By the early 1990s, the Detroit Tigers felt like an old television show that was in reruns. Sure, you might watch an episode or two, and it might make you feel pretty good and bring back a flood of warm memories. But it also felt a bit dated. Of another time.
In some ways, the team was remarkably well preserved: Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whitaker were still in the lineup. A little heavier around the waist, and a little slower, but still fan favorites. In the manager’s office was the grey-haired chatterbox George “Sparky” Anderson, who narrated each season like an optimistic uncle telling you stories of past glory.
But the Tigers didn’t feel like a club that scared anyone. Something felt a bit off about the early 1990s Tigers, a team recently sold to a new pizza magnate, failed minor league ballplayer Mike Ilitch.
In 1992, Detroit became only the second team in history to lead the majors in scoring but allow more runs than they scored.
The team had even briefly relieved Ernie Harwell of his job, and then they changed their road uniforms, and even painted Tiger Stadium. Were the Tigers trying to forget their past?
But then in spring training in 1993, a bolt of energy struck the team from a familiar source.
Kirk Gibson signed a free agent deal with his hometown Tigers in the 1992-93 offseason. Most observers were expecting little from the former Detroit outfielder. In 1992, the Pirates had released Gibson after he failed to hit as high as .200 in a limited trial. But Gibson was hiding a secret.
“My legs were never healthy,” Gibson said of his 1992 season. “And my legs are my whole game.”
In 1993 in Lakeland, it became clear that Gibby’s legs were fine.
Still, the addition of an over-the-hill outfielder didn’t give cause for high hopes in 1993. The Tigers were picked to finish sixth in the American League East by The Sporting News. This was a team too long in the tooth, and too one-dimensional.
“I’ve got a feeling about this team”
The Tigers opening day roster included 32-year old Rob Deer, 35-year old Dan Gladden, 34-year old Tony Phillips, 32-year old Mickey Tettleton, the 36-year old Gibson, and a pair of keystone landmarks in the case of Trammell and Whitaker, who were 35 and 36 respectively. The clubhouse was filled with veterans, many of whom did not look impressive in spring training.
To the surprise of everyone, the team made a statement in April. On April 13, the Tigers came home from a season-opening road trip to play the Oakland A’s. In an afternoon Opening Day home game, the Tigers offense erupted for 20 runs. “Fruit Loops” Tettleton hit two home runs, and young star Travis Fryman drove in five runs. “Big Daddy” Cecil Fielder had four hits. After the Tigers went 7-1 on that first homestand, their slugging cleanup man was impressed.
“I’ve got a feeling about this team, Cecil Fielder said.
On April 17, the Tigers scored 20 against Seattle. Four Tiger batters: Fryman, Fielder, Chad Kreuter, and Gary Thurman. A three-run homer exploded off the bat of Deer, and Tettleton had four RBI. It was a shocking outburst of offense…again.
In late April in Minnesota, the Tigers swept the Twins by the scores of 12-4, 17-1, and 16-5. These were football scores. When the month closed and the dust had settled, Detroit had scored 169 runs for 7.6 runs per game. In early May the team scored 30 runs in a three-game series in Toronto. The run-scoring was gaining attention across baseball. It had been years since the Tigers had been in a real division race.
“The team is more than one guy,” Tony Phillips said. “Why does that surprise everybody? Cecil drove in 124 runs last year, right? How many did we score?”
The league was paying attention to the high-scoring Bengals, who scored at least 16 runs in five games in April.
“They remind me a lot of the ’82 Brewers,” Oakland pitcher Storm Davis said. “There isn’t an easy out in the lineup, especially [at Tiger Stadium]. They are never going to be out of a game.”
Through June 20, the Tigers were 43-25 and 13 games ahead of the Red Sox. The Sporting News and SPORT magazine ran in-depth features on the surprising Tigers and the sluggers up and down the order. Sparky filled reporter’s notebooks with quotes.
Early in the season, Anderson reached a magic milestone: getting his 2,000th win when the Tigers rallied for two runs off A’s closer Dennis Eckersley. It made Sparky just the seventh skipper to get to 2,000 W’s. It felt like Anderson might be in the Motor City forever.
The Tigers extended Anderson’s contract through 1995, reportedly for $1 million for that extra year. Sparky was incredibly grateful.
“Never in my career have I been given this generous a thing, not even close. That’s a nice feeling because they don’t do that unless they respect you.” Anderson even hinted that if he wasn’t asked to manage after 1995, he would want to be involved in Detroit in some other way.
Gibson played like a man possessed in his return to the Old English D. In April he batted .407 with a .661 slugging percentage.
It felt a lot like 1984: one day Whitaker smacked a walkoff single to win a game, the same day that Gibson hit his first Tiger Stadium homer since 1987. A few days later, Gibson started a two-out rally with a single and a stolen base, and scored moments later on a single by Alan Trammell.
Detroit fans had seen Gibby play well in the past, but there was something different about the fuzzy-faced, but more mature outfielder this time around.
“I’ve mellowed and matured a lot,” Gibson said. “When I first came up here, I was young, a wild stallion. And I made a lot of mistakes. Now I’ve got my priorities in order – starting with family – and this time around maybe I appreciate things more.”
Gibson admitted that as a young player he had been difficult at times. But the reaction of fans at Tiger Stadium to his first plate appearance back with Detroit caught him off guard.
“I had a hard time controlling myself. I was so emotional, for that to happen with all the memories and my boys sitting there,” Gibson said of getting a standing ovation at The Corner.
Good Times Could Not Last
After building a lead in the AL East in late June, the Tigers came back to earth with a ca-thud! Following a 43-25 start, Detroit limped to a 13-31 record while Boston went 32-11. That placed Detroit 7 1/2 behind the Sox in the AL East on August 8th.
What happened? Reality happened.
Closer Mike Henneman became inconsistent, and finally had to be removed from his job. There were injuries to Tettleton and Deer, and Fielder played much of the summer on a sore ankle, which limited his attempt to lead baseball in RBI for a fourth straight season.
Anderson started to hear boos at Tiger Stadium when he went to the mound to replace a floundering pitcher.
“I never worry about the boos” Sparky insisted. “The fans have a right to do that if they want. I try not to listen; it might be someone in my family.
“The key is pitching. You won’t win too much with firepower, we’ve proved that. If we don’t get pitching, it doesn’t matter if we run nine Mickey Mantle’s up there.”
The pitching staff wasn’t up to the task, they ended the season with a 4.65 ERA (12th out of 14 teams in the American League). You can only outslug the other team for so long.
Detroit finished 85-77, tied for third, 10 games behind the Blue Jays. They did spend 44 straight days in first place. The last two Detroit teams to do that were the 1984 and 1968 clubs.
In 1994, the Tigers went 7-14 in April and looked even older. The team finished in last place for just the second time in 50 years. Then, in 1995 Whitaker retired, the next year Trammell followed, and Fielder was traded. By that time, Sparky was gone too, exiled (or blackballed) from baseball due to his stand against replacement players.
For three high-scoring months, the 1993 Tigers were thrilling to watch. The offense, fueled largely by veterans, put up eye-popping numbers. But, once they settled back to the middle of the pack, all that was left were the boxscores and memories of what ended up being the last hurrah of the Sparky Anderson era.