Remember us? ’87 team gets no love from Tigers 25 years later

After being acquired in August via trade, Doyle Alexander went 9-0 in 11 starts for the Tigers in 1987.

“I remember saying that if people would just not give up on us, and I mean our fans, they’d be smiling a big broad smile at the end of the year.”

That quote is from a grizzled Tigers manager who had faith. And it came 25 years ago. Sure, it could have dripped out of the corner of Jim Leyland’s post-game meal stuff mouthed, but it actually came from Sparky Anderson on October 4, 1987, after his club clinched the division title in thrilling fashion.

“I knew there was talent here,” Sparky beamed.

Eerie, isn’t it?

A quarter of a century after Sparky and His Gang sped past the Toronto Blue Jays to capture the AL East title by two games on the final day, the 2012 Tigers have channeled that same spirit to steal away a division crown in the final days of the season.

In ’87, the Tigers stumbled to an 11-19 record and were languishing in last place in May. Similarly, in 2012, the Tigers scuffled most of the season, frustrating their fans as they failed to run away with a mediocre AL Central division. Finally, helped by a collapse from the Southsiders in Chicago, the Tigers rose to the top and are headed to the post-season again.

Ironically, in a season that in some ways mirrors ’87, no ceremony was held to reunite or honor the the team that posted baseball’s best record 25 years ago and won one of the most exciting races in history.

The Detroit organization is not known for being sentimental, so the fact that Mr. Ilitch didn’t bring back members of that team on their silver anniversary isn’t a shock. But it is a shame.

No, the ’87 team didn’t win the World Series, they didn’t even win the pennant. So, they will always pale in comparison to the darling ’84 club. But they were a great team, a team that in many ways was more well balanced than the World Series team from four years earlier. The personal stories from that team are wonderful too.

Consider Alan Trammell, the formerly light-hitting shortstop who was asked by Sparky to be the cleanup hitter and responded  by hitting .343 with 28 homers and 105 RBI. Tram hit something like .417 in the last five weeks of the season. You could look it up.

How about Darrell Evans, the ancient slugger who clubbed 34 homers at the age of 40 and played in 150 games?

Kirk Gibson was hurt the first month or so of the season (a big reason the Tabbies got out to a weak start), but when he returned he was the Gibby we all remember: stealing bases, running over catchers, crushing mammoth home runs. On the next-to-the-last Sunday of the season, in Toronto, with the Tigs trailing the Jays 1-0 in the 9th inning, Gibson cranked a game-tying homer off Tom Henke. The Tigers won the game in extra-innings and instead of being 4 1/2 games out with seven to go, they were 2 1/2 games out.

There was rookie Jimmy Walewander, who for some reason was called up from Toledo in June and made the Tigers look like geniuses with his gutsy play. In one game in July, Walewander, who was famous for his love of punk rock, slammed a game-winning home run against the Angels in a game where he was filling in for an injured Lou Whitaker. Two days after Gibby’s heroics in Toronto, with Detroit needing every game to catch the Jays, Walewander had three hits in a laugher over the Orioles.

Catcher Lance Parrish had exited Detroit via free agency prior to the season, which is why Sparky needed Trammell to hit cleanup. Not missing much of a beat, rookie Matt Nokes became the regular catcher and quickly showed how much he loved the short porch at Tiger Stadium. Nokes socked 32 homers.

The Tigers hit a lot of home runs that season. Chet Lemon joined Nokes, Gibson, Evans, and Trammell by topping the 20-homer mark. Trusty Tom Brookens was again ensconced at third and he hit 13 jacks too.

Though Brooky was always reliable, as usual the team tried in ’87 to find a bigger bat for the hot corner, and they rolled the dice twice that year via trades. In August they nabbed Jim Morrison from the Pirates and he promptly hit a home run against the Yankees in his first game for Detroit. He hit four homers in his first 17 games for Sparky, all in August when the Tigs were gaining on the Jays. Earlier, in June, GM Bill Lajoie made one of his best moves of the season, signing veteran Bill Madlock as a free agent after the Los Angeles Dodgers had simply released him. The former batting champion may have seemed long in the tooth at 36, but he sparked the Tigers, providing clutch hits and some surprising power with 17 doubles and 14 homers in just half a season in Motown. In a crucial game against the Blue Jays in late September, a hard slide by “Mad Dog” into second base that upended (and injured) shortstop Tony Fernandez set the tone for Detroit’s charge to the division title. Not everyone appreciated the play at the time, however.

“There’s a difference between a hard slide and a dirty slide,”  said Toronto second baseman Nelson Liriano. “That was a dirty slide. It was illegal.”

Illiegal slide or not, Madlock was a critical piece of Sparky’s arsenal in ’87. Holdovers from the 1984 club were still around too: Dave Bergman, Johnny Grubb, and Larry Herndon were role players that season. It was Herndon’s solo homer that provided the margin in the 1-0 victory on the final day of the season that gave Detroit the division.

But the ’87 team was much more than just home run hitting and opportunistic offense. The pitching staff was loaded. At the top of the rotation was Jack Morris, who was ironically booed when he took the mound on opening day. In the off-season, Morris had went through a very public contract fight with the team and nearly bolted the Tigers, something the fans were less than happy about. But Jack sloughed that off and won 18 games, completing 13 of his starts while striking out 208 batters.

No one loved home cooking more than Walt Terrell, who won 17 games while going 13-2 at The Corner. Veteran southpaw Frank Tanana, the Detroit native, won 15 games, tossing three shutouts, including the clincher in Game #162.

But the biggest story of the ’87 season was Doyle Alexander, the veteran right-hander acquired at the trade deadline. The 36-year old, known for his crusty personality, knee-high fastball, and penchant for inducing groundballs, pitched like Cy Young after coming over from the Atlanta Braves. He went 9-0 in 11 starts and posted a 1.53 ERA. He was Doug Fister of 2011, only a lot better. Where would the team have been without Alexander? “In the cemetery,” Sparky quipped.

Armed with the veterans he cherished and youngsters with undeniable talent, Sparky rode those horses as far as he could. Willie Hernandez was still in the bullpen, but Mike Henneman and Eric King also shared closer duties. No Tiger reliever saved as many as 10 games, but four saved between 5-9.

The team went 17-9 in June and were five games back of the Blue Jays. In July the Tigers went 17-9 again, inching within three games of first place. Then they won 19 games in August, moving into the top position for the first time. Toronto and Detroit swiveled back and forth for the rest of the season, all the way through the final three-game series at Tiger Stadium to end the season. But the ’87 Tigers never gave up, as one of the season’s most thrilling games proved.

On June 28, in a Sunday afternoon game against the rival Orioles at Tiger Stadium, Detroit trailed 7-4 in the ninth inning with Baltimore closer Tom Niedenfuer on the mound. Pinch-hitting, Grubb led off and hit a home run into the upper deck in right field. Tigers down two runs. Matt Nokes followed and belted a fastball into the right center field bleachers to pull the Tigers within a run. Next to face Niedenfuer was Madlock, who had already hit two homers that afternoon. Amazingly, Madlock hit another homer, the third straight for the Tigers and his third of the contest. Game tied. Two innings later Trammell singled in the winning run. It was a magical season in Detroit, one worth remembering.

18 replies on “Remember us? ’87 team gets no love from Tigers 25 years later

  • Chuck Wood

    Thanks for bringing back the memories. Many Tiger fans have forgotten the ’87 run. Dolyle Alexander was phenominal.

  • Rick Roenicke

    Dan, do you realize we gave up future hof’er John Smoltz for one year wonder Alexander? GREAT trade! But ole Sparky was just like Leyland. Never trust a 22 year old when you can get a 37 year old. It never stops amazing me when people talk about the great history of Detroit sports. What great history? Before most of us were born? Tiger’s 2 championships in the last 67 years? Doesn’t that match the Florida Marlins? Lions? ZERO championships in 55 years! Great history! I feel for all you die hard Lions fans out there who support them. I however gave up on them in 1970 right after the 5-0 playoff loss to Dallas. Have not rooted for them since and will not until Ford Sr. is gone. He has gotten rich off of all you fans while destroying what WAS a great team. His legacy is pure losing!Pistons? The thugs who won 2 titles and destroyed the beauty of basketball by turning it into street muggings? Add one more and you have 3 in over 60 years! As for the Wings? Well thanks to Mr. Illitch that team has restored and did have a great history. All in all 4 teams 9 championships in over 60 years which means 240 chances for titles and they have given us on average 1 every 26 years and people talk about the great history of Detroit sports? One more thing trivia fans. Name the last Tiger hof’er that came through their farm system. Hint, it was not AL Kaline he never played in the minors. Give up? ZERO! Hate on me all you want but like people say. You can look it up!

  • Dan Holmes


    I love your passion for sports, but I don’t agree with your point about Detroit history. Here at our blog we’re celebrating the history of Detroit sports, we have never claimed that Detroit is the most successful sports city. We haven’t been, but we’ve had some great memories in this city, from Ty Cobb and Wahoo Sam, to Joe Louis, to Bobby Layne, and Al Kaline, Billy Sims, Dave Bing, the Bad Boys, Sparky, and on and on. We celebrate the memories and the great (and good and sometimes mediocre but fun to watch) players because that’s what draws us to sports. If it was ALL about winning the games, we’d always be disappointed. Even the Yankees have failed to win the pennant more than 70 years.

    As to John Smoltz – yes we traded away a future (possible) Hall of Famer – the point of the article was to celebrate the 1987 season. We have run other articles about the trade and Smoltz here.

    In regards to the Tigers having not produced a Hall of Famer through their own farm system, you’re mistaken. First – it’s a little silly to say Kaline wasn’t a product of the Tiger system just because he was so good he never played in the minor leagues. A Tiger scout (a very good and famous one) scouted him, and he was mentored and tutored by Tiger coaches and veteran players.

    Second, Jim Bunning was signed by the Tigers and is in the Hall of Fame. He pitched nine seasons for the Tigs and was in their farm system for five seasons as well.

    Third, you seem to think Smoltz is a no-brainer Hall of Famer, but he probably isn’t. You probably think he’s of teh quality to at least be considered (and I agree). But if that’s the case, you have to acknowledge that the Tigers have several players who are among the best at their position who are not in the HOF. In fact, Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, and Lou Whitaker are considered by most experts as being the biggest snubs for the HOF ever. All three came up through the Tiger system. In addition, Mickey Lolich has been on the HOF veterans ballot numerous times, often as one of only 4-5 pitchers to be considered. He was drafted by the Tigers.

    In my opinion, saying the Tigers have had a poor farm system because only two Tigers draft picks (Kaline and Bunning) have been elected to the HOF, is a curious argument. Why is HOF election used as criteria? Writers vote and they can make mistakes. The Tigers 1970s drafts were some of the best in baseball HISTORY, let alone for their era. Other much more noted baseball historians than me have made that same argument (Bill James for example). In the 1970s alone, Detroit produced Morris, Whitaker, Trammell, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Dan Petry, Mark Fidrych, Steve Kemp, ron LeFlore, and Jason Thompson. All of those players were All-Stars except Gibson, and he won an MVP Award. In fact, in the 1970s and early 1980s the Tigers were singled out as the shining example of how a franchise could use scouting and player development to be competitive as opposed to just signing free agents.

    I didn’t even get into the 1960s when the Detroit farm system produced Lolich, Denny McLain, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, John Hiller, Jim Northrup, Dick McAuliffe, all of whom were All-Stars and had long careers.

    I appreciate your comment, but I think you are wide and outside on a lot of this. Keep reading!

  • L.A. Tigers Fan

    The ’87 Tigers get plenty of love from me that summer was soo special. I remebering playing hooky from school (10th grade) just to see a game I am from L.A. so we did not get Tigers game plans back then, if there was a game on T.V I made sure not to miss it. I followed every game with the sports page the next day. WOW!!!! Tammell & Whitaker I will never forget the 87 tigers Thanks for the memories.

  • J. Conrad Guest

    And sadly, all that many seem to recall is that we traded John Smoltz for Alexander. Sometimes you have to make that trade for the moment and let the cards fall where they may.

  • Dan Holmes

    Really good point, J. Conrad. It’s easy to look at it with hindsight, but at the time the Tigers were trying to win their second WS in four years. I am glad they went for it.

  • J. Conrad Guest

    Rick: there is more to great sports history than the number of championships a team wins.

    That the Tigers can’t match championships with the Yankees doesn’t mean the Detroit franchise is any less storied. The Tigers go back to the late nineteenth century, changing their name from the Wolverines to the Tigers before the turn of the last century. The Yankees, known as the Highlanders, didn’t come into existence until 1905 and became the Yankees in 1913.

    I’d take Cobb over Ruth any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Cobb revolutionized baseball and brought a brand of game no fan had ever seen. Frustrating that he never won a championship; but it wasn’t his fault that ownership didn’t surround him with better players, failing to sign the Big Train (Walter Johnson) when he was affordable.

    We had Prince Hal, Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenburg in the forties, and Al Kaline was surrounded by a colorful cast of characters in the sixties. Norm Cash won a batting crown using corked bats, and once tried to face Nolan Ryan with a table leg during one of Ryan’s no-hit gems. When the umpire sent him back to get a bat, Cash quipped that he couldn’t do much worse against Ryan with a table leg.

    We had Morris, Gibson, Parrish, Whitaker and Trammell in the eighties, managed by a Hall of Fame manager. Whitaker and Trammell should be in the Hall of Fame as a duo; their numbers are better than others at their positions who have less worthy numbers. They, too, were surrounded by role-players. In 1984 they set a major league record by starting the season at 35-5. Jack Morris no-hit the White Sox that year.

    A couple years ago Armando Galarraga threw the only perfect game in MLB history that will never appear in any record book.

    Now we have Verlander, who has thrown two no-hitters and won the Cy Young and MVP, Cabrera, who earned the Triple Crown and is a perennial MVP, Austin Jackson roams center field like Cobb, and Prince Fielder, also surrounded by role players. They may well be in the ALCS by next weekend. Maybe they won’t make it to the World Series, and if they do, maybe they won’t win it; but they’ve given us plenty of great moments and memories.

    I wouldn’t trade the Tigers’ history for the Yankees’ at any price. The Yankees have proven that money doesn’t always buy championships, even if they have won the World Series more than anyone else.

    A great post, Dan! Keep up the great work.

  • Dan Holmes

    That’s good advice for this post-season for Tigers fans. We should enjoy the games as much as we can, we don’t know when we’ll get this opportunity to see our team play on the big stage again.

  • Gary Steinke

    The Tigers got just what they wanted when they traded Alexander for Smoltz, a playoff appearance, and if I remember correctly Alexander had a few more good years with the Tigers. When you trade a farmhand you’re taking a gamble because you don’t know what that farmhand will do in the Majors. For what the Tigers wanted in 1987, the Smoltz for Alexander was a good trade. Speaking of trades, what do you think we can get for Valverde and Benoit? Maybe 2 rocks?

  • Dan Holmes

    I agree with you Gary, you have to go for it when you have a chance to win the whole thing. that’s why it baffles me that the Nats shut down their best pitcher this year after 180 innings.

  • Gary Steinke

    Dan, isn’t that crazy what Washington did. You play the regular season to get into the playoffs, and to win in the playoffs you need your best players.

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