Milwaukee second baseman Jimmy Gantner waved his bat at a fastball from Aurelio Lopez and missed, the ball landing in the mitt of catcher Lance Parrish. It was the final out of a 2-1 victory for Lopez, Parrish, and the Tigers. Close to 24,000 fans at Tiger Stadium were happy on that Tuesday evening. Why wouldn’t they be? Their Tigers, the defending World Series champions, were undefeated in the first week of the ’85 season. It looked like Detroit might roll to another division title and a pennant.
But that didn’t happen.
Thirty years ago the Tigers bolted out to a 6-0 record to start the 1985 season. Sparky Anderson’s charges were heavily favored to repeat in the tough American League East. They were seen as a dynasty in the making, a roster with several stars in the prime of their baseball lives. There was Jack Morris, the often-ornery ace of the pitching staff, a 29-year old right-hander whose right arm never seemed to tire. They had Alan Trammell, just 27 years old and already a four-time Gold Glove winner, two-time All-Star shortstop, and MVP of the World Series. His buddy in the middle of the diamond was Sweet Lou Whitaker, a highly-gifted athlete who was also only 27 years old on opening day in ’85, and had established himself as the best second baseman in the league and a catalyst at the top of the Bengals’ lineup. Muscle-bound Parrish was 28 years old and already breaking power-hitting records for AL catchers. Tram’s other pal was 27-year old Kirk Gibson, an incredible blend of power and speed who also served as one of the team leaders. The team also had All-Star center fielder Chet Lemon (30 years old), starting pitcher Dan Petry (26), and the reigning AL MVP Willie Hernandez (30). They seemed poised to dominate the league for the rest of the 1980s.
Of course they didn’t. The team would win just one more division title (in ’87) and never again would win a playoff series. Why did the ’84 glory turn sour in ’85?
The answer is actually pretty simple and somewhat surprising. The ’85 Tigers were undone by the very strength that made ’84 so interesting. In 1984 as the team roared out to a record-setting 35-5 start, they received contributions from unlikely sources on their bench. But in ’85 the Detroit bench collapsed, resulting in a sharp decline in run scoring. Despite all the best efforts of the stars on the team, the ’85 Tigers were never able to make up for the loss of production from their role players.
In ’84 the trio of Barbaro Garbey, Johnny Grubb, Ruppert Jones, and Rusty Kuntz combined to hit .282 with 46 doubles, 4 triples, 27 home runs, and 128 RBIs in part-time roles. The quartet had an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .791 as they filled in at third base, first base, the corner outfield spots, and DH. Garbey, a former Cuban refugee, was hitting over .400 for the first seven weeks of the season.
But prior to the ’85 season Jones signed as a free agent with the Angels. Kuntz never got on track in ’85 and was demoted to Toledo, leaving Garbey and Grubb and a cast of others to serve in the important bench roles. The role players fell far short, with Nelson Simmons and Garbey doing alright, but the rest of the bench nosediving. Dave Bergman, pushed into more of a supporting role, hit just .179 and the bench as a whole produced little power outside Simmons’ 10 homers.
In his years in Detroit, Sparky had always enjoyed having a deep bench, usually preferring veteran players. But something seemed off before the team broke camp in Lakeland. In February, Anderson announced that 23-year old rookie Chris Pittaro would get every chance to make the team. The problem with that was that Pittaro was a second baseman and Whitaker was already entrenched there. For a New York minute, Sparky toyed with the idea of switching Whitaker to third base, but that folly was soon abandoned and Pittaro was transferred to the hot corner. But the tone was already set: the ’85 Tigers weren’t the same team that won the title just a few months earlier. In addition to the loss of Jones, there was the absence of Howard Johnson, the power-hitting third baseman, who had been dealt to the Mets for pitcher Walt Terrell. Veteran starter Milt Wilcox was also on his way out, his chronic arm problems having caught up with him. He’d start the season on the disabled list, make three starts, miss time with a sore shoulder, and then make five starts in May and June before being shut down for the year.
Almost every Detroit starting position player had a better or equal season in ’85 than they had the year before, with one glaring exception. Trammell struggled through nagging injuries and limped to a .258 season with diminished power. But even so, Whitaker, Parrish, Gibson, and Lemon chugged on as good as ever. Darrell Evans, the ancient man at 38 years of age, stepped up his game, belting 40 home runs. The pitching staff, paced by a solid Morris and Petry, was almost as good as in ’84, finishing fourth in ERA. Terrell was a fine replacement for Wilcox in the #3 slot in Sparky’s rotation, and in June the team finally got a steady left-handed starter for the first time since Mickey Lolich, when they traded for Frank Tanana. The wily southpaw went 10-7 with a 3.34 in 20 starts after coming to his hometown Tigers.
After the 6-0 start the Tigers were leapfrogged by the red-hit Blue Jays, the runners-up the previous season in the AL East. At the All-Star break, the Tigs were 3 1/2 back of Toronto, but they were only in third place, with the Yankees also in front of them. After the break, while the Jays got even hotter, the Tigers limped along at 5-9 for two weeks and found themselves buried 10 games back at the end of July. When the Tigers next squared off with Toronto head-to-head in early September, they were 13 1/2 games back, hopelessly out of the hunt. All that was left was to play out the balance of the schedule. Pittaro, by the way was back in Toledo by then, having petered out much earlier.
The 1985 Tigers ended up with a record of 84-77 and in third place. They had won 20 games more in ’84. After their 6-0 start, the ’85 club played .500 ball the rest of the season. Somehow, despite their star-studded team, they were average. It wasn’t a case of a collapse by their frontline players that doomed the ’85 team. No, it was the bench that failed the Tigers in 1985.