in the clubhouse and after an injury in 1989 he tossed his final pitch in the big leagues.
For one season and then a few more, Hernandez was one of the most beloved figures in Detroit sports history. In 1984 he was as automatic as anyone ever was in his role. Largely because of his efforts, that season was magical in the city.
Bergie: the Consummate Professional
Dave Bergman was a 17-year veteran of the major leagues where he was one of the most versatile and valuable utility players in modern history.
When Bergman arrived in a trade from the Phillies just prior to the end of spring training in 1984 it was an unpopular move. John Wockenfuss, a popular role player, was dealt away in the deal that brought Bergman and Willie Hernandez to the Tigers. Few knew what to make of the transaction, but it didn’t take long for Bergman to make an impression. In the first week of the season, on April 7, in a nationally televised Saturday game, Jack Morris carried a no-hitter late into the afternoon at old Comiskey Park in Chicago. Manager Sparky Anderson inserted Bergman into the game at first base in the bottom of the seventh inning. As if he had a magnet in his glove, Bergman found himself in the mix on practically every out the rest of the way. He fielded a grounder to his right and flipped the ball to Morris to end the seventh, and in the eighth he made two plays on grounders, one of them a dazzling pick of a hard-hit ball that he ranged far to his right to grab. It was Bergie’s coming out party as a Tiger.
If the Morris no-hitter was when Detroit fans learned who Bergman was, a game against Toronto in June was when fans fell in love with him. Bergman came to the plate at Tiger Stadium in a tie game in the tenth inning and two men on base in a game at Tiger Stadium on June 4th against the Blue Jays, their sole challenger that season. Facing Toronto reliever Roy Lee Jackson, Bergman fouled off the first five pitches and nine overall in a grueling battle. On the 13th pitch he smacked a low breaking ball to right field that traveled into the upper deck for a three-run walkoff home run. It was his masterpiece as a member of the Tigers, an epic at-bat that epitomized the toughness of that team and of Dave Bergman.
David Bruce Bergman was born on June 6, 1953, in Evanston, Illinois, and grew up a fan of the Chicago Cubs. Ernie Banks was Bergman’s favorite player when he was a boy. After a fine prep athletic career at Maine South High in Park Ridge, Bergman was selected by the Cubs in the 1971 amateur draft but chose to go to college at tiny Illinois State. In college he displayed a tremendous work ethic and ended up earning All-American status, the first for that school. The Yankees drafted Bergman in 1974 and he proceeded to win two batting titles in the minor leagues, eventually earning a brief summons to the Yanks during the ’75 season.
Bergman was a left-hander, both at the plate and with the glove. He was tall and slender at 6-foot-1, but muscular enough at 185 pounds to pack some pop in his bat. Despite opening eyes with his batting titles as a Yankee farmhand, Bergman quickly drew praise for his glove work.
“I always worked hard to be a good fielder,” Bergman said years later. “If I could help my team with my glove I wanted to do that. Defense is just as important as any part of the game.”
Stuck in a logjam as an outfielder in the Yankees’ system, Bergman was dealt to the Houston Astros in November of 1977. The Trade changed Bergman’s fortunes forever. Bill Virdon, the Houston manager, gave the young ballplayer advice that made Bergman rethink his approach to the game. “He told me I could play 15 years in the major leagues if I started to accept the job I was best suited for,” Bergman recalled later. That job was as a utility player.
Resigned to his role as a part-time outfielder, defensive first base replacement, and occasional pinch-hitter, Bergman’s career took off in Houston and later in San Francisco in the early 1980s. It was with the Giants that Bergman played under Frank Robinson who taught him to pay attention to the fine details of the game. His diligence paid off — Bergman spent 17 years in the majors despite rarely being given a starting role.
When Bergman came to Detroit in ’84 he quickly earned a fan in manager Sparky Anderson.
“In all the years I’ve managed Dave, there’s never been one time – not one game – that he didn’t come to the park ready to play,” Sparky said of Bergman.
Bergman started two games in the 1984 World Series though he failed to get a hit in the Fall Classic. It hardly mattered to Dave however, who was immensely proud of being a part of that championship team. He was on the field at first base for the final outs of Game Five when Tiger Stadium went delirious. When Bergman joined his teammates for the 25th anniversary of that title in 2009 he proclaimed the ’84 season as the proudest accomplishment of his career.
Bergman played nine seasons with the Tigers, finally hanging up his spikes after the 1992 season. He was, along with Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Kirk Gibson, one of the last players from the ’84 team to wear a Detroit uniform as a player.
Bergman was never a star on the diamond, though his home run in ’84 at Tiger Stadium after that 13-pitch at-bat remains one of the most famous moments in Tiger history. He was immensely proud to have been a big leaguer, proud to have won a World Series ring in 1984, and proud to call Detroit his home.
After a battle with illness, Bergman died at the age of 61 on February 2, 2015, in Detroit.