When the pitcher called “Hot Sauce” prowled the mound for the Tigers

Kevin Saucier saved 13 games and had a 1.65 ERA in 1981 for the Detroit Tigers.

Kevin Saucier saved 13 games and had a 1.65 ERA in 1981 for the Detroit Tigers.

He was an energetic pitcher who bounced around on the mound like a rubber ball. He huffed and puffed, pumped his fists, and leaped into the air after victories.

He was fun to watch, but his time in Detroit came and went far too quickly.

No, this is not another article about Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

This is the story of Kevin Saucier, otherwise known as “Hot Sauce.” For one shining season in the Motor City in 1981, he was one of the top relief pitchers in the game.

Saucier (pronounced So-Shay) was born in Pensacola, Florida on August 9, 1956. His father worked at the nearby Naval Air Station.

Baseball was the youngster’s first love. “I started out there when I was 9 years old,” he recalled later, “and I remember a coach telling me if I came back the next year he was going to make a pitcher out of me, and that’s what he did.”

Saucier showed an ability to pitch from early on. “I kept working at it. It’s one of those things. You’ve got to have the talent, but you’ve also got to have the desire and willingness to work at it.”

After graduating from Escambia High School in Pensacola, he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the second round of the 1974 amateur draft. He reported to Pulaski in the Appalachian Rookie League at age 17.

The 6’ 1” 190-pound lefty struggled as a starter. At Double-A Reading in 1977, he lost 12 consecutive starts at one point. But the organization stuck with him, and in 1979 he was converted into a reliever.

Saucier started well at Triple-A Oklahoma City in 1979, earning himself a promotion to the Phillies in June. After years of trying to nibble the corners, his career started to take off when he overcame his fear of pitching inside. He began attacking hitters.

“I don’t think you’ll ever win in this game unless you challenge the hitters,” he remarked at the time. “It took me a long time to be confident enough to throw inside on right-handed hitters, but you have to make that pitch. You’ve got to stand up for yourself on the mound. You cannot let anybody take advantage of you.”

An effective middle reliever, he was on the Philadelphia team that won the World Series in 1980, earning himself a coveted ring.

Hot Sauce had quickly gotten a reputation around the National League as a fearless pitcher who gave no quarter to hitters who dared to stand too close to the plate. He also wasn’t afraid to instigate a brawl now and then whenever he felt his teammates were being shown up.

When asked about the stories of his scuffles, he replied, “I guess they’re true. They aren’t exaggerated.”

He sometimes struggled to keep his emotions in check. If a home plate umpire was giving him a tight strike zone, Hot Sauce could lose his focus. He admitted that he’d once gotten tossed from a game at the age of 12 for back-talking an umpire. “But I’m not as bad as I used to be.”

In November of 1980, Saucier was sent to the Texas Rangers. He was the player-to-be-named-later, finalizing a deal made back in September that had shipped former Cy Young winner Sparky Lyle to the Phillies.

Saucier was enthusiastic about joining the Rangers. “They’ve got good players. How come they finished fourth?”

He didn’t get a chance to find out for himself, because Texas dealt him to Detroit less than a month later, for shortstop Mark Wagner.

The Tigers had gotten their man in Saucier. In 1980, the club had lacked a situational southpaw who could come in and get out a left-handed hitter.

“We’d like to think he can do more than that,” said Bill Lajoie, Detroit’s vice-president in charge of baseball operations. “But we like that quality about him.”

Said Saucier, “I’ve heard a lot about the young players on the Tigers, but I say to hell with being a contender two years from now. Let’s go after it this season.”

Throughout the 1981 campaign, Hot Sauce and Aurelio Lopez (“Senior Smoke”) teamed up to give Detroit an effective one-two punch out of the bullpen. As the summer wore on, Saucier even supplanted Lopez as the team’s top reliever.

Tiger fans loved how Saucier pirouetted off the mound after each save, and grabbed for a handshake three times before connecting with a teammate.

“So I’m loony,” he said. “What’s wrong with that?”

And like Fidrych before him, Hot Sauce chatted while on the mound.

“Sure I talk to myself out there. I tell myself not to get stupid, not to get too cute. Don’t overthrow. I’m very careful about what I do and how I act during the game, but when it’s over, I deserve a chance to explode.”

His manager, Sparky Anderson, was a big fan. “We knew he was aggressive. But I haven’t seen many guys who flat out love to pitch like he does. He takes no nonsense and goes after everyone.”

In 1981, Saucier finished with 13 saves in 38 games, with an ERA of 1.65 and a WHIP of only 0.959. On the final weekend of the strike-shortened season, the Tigers barely lost out to the Milwaukee Brewers for the second-half “championship” in the American League East.

He started strong again in 1982. On May 28, he sported a 1.42 ERA, and led the team with five saves.

And then, inexplicably, Hot Sauce lost his formerly-pinpoint control. In walked 22 batters in his next 21 innings, and was relegated to mop-up duty. In late July, he was called into Sparky’s office to hear the stunning news: He was being demoted to Triple-A Evansville.

Saucier stormed out of the office. He announced to reporters that he was unsure whether he would report to Evansville or not. Later, however, after talking it over with General Manager Jim Campbell, he decided to do what the club told him to.

“This hurts,” he admitted. “I know I’m a major league pitcher. Baseball has to be fun and it hasn’t been fun for a while.”

Sparky insisted there was nothing wrong with Saucier’s arm. “It’s just his rhythm. I can’t keep bringing him in so he can walk people. I can’t justify that to the other guys on our staff. He needs to pitch a lot and that is something he can do down there.”

But his demotion to the minors did more harm than good. He let it affect him mentally. “When I got down there,” he said later, “my season fell apart. I was bitter. I said some things I shouldn’t have. It was a nightmare, everything about it.”

Saucier’s numbers at Evansville were awful: A record of 0-4 in 10 games, with a 7.36 ERA. He walked 23 in 22 innings. He was not called back up to Detroit when the rosters were expanded in September.

Come spring training, 1983, Saucier wasn’t sure where his career was headed. “I want to forget about last year, but everybody’s asking what went wrong. At first, I told myself I wasn’t going to talk about it, but I don’t want to be a jerk.”

His pitching coach, Roger Craig, called Saucier his biggest spring project. “There’s a lot of soul-searching to do, but if he can get over the mental part of it and find his confidence, he can make it back.”

It never happened. Hot Sauce was released by the Tigers on March 25, 1983. He quickly caught on with the Braves organization, but the end came as he was pitching in an exhibition game for the Richmond Braves against the Columbus Clippers.

“It just came over me,” he remembered. “Whacko. I was throwing the ball all over the place.” When his manager, Eddie Haas, came to the mound to remove him from the game, Saucier looked at him and said, “Eddie, you’ve got to get me out of here.”

They say there is no crying in baseball, but who could have blamed Saucier for shedding tears at that moment? He knew he was walking off a pitcher’s mound for the last time as a professional. He announced his retirement soon afterward.

“Sometimes I was afraid I was going to kill somebody with a pitch. It’s really a lot of pressure when you don’t know where the ball is going. The money in baseball is good, but I wanted to keep my sanity. I’d rather be broke and be happy. When you’re pitching good, you know there’s nobody who can get you. It’s like I’m on top of the world, and then I’m at the bottom of it all.”

At age 26, Kevin Saucier suddenly had to look for another line of work. His wife, Karen, supported the decision. She told him, “I’d rather have you than see you drive yourself crazy trying to throw a little white ball.”

Not sure what to do with the rest of their lives, they sold their house and one of their cars, and moved in with Karen’s parents. Hot Sauce opened a pizzeria in Pensacola.

But it wasn’t long before he found the work that he truly loves: Scouting.

Kevin Saucier has worked tirelessly for the Major League Scouting Bureau for over 30 years. His primary geographic niche is Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, and parts of Georgia.

He says that the three greatest players he has scouted are no-brainers: Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, and Bo Jackson. “Bo never devoted himself to baseball,” Saucier noted. “Nobody was ever going to know how good Bo Jackson was going to be. He had it all.”

The man known as Hot Sauce has a passion for the game that will never die. “Here’s the deal with baseball: Once you’ve been in it, it’s in your blood. I’ve just GOT to be around the game.”

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