Why the Tigers failed to repeat in 1985

In 1985, Willie Hernandez started to hear boos while on the mound at Tiger Stadium.

In 1985, Willie Hernandez started to hear boos while on the mound at Tiger Stadium.

After the first week of the 1985 baseball season, the Detroit Tigers were a perfect 6 and 0 and their foes in the American League must have been thinking, “Here we go again.”

The previous year, the Tigers had won nine straight games to start the season, 18 of 20, 26 of 30, and 35 of their first 40. They ended the year by winning seven of eight when it mattered the most, in the postseason. The result? Their fourth World Series championship.

But that was ’84, and in ’85 the season was more frustrating than magical. After their 6-0 start out of the gates, the ’85 Tigers played essentially break-even baseball (78-77) and finished a distant third in the division race. A repeat was not in the cards. So, why was the team that was historic in ’84, so “ho-hum” in ’85? The answer is actually pretty clear, though it may surprise Detroit fans who expected a dynasty in the Reagan Era.

The core of the Tigers in the 1980s was their strength up the middle: catcher Lance Parrish, second baseman Lou Whitaker, shortstop Alan Trammell, and center fielder Chet Lemon. Throw in right fielder Kirk Gibson, and the Bengals had five everyday players of All-Star caliber. Each of the five were also in their primes: Trammell was 27 years old, Gibson and Whitaker were 28, Parrish was 29, and Lemon was 30. Many good seasons were to come for the group.

Manager Sparky Anderson had two workhorses at the top of his rotation, both of whom were homegrown in the Detroit farm system: 30-year old Jack Morris and 26-year old Dan Petry. The staff was bolstered by the additions of right-hander Walt Terrell, acquired from the Mets in a trade for Howard Johnson, who slotted in to replace Milt Wilcox, who had pitched most of ’84 with a numb arm that he shot up with cortisone to make it through the season. Experts expected the Tigers to win another division title, even in the competitive East, with the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Yankees, and Orioles all fielding good teams.

After their quick 6-0 start, the Tigers played sluggishly for a month, but they were still just 1/2 game out of the lead in the AL East on the morning of May 18th. But the Jays, who watched helplessly the year before as the Tigers practically lapped the field out of the gate, went on an eight-game winning streak to take control of the division. When Toronto hosted Detroit on Thursday, June 5th in the first of four games, they led the defending World Champions by 5 games but Sparky’s crew saw it as a chance to show they were still the king of the hill. That game proved to be a heavyweight matchup between Petry and Toronto lefty Jimmy Key. Each starting pitcher went the first 10 innings, refusing to allow a run, before the managers turned the game over to the bullpen. The Detroit pen cracked first, in the bottom of the 12th when Aurelio Lopez gave up a walkoff two-run homer to Buck Martinez. The Jays won the next night too, pouncing on Terrell on their way to a 9-2 lopsided victory. Gibson smacked a two-run homer in the first inning on Saturday and Detroit pummeled Toronto for a 10-1 win. In the finale on Sunday afternoon, Doug Bair made a gritty start and the Tigs fought for a 8-3 win to earn a split in the series. They were still 5 games back of the Jays, but matters were far from settled.

The Detroit pitching staff was in shambles, however. Bair, normally a valuable reliever, was pressed into emergency action as a starter because Wilcox was on the shelf with a dead arm (Milt made his last start on June 3rd when he allowed nine baserunners in four innings at Tiger Stadium against the Mariners. He ducked into the clubhouse with a sore arm and never wore a Tiger uniform again). A few weeks later, the Tigers acquired Frank Tanana from the Rangers for a minor leaguer. Tanana, a 31-year old Detroit native who had once had a rocket on his left arm that could throw the baseball 100 miles per hour, was now a junkball pitcher after an arm injury robbed him of his heater. He was 2-7 with a 5.91 ERA in 13 starts for Texas in ’85, but the Tigers were desperate for a starting pitcher who could eat up innings at the back of their rotation. While Morris, Petry, and Terrell were all throwing the ball fine to excellent, Wilcox was finished, and #5 starter Juan Berenguar had been miserable in three starts in May. Detroit brass, led by Sparky, had long considered Berenguar much better suited for bullpen duty, and with Dave Rozema having been jettisoned in the ’84 season, the Tigs had few options for the back part of their rotation. Compounding this was the loss of pitching coach Roger Craig, regarded as one of the best in baseball, who resigned his position about a month after the Tigers victory parade in October of ’84.

While the rotation may have been untidy in the first few months of the ’85 season, the bullpen was a nightmare. Closer Willie Hernandez, who had carted off the MVP and Cy Young the previous season, was pitching stellar again through the first three months of the campaign, but after that there was smoke and mirrors, confusion and chaos. In ’84, Sparky had the luxury of two pitchers who were like closers: Hernandez and Lopez. Veteran Bair had also pitched in tight spots before in his career, and lefty Bill Scherrer was a key specialist out of the pen. But Senor Smoke pitched terribly in April, giving up two homers in one of his appearances, and he struggled pretty much all year. In addition, neither Bair nor Berenguar pitched well in ’85, and Scherrer was rocked so bad in an outing late in April that Sparky didn’t feel comfortable going to him again for more than a week, at which time the tall southpaw allowed three earned runs in less than an inning, rocketing his ERA above 13. The bullpen never really performed in sync in ’85, when Willie was pitching well in the first half, the others struggled, when Hernandez was getting hit hard in August, Tiger Stadium started to seem like enemy territory when fans turned on him.

“I got sick and tired of the heckling,” Hernandez said.

But while the Tigers pen didn’t match their output from the previous season, the Detroit pitching staff wasn’t the reason the Tigers failed to repeat in 1985. The Tigs posted a 3.78 ERA in ’85, good for 4th in the 14-team American League. They had led the league in that category in ’84, but the pitching was still good enough in ’85 to keep the Tigers in it. No, the reason the Tigers finished with 19 fewer wins could be found in their dugout, on the bench.

The ’84 Tigers are one of the few teams in baseball history that doesn’t have a player who was later elected to the Hall of Fame. Perhaps that slight is appropriate considering the fact that the ’84 champs featured one of the most potent bench attacks in modern history. A bevy of subs and role players had great success in ’84, including Ruppert Jones, Johnny Grubb, Dave Bergman, and Barbaro Garbey. The unknown Rusty Kuntz epitomized the bench depth in ’84, filling in at all three outfield spots while hitting .286 with a .393 OBP in 84 games and serving as the unofficial “rah-rah” guy. When the final out was made and the Tigers clinched the AL pennant in ’84, it was appropriate that the baseball landed in the glove of Marty Castillo, a 27-year old super sub who filled in at catcher and third base and produced four home runs in limited time off the pine. Sparky’s bench in ’84 was simply amazing, and while it was unlikely it could be as good in ’85, it should have performed better than it did. Gone were Jones and Kuntz, in favor of younger players with more potential, but none of them panned out. Bergman disappeared (.179 with seven RBIs for the entire season), Castillo hit .119, and Garbey saw his average dip almost 50 points. The “Swiss Army Knife” that Sparky had at his disposal in ’84 morphed into a rusty butter knife in ’85.

Sparky had an off year in ’85 too, and it started in Lakeland in the spring when he fell in love with a rookie infielder. Chris Pittaro was going to “play in Detroit for 15 years” according to Sparky. But where? The 23-year old second baseman was blocked behind Whitaker, but then Anderson informed the press that Sweet Lou would move to third base to make room for the phenom. By the time the Tigers went north, Pittaro was a third baseman and Whitaker was at his normal spot at second base. Pittaro rapped out four hits on opening day at Tiger Stadium, but it’s hardly an exaggeration to say the rookie did little else the rest of the ’85 season. He appeared in 28 games before being sent down to Triple-A Nashville in late May.

All in all, 1985 was a strange season for the Tigers. In some ways they grew – Gibson had a marvelous season, narrowly missing (by one homer) becoming the first Detroit player to have 30 steals and 30 homers in the same season. Whitaker belted 21 home runs, Parrish had 28 homers and 98 RBIs, and Lemon had another fine season at the plate and in the field. But even good things were odd in ’85. When Gibby was named the his first All-Star team, he declined to go, preferring instead to go hunting, a decision which ruffled feathers with some fans and some in the Detroit front office. Whitaker did go to the All-Star Game once again, but when he forgot his uniform, he had to wear a souvenir jersey and borrow cleats and a glove.

But the worst part of the ’85 season was the poor defense the Tigers put up of their league title. Shortstop Alan Trammell, who was the MVP of the ’84 World Series, seemed to be weighted down as the season wore on in ’85. Tram hit .239 with an OBP under .300 after the All-Star break. With his poor production from the #2 slot in the lineup, the Detroit offense staggered through the schedule.

“We couldn’t bunt, and we couldn’t get a runner in from third with less than two outs,” Sparky said. The Detroit skipper also saw a problem with his teams’ reliance on the longball. “I’ve never had a team generate such a high percentage its runs with home runs. Most of them meant nothing.”

But overall, as bad as Trammell was in ’85, for the most part, the Detroit everyday lineup was as good or better in ’85 than they were in ’84. Darrell Evans, the ageless DH/1B became the oldest man to win a home run title, at the age of 38, when he socked 40 roundtrippers. But even with Evans, Whitaker, Gibby, Lemon, and Parrish having good seasons, the Tigers failed to match their run production from the previous season. Some of it was what Sparky pinpointed – the offense didn’t capitalize on opportunities enough. And some of it was the anemic bench production.

Of all the problems his team faced in ’85, one area of the game most troubled Anderson. “The only thing I’m disappointed in is our defense,” Sparky told Tom Gage of The Sporting News at the end of the season. “I’m not disappointed with our record, pitching, hitting, or anything like that, only the defense. I don’t believe you can play defense the way we did and win anything.”

The Tigers made 143 errors in 1985, 16 more than the year before, and the second most in the league. Too often, the Tigers made a mistake that cost a base or a run or a game in ’85, and that added up.

“Nobody likes to admit they didn’t do the job,” infielder Tom Brookens said, “but let’s face it, we didn’t. The best thing you can do with such a season is go home and forget about it.”

3 replies on “Why the Tigers failed to repeat in 1985

  • William Westbrook

    Bill James fingered the bench in his Baseball Abstract the next spring. Bench players’ at bats were about the equal of two regulars, he said, and they went from highly productive in 1984 to squat in 1985. If two regulars had fallen off so badly, he asked, would anyone be surprised that the team had slipped from the rim of greatness into the bowl of mediocrity?

  • Scott Dominiak

    Very insightful article, Dan. I grew up in the Detroit area and went to the fifth game of the World Series in 1968. Consequently, I love the Tigers. The last 37 years, however, I have lived in the Chicago area, and I always wondered why Detroit did not repeat in 1985. Thanks!

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