Tiger draft picks of the 1970s were some of the best in history

Bill Lajoie chats with Sparky Anderson in the 1980s.

They are the “Black Ops” of baseball – the scouting department. Hovering in the darkness, hiding in the bushes, sneaking away to see a switch-hitting shortstop in Alabama who hits the ball 425 feet and has a rocket for an arm. And like the CIA, the scouting department is performing a critical function. In many ways, the scouts are the lifeblood of an organization.

Many fans might assume that major league ready ballplayers show up in Detroit after serving their time in the minor leagues. But they have to be found first. Every would-be star has to be discovered.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that when the Detroit Tigers ran away with the 1984 season and punctuated it by winning the world Series, there were a group of scouts somewhere (who knows in what corners of the country) with satisfied smiles. If they allowed themselves to smile very long before downing a greasy burger and driving 450 miles to see a left-handed high school pitcher in Podunk, Iowa.

That ’84 team was filled with key players who had been found by the Tigers scouts years before, seeded in the bush leagues, and germinated as they moved their way up the “alphabet soup” ladder of Single-A’s, Double-A’s, and so on. Finally, the cream of that crop grew into the backbone of a World Champion. But whereas that had always been the way things had been done (free agency came into being only in the mid-1970s and then only to a limited degree for most teams), the Tigers scouting department were amazingly successful at their jobs in the 1970s. A glance at their key selections over a five-year period reveals a number of players who went on to long, successful careers. In fact, few organizations in history can match the track record of the Tigers over such a short time.

This list shows the significant players who went on to play in the big leagues, with the round they were selected in parentheses.

1974: Lance Parrish (1), Mark Fidrych (10), Bob Sykes (19)
Jason Thompson (4), Lou Whitaker (5), Bruce Berenyi (19), Tom Brookens (January draft)
1976: Pat Underwood (1), Alan Trammell (2), Dan Petry (4), Jack Morris (5), Ozzie Smith (7), Glenn Gulliver (8), Rod Booker (14), Roger Weaver (16), Kip Young (23), Steve Kemp (January draft)
1977: Darrell Brown (3), Ricky Peters (7), Bruce Robbins (14), Willie Lozado (18), Bill Laskey (January draft)
1978: Kirk Gibson (1 ), Jerry Ujdur (4), Marty Castillo (5), Bruce Fields (7), Dave Rucker (16), John Martin (27), Chris Codiroli (January draft)

There are eight players there who were part of the ’84 team, most of them significant players on that club, and with six of them being All-Stars at some point in their careers with Detroit. Obviously, Parrish, Trammell, Whitaker, Morris, Petry, and Gibson were instrumental in the success the team had in the 1980s. Brookens was a valuable player who spent a decade in a Tiger uniform, dutifully doing whatever he was asked to do and play how much and wherever he was told. Two of the players who were drafted by the Tigers in that five-year stretch are legitimate Hall of Fame candidates, and Whitaker would be if he hadn’t been dismissed from the ballot in baffling fashion.

The Tigers general manager during those years was the legendary Jim Campbell, who spent his entire adult life working for the organization. In 1974 he hired Bill Lajoie, who had never advanced farther than the minor leagues as a player or manager. Lajoie was equipped with the tools to be a great scout: he was curious and astute. In his second season he was the director of all scouting for the Tigers. After helping to guide players like Whitaker, Trammell, and Parrish into the Tiger fold, Lajoie was elevated to the position of assistant GM in 1979. By ’84 he was the general manager, where he made other great moves that helped stock the Tiger roster, like acquiring Willie Hernandez, finding a hard-hitting Cuban refugee named Barbaro Garbey, and signing Darrell Evans.

It was Lajoie’s scouting department that started it all in the mid-1970s, finding and rating players like Fidrych, who was in the Detroit rotation just two years after being drafted, and Kemp and Thompson, who also rose quickly to big league ranks. Others, like Underood and Brown, never became stars, but they were the exception. Ozzie Smith, who was chosen in the same draft that produced Trammell, Petry, and  Morris, was never signed, electing to return to college.

Lajoie and the other scouts who helped build the Tigers teams of the 1980s don’t get the recognition they deserve for their contribution, but they were instrumental in laying the groundwork for a World Series title and the second best record in baseball during the 1980s.