Anthony Gose has played a fine center field for the Tigers this year. He’s probably a long shot to win the Gold Glove Award, however. The Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Jones already has four of those beautiful trophies on his shelf, and will probably take one home again this year.
It is hard to believe, but the Tigers have had only three outfielders win a Gold Glove.
Al Kaline won ten. Mickey Stanley won four.
The other is Gary Pettis, who won the award in 1988 and 1989, when he roamed Tiger Stadium for the Old English D.
In his career, Pettis won five Gold Gloves (including two with the California Angels, and one with the Texas Rangers).
To those who saw him, the lithe, 6’1” Pettis played one of the most beautiful centerfields ever. It seemed like he could catch everything, and he often did. His diving snares were the stuff of legend. And he could climb the wall like no one else to take away home runs.
Born in Oakland, California on April 3, 1958, he attended Laney College before being drafted by the Angels in the sixth round of the 1979 amateur draft. He’d hit from the right side all his life, but when scout Loyd Christopher saw Pettis sign his Angel contract with his left hand, the club decided to turn the kid into a switch hitter.
Interestingly, Pettis began his pro career as a shortstop and third baseman. It wasn’t until his second season in the minors, with the Triple-A Salinas Angels, that he became a full-time outfielder.
His ability as a fly chaser was quickly evident. And he had speed to burn, stealing over 50 bases three times in the minors.
His bat, however, was a different story.
Pettis knew he didn’t have a whole lot of power, so developed a short, choppy swing in order to hit the ball on the ground and take advantage of his blazing speed. The problem was that he had an inexplicable tendency to swing right through the ball. For a guy who should have been an ideal leadoff hitter, he struck out way too often.
In six years with the Angels, from 1982 to 1987, Pettis averaged only .242. He had seasons of 115, 125, 132, and 124 strikeouts. And he never hit more than five home runs in any of those years. On the plus side, he stole over 50 bases twice, and established himself as the best centerfielder in the game.
But by 1987, Pettis was completely mixed up at the plate. He finished the year with a .208 batting average. The Angels decided that the Gold Glove outfielder was never going to amount to much as a hitter. On December 5th of that year, they traded Pettis to the Detroit Tigers for pitcher Dan Petry, who was coming off an injury-plagued 9-7 season.
The only problem was that Detroit already had a center fielder in Chet Lemon. Although he was a few years older than Pettis, he was still a fine player. “I’m not going to ruffle any feathers,” said manager Sparky Anderson. “What is going to happen will happen in the spring.” Still, Sparky didn’t hide his admiration for Pettis. “I consider him number one. He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
The Tigers solved their problem by shifting Lemon over to right field, a position he’d played only occasionally in the major leagues. But it was a move that had to be made. The prospect of Pettis gliding after fly balls on the center field green at Tiger Stadium was simply too enticing for Sparky.
Helping Pettis was Vada Pinson, the Tigers hitting coach. Pinson tried to get Pettis to work the count better than he had in the past. The results in 1987 weren’t much better, as he hit .210. Plus, Pettis still struck out as much (slightly more, in fact), but by his second year with the Tigers, he’d increased his base on ball percentage to 15.7 per 100 at-bats (it had been 11.1 for his career prior to 1989), while slightly reducing his strikeout percentage.
If Pettis had been able to make more contact throughout his career, he would have had better success. His lifetime batting average in 11 years was a weak .236 (That’s .239 from the right side and .234 from the left.). By contrast, his career BAbip (Batting Average on Balls in Play) was a much better .313.
Still, in his two summers in Detroit (1988 and 1989), Pettis was as wonderful to watch in centerfield as ever.
His career only lasted three more years. He signed with Texas as a free agent in November of 1989, won another Gold Glove in 1990, and was released in April, 1992. Pettis latched on with the San Diego Padres for a couple of months, before being released again.
On July 4, 1992, he signed a minor-league contract with the Tigers. He played at Triple-A Toledo for several games, and was called back to Detroit at the end of the month. He hit only .202 the rest of the season.
Pettis finished out his playing career in 1993 with the Tacoma Tigers, the Oakland A’s Triple-A affiliate. He later coached for the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets. He is currently the third base coach for the Houston Astros. He and his wife Peggy live in beautiful San Clemente, California. They have two sons and two daughters. One of his sons, Dante, is a sophomore wide receiver at the University of Washington, where he was the Huskies primary punt returner as a freshman in 2014. Gary’s nephew (and Dante’s cousin) is Austin Pettis, who is a wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers.