Remembering Dave Bergman, World Champion and a fine man

Dave Bergman's epic 13-pitch at-bat on June 4, 1984 is one of the most famous moments in Detroit sports history.

Dave Bergman’s epic 13-pitch at-bat on June 4, 1984 is one of the most famous moments in Detroit sports history.

Former Detroit Tiger Dave Bergman, a member of the 1984 World Championship Detroit Tigers, died on Monday after a long battle with cancer.

Bergman was a loving father, friend to many, a longtime Detroit resident, a fine member of the community, and a 17-year veteran of the major leagues where he was one of the most versatile and valuable utility players in recent 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 with fans. 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 ddin’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 Tigers’ fans learned to love him. The Blue Jays were the lone challenger to the Tigers in ’84 when Bergman came to the plate at Tiger Stadium in a tie game in the 10th inning and two men on base on June 4th. Facing Toronto reliever Roy Lee Jackson, Bergman fouled off the first five pitches and nine overall to battle to a 3-2 count. 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, who passed away just a few days ago, 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 and Lou Whitaker, one of the last three players from the ’84 team to wear a Detroit uniform.

Before his career as a player was over, Bergman began a career as a financial planner, ultimately helping to build a company with more than $500 million in assets under their control. His clients knew Bergman as a consummate professional, just as he’d been on the diamond.

I met Bergie in 2004 when he helped the Baseball Hall of Fame with a fantasy camp in Cooperstown. He’d been invited to participate by Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey, like me, a Michigan native. Bergie quickly became one of my favorite ballplayers. He treated everyone with respect. He didn’t have an ego, he was just as comfortable and personable talking to a Hall of Fame player as he was with a middle-aged baseball fan who was there to live out a lifelong dream of being a “ballplayer.” Over the years at that camp, Bergman became the commissioner, making sure the event went off without a hitch and adding many fine touches to make it more enjoyable. He loved to be in uniform on a baseball field.

It was almost impossible not to become a friend of Dave Bergman, he was nice to everyone and wanted to make you feel important. I was happy to get to know him over the years, and even if I hadn’t seen him or talked to him for a while, he always greeted me with “Holmsie” when I saw him.

Steve Thomas, the owner of the Detroit Athletic Co. had a long, close friendship with Bergman, who made Detroit his home and often talked to Steve about whatever project he had going on. Bergie was very involved with charity organizations such as the Joe Niekro Foundation, named for his former teammate on the Astros who died from a brain aneurysm. Bergman organized  many events and corralled his former teammates to make appearances. Thomas donated items to charity auctions and formed a bond with Bergman. About a year ago, Bergman stopped by to see Thomas at the store and handed his friend a glove, one he had used during his big league career. Though Thomas insisted the glove should go to a family member, Bergie replied, “I’ve already taken care of all of them.” The glove remains a cherished item to Thomas.

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.

Even though he’s gone now, Detroit will always be proud to have Bergie as one of our own too.