There’s an old saying in baseball that goes something like this: “The games in April count just as much as the games in September.”
Of course that’s true, but it’s never been more true than in 1984, when the Detroit Tigers enjoyed the greatest month any baseball team has probably ever had in the history of the grand old game. From no-no’s to blowouts to winning streaks to unlikely heroes and an unbelievable won/loss record, the Tigers erupted from the gate in ’84 like a thoroughbred onto a fresh track.
Every game the Tigers won that April – 18 in all – counted just as much as any other time of the season, but there was something about the way the team won that marked them as one of the greatest teams ever. The Tigers awesome start proved to be a devastating knockout punch that sent the rest of the teams in the league to the canvas.
Like the 2013 Tigs, the ’84 team was expected to be good – selected by many to win the AL East. But a couple of nasty birds – the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays – were also very talented. Amazingly, however, Detroit buried their competition in the first month of the season.
The ’84 season started with an 8-1 victory over the Twins in Minnesota as Jack Morris twirled a gem. After the contest, manager Sparky Anderson noticed the determination in his club. “This team came to play.” Over the next few weeks they would show how unstoppable they had become.
Another victory in Minnesota was followed by a win over the White Sox in Chicago for their home opener. That was Friday, and the next afternoon on national television, Morris made the young season even more magical. He fired a no-hitter – the first by a Detroit pitcher in 26 years. The game featured a few dazzling plays by first baseman Dave Bergman, who had been acquired just a few days earlier at the end of spring training. When Morris got Ron Kittle to strike out for the final out, he jumped into the arms of catcher Lance Parrish to celebrate. Five days later, Morris won again, giving him three wins in Detroit’s first 7 games as they vanquished the Rangers, 9-4. At 7-0, the Tigers had achieved the best start in franchise history.
The only thing that could stop the Motown juggernaut was Mother Nature – four days of rain and snow kept the Tigers off the field after their 7-0 start. “At this rate we may go undefeated for the season,” Sparky quipped.
But on April19th, after running their record to 9-0 with a 10-inning win the previous day, the Tigers suffered their first loss of the ’84 campaign. A rookie right-hander named Bret Saberhagen, showing why he would win the Cy Young in ’85 as a 21-year old, stymied the hot Detroit sticks. But Detroit shook that off and reeled off 7 straight wins after that, including a doubleheader sweep of the Twins at Tiger Stadium. Morris won the opener to improve to 4-0, and Parrish smacked a three-run homer in the nightcap. The team was 16-1 after two more victories over the Texas Rangers. It was a wonderful time to be a Tiger fan.
On April 27, Detroit lost to the Cleveland Indians at Tiger Stadium, but even that loss was an epic game – going 19 innings before the Tribe pushed across four runs on three Tiger errors. The next day, Morris won again, going the distance as he allowed just three hits. But Dan Petry decided to outdo him the next day, flirting with a no-hitter into the 8th inning before settling for a one-hit gem. The Tigers finished the April portion of their schedule with an 18-2 record, putting them 6 full games ahead of the Blue Jays, with the defending World Series champion Orioles 10 games behind, well in the rear view mirror.
For the month, the team was perfect on the road, going 8-0. They pummeled teams with an offensive barrage that often started in the very first inning, with the tandem of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell sparking the lineup from the top. Trammell (who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in April) hit safely in 19 of the team’s 20 games, lifting his average to Ted Williams territory over .400. Parrish, Kirk Gibson, and Darrell Evans were slugging the ball out of the park. Barbaro Garbey, a rookie infielder who escaped Castro’s Cuba on a raft just a few years earlier, was also red-hot – hitting over .370 in April. Everything was clicking for the Tigers – offense, pitching, defense.
The bullpen was a two-headed monster of Willie Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez – a lefty and righty duo equally capable of slamming the door late in games, though the Tigers rarely needed a save in the first month of the season.
After April, the Tigers led the league in runs, fewest runs allowed, best ERA by the starting pitchers, best ERA by the relievers, extra-base hits, and home runs. Before most teams had even gotten warmed up, the Tigers had already roared out of the gate and were threatening to lap their competition. After a few days early when they were tied for 1st, Detroit went into 1st place alone and would stay there for a record 177 days by themselves. Not since the 1927 Yankees – the famed Murderers’ Row – had an AL team been in first place for an entire season.
“The Tigers have made Detroit baseball crazy,” wrote Sports Illustrated. The turnstiles were clicking as tens of thousands of fans were flowing into Tiger Stadium at The Corner.
“There was something spellbinding about ’84,” Tiger coach Billy Consolo remembered years later. “The ballpark was buzzing all season long.”
Indeed, this was the season when “The Wave” became a fan favorite in Tiger Stadium. The 72-year old ballpark almost seemed to sway and shake at the foundation when 45,000+ fans stood and sat in unison. By the summer, The wave was a staple in Detroit and would become popular all over the country.
With the club off to such an incredible start, spectacular things seemed possible. Could the team win 112 games and break the big league record? Would they clinch the division title before September? Could Morris, with a perfect 5-0 mark in April (which he would eventually run to 10-) win 30 games?
Sitting in the catbird seat, the Bengals were the toast of the baseball world. Sparky wrote in his diary, “No Tiger team has ever had an 18-2 April. I never dreamed we would – May might even be better!”
The white-haired skipper was almost correct. In May, Detroit would run their mark to an incredible 35-5, setting a record with 17 consecutive wins on the road. They would go 19-7 for that month and never look back. It was a season for the ages, one that started with a great month of April.