The Trade That Won a Pennant

Bill Lajoie had no way of knowing that the trade would have the hot stove league second guessing him for decades. It was August 12 of 1987. The Tigers had won it all just three years earlier, and after watching disappointing third place finishes in ’85 and ’86, Detroit fans were clamoring for a winner. Lajoie had a chance to pick up a guy he knew could help. The Atlanta Braves would deal Doyle Alexander, a 17-game winner in both ’84 and ’85, for the right pitching prospect. It was almost a no-brainer – a lanky 19 year old kid that showed some promise but was years away from the majors for a seasoned pitcher – somebody who’d been there, done it all, and even worn the resulting T-shirt in a World Series.

John_Smoltz2The kid? John Smoltz had a decent ERA (3.68) and he’d won had seven of his 14 starts at Lakeland the previous year – even with the kind of support he got in Florida league A ball. In spring, they’d moved him up to AA in Glens Falls, and he still looked steady. There was no telling. He might not ever be strong enough to go all the way in the majors, but while he was pitching 96 innings in just 14 starts and 3 relief appearances (back in Lakeland), he looked pretty good. Yeah, he was a good prospect, but that was all, and the Tigers needed that little extra NOW to clinch the pennant. And so John Smoltz was traded to Atlanta for Doyle Alexander. Alexander came to Detroit and did his job – big time.

Even Smoltz’ grandfather, “Father John” Smoltz, long-time member of the Tigers Grounds Crew, agreed that it made sense – even though he was pretty sure that Lajoie would regret it some day. He knew his grandson was special.

It’s doubtful that Lajoie has ever drawn a breath in regret. The trade was too damned good at the time. Twenty five years later, with Smoltz a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, it’s easy to forget that Alexander jumped on board in mid-August and won nine of the eleven games he started between then and the end of the regular season. His won-lost percentage was 1.000 and his ERA a miniscule 1.53 over 88 innings of work. He may have been thoroughly shelled in the American League Championship Series, letting in ten runs in the nine innings he pitched, but there was no question that, without him, the Tigers would not even have been in the ALCS. Doyle Alexander had made the difference that got the Tigers past the hard-driving Toronto Blue Jays. It was the Twins’ year, after all. Those things happen in baseball.

The following season, Alexander still was in fine form. He won fourteen games for the Detroit team in ’88, but in 1989, with almost the same ERA (4.32 and 4.44 respectively), he won only six games and lost 18. He retired from baseball at the end of the season, at the moderately ripe age of 39

As for the kid who was Tiger property for just a year and a half? There’s no doubt today but what Father John was right. His grandson was “special.” This Tiger who never was is headed for Cooperstown, whether or not he decides to hang it up age 43 (six years older than the “old man” he was traded for in 1987) – and he may not do that. Smoltz continues to come back from the arm problems that sidelined him in 2008, and he’s looked better in St. Louis than he did earlier this year in Boston.

As a matter of fact, to put John Smoltz’ and Doyle Alexander’s ages in perspective, let’s take a quick look another Tiger who never was, but could have been – another lanky right-hander…the immortal S. Paige.

When he finally made it into the majors in 1948, Satchel Paige was 42 years old, a year younger than John Smoltz is today. The Cleveland bullpen bought him a rocking chair. JanglingDoyle_Alexander gently as he walked – jest to keep the fluids movin’ around, Satch turned in a 2.48 ERA that year. In 1953, still pitching strongly at age 47 (by then it was for the Browns), Paige maintained a 3.53 ERA over 117 and a third hot Missouri innings. The previous year he’d been even better – 3.07 over 138 innings.

The man who knew enough not to look back in case somethin’ was gainin’ on him never really quit pitching. He was 59 (that’s FIVE NINE) when he started one last major league game, that time for Kansas City. He allowed just one hit and struck out one over three innings.

And how could Satchel Paige have been a Tiger? A few years before he started that final game, Satchel volunteered to help Bob Scheffing’s ’61 Tigers in their pennant drive. If Director of Major League Personnel (think “GM”) Rick Ferrell had thought, as did Bill Lajoie 26 years later, that having one more seasoned pitcher could win the Tigers a pennant, things might have been pretty interesting at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. But Ferrell already had the best pitching staff in baseball, and he knew it. Still, one can’t help wondering how the Tigers would have fared against the Yankees if Mantle and Maris had to face ol’ Satchel’s hesitation pitch!