September Tigers baseball was never better than in 1987

Winning pitcher Frank Tanana is congratulated by teammate Lou Whitaker after the Tigers clinched the AL East on the final day of the 1987 season.

Winning pitcher Frank Tanana is congratulated by teammate Lou Whitaker after the Tigers clinched the AL East on the final day of the 1987 season.

Memorable Septembers in Detroit Tiger history certainly include 1968 (because of Denny McLain’s thirtieth win as well as the pennant-clinching victory and the celebration that followed). September 1984, though, was merely just the inevitable climax of something that had been expected since May. And more recent Septembers don’t hold nearly as many special moments in part because getting to the post-season now is merely gaining entrance to preliminary qualifying rounds of playoffs.

In my view, however, 1987 was one of the most exciting years in Tiger history. In my lifetime, only 1968 surpasses it for sheer joy and drama. Even though 1987 ended in disappointment, the last month of the season was thrilling —a sweet, nail-biting culmination of an amazing comeback.

Detroit had a veteran team that year, one that had passed the prime of its 1984 high-water mark, but with many of the same players. The Tigers started out dismally, bottoming out on May 11 when a loss to the Angels put them solidly in the basement of the AL East with a dismal 11-19 record. The crowd at Tiger Stadium that day was pathetically small—announced at 11,079 because it included season ticket holders. The Red Wings’ playoff games were vastly outdrawing the Tiger games that month. And no wonder.

I don’t know if there was a team meeting after that loss, but Detroit beat the Angels 15-2 the following day and then won thirteen of its next fifteen games to right the ship. Still, it was a long, arduous climb into contention. By July 2, they were still in third place, six and a half games out of first.

By late September, however, the Tigers had finally almost caught the first-place Blue Jays, who they would face in two series over the final two weekends of the season. En route to Toronto, they were just a half-game back, but then they lost three games each by one run to Toronto and were looking down the barrel of a long, cold winter. In the finale of the series on Sunday, Sept. 27, Detroit eked out a 3-2 win in the thirteenth inning when Kirk Gibson drove in Jim Walewander (one of the great forgotten names in team history) with the winning run. That put them back within two and a half games of the Jays with a week left. The Tigers returned home to split four games against Baltimore while Toronto helpfully dropped three straight to Milwaukee and came to Detroit clinging to a one-game lead.

That season, “September” included the first weekend in October. In fact, the opener of the final regular season series on Friday night, October 2, felt more like late November. I sat with friends in the bleachers as snow flurries flew around on cold winds with the temperature barely (and only technically) above freezing. Doyle Alexander made a 4-3 lead in the third stand up through seven innings, and Mike Henneman pitched two innings for the save. The Tigers and Jays were even.

The next afternoon I sat way back in the steep rows in the upper deck behind home plate (excellent seats nonetheless) and saw another nail-biter. The game was tied 2-2 after five innings and stayed that way for another six. Jack Morris went nine innings and Henneman three more. In the bottom of the eleventh, with one out, Lou Whitaker and Bill Madlock singled. Walewander (there he is again) ran for Sweet Lou. Gibson walked to load the bases. Alan Trammell hit what looked like a double-play grounder to shortstop Manuel Lee. In my recollection the ball went right through his legs; however, it was scored as a walk-off single. As a result the Tigers led the division by a game. Their comeback was nearly complete.

The Tigers still needed to win the final game to avoid a 163rd-game playoff against Toronto. I was again in the upper deck behind the infield as southpaws Frank Tanana and Jimmy Key squared off. In the bottom of the second, Larry Herndon hit a fly ball to left field that barely carried over the fence. Detroit got only two other hits, but Tanana shut down the Jays. In the top of the ninth, Tanana struck out Cecil Fielder and then got two grounders. I can still see the last bounce-out to the mound and Tanana flipping it to Darrell Evans for the final out.

Three one-run victories to cap the season! — each of them the tensest games imaginable. Somehow, the Tigers had emerged from the dead. They’d gone 87-45 since that day in May, and I believe this was Sparky Anderson’s best season (he was always better at handling veterans than rookies).

But it was clear the Tigers were spent — drained of energy by the long march to the division crown and the grueling final seven games against Toronto. The ensuing playoff series against Minnesota was a vast disappointment, and the division title came at a big price, namely, John Smoltz, who was traded for Alexander. Even so, that final month (plus a weekend) of the season is indelible in the Tiger corner of my mind.

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