On September 18, 1984, the Tigers clinched the American League East division with a 3-0 blanking of Milwaukee thanks to the pitching of rookie Randy O’Neal who had made his major league debut on Septmember 12th.
Informed that he would have his first major league start on the night the Tigers could clinch the division, O’Neal told author Eli Zaret in his 2004 book, ’84: The Last of the Great Tigers that he was living in the Book Cadillac hotel downtown and earlier that day had gone to a local mall where he walked for three hours trying to settle his nerves.
It apparently worked.
After striking out the first batter, future Hall of Famer Robin Yount, O’Neal settled into a groove and mowed down the Brewers as he gave up just four hits through seven innings. When Tom Brookens gave the Tigers a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh, manager Sparky Anderson brought in Willie Hernandez to finish the ballgame.
The crowd of 48,810 at Tiger Stadium went wild as Hernandez jumped into the arms of Lance Parrish after the final out.
In his book, Bless You Boys: The Diary of the Detroit Tigers’ 1984 season, Sparky Anderson wrote:
“I thought I had seen some parties in Cincinnati, but they were nothing like this. It was crazy. I was so happy for these fans. They’re the greatest in baseball………..I’m not sure what time I got out of the clubhouse, but they were still partying out on the streets around the park……..I’ve been involved with a lot of baseball celebrations but I can honestly say that none of them ever matched anything like this.”
The next day at the ballpark, O’Neal says he will never forget what happened.
“You do your wind sprints to the foul poles with the pitchers, and my second time over I hear the crowd chanting my name, “O-Neal, O-Neal.” Had to be 20,000 there for batting practice! I’ll never forget it because it would echo in that stadium. It’s a shame. I loved that old stadium. The new doesn’t have the ambiance and feel of Tiger Stadium.”
As for Randy O’Neal, he was ineligible for the post season but stayed on with the Tigers until ’86. Pitching coach Roger Craig had said that O’Neal had the best split fingered fastball on the team.
The Kentucky native later played with Atlanta, St. Louis, Philadelphia and San Francisco and compiled a 17-19 record over his seven year major league career.
But his first major league start and victory was something he would never forget.
And neither would the Tiger fans lucky enough to have been at Tiger Stadium that division clinching night.