Sparky Anderson was one of the great managers in baseball history. He won three World Series titles—1975 and 1976 in Cincinnati, then again in 1984 with Detroit. The 1993 Detroit Tigers were the last winning team the Hall of Fame skipper ever managed.
The ‘93 Tigers won games by outslugging opponents. They were first in the American League in runs scored. Cecil Fielder, the power-hitting first baseman, was in his peak years and hit 30 home runs with 117 RBI. Mickey Tettleton played both catcher and the outfield and hit 32 home runs, while driving in 110 more. Travis Fryman, the young shortstop, popped 22 homers of his own and finished with 97 RBI.
Two of Detroit’s great veterans, Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell turned back the clock. Whitaker, the 36-year-old second baseman, posted a .412 on-base percentage. Trammell, now 35, had been displaced at short by Fryman, but still got his playing time elsewhere and made the most of it. Trammell’s final stat line showed a .388 OBP/.496 slugging percentage. Another hero of the 1980s glory years, Kirk Gibson, was brought back to Motown. Gibson got his time at DH and was at least respectable, with a stat line of .337/.432.
Anderson showed considerable flexibility in who played and at what positions and a big part of that was utility man Tony Phillips. Getting full-time at-bats without a regular position, Phillips put up a .443 OBP.
It was a lineup more than good enough to reach the playoffs, even in this final year of the older, more demanding system where each league had just two divisions and only first-place teams qualified for the postseason. The lineup could have carried even an average pitching staff. But the Tiger arms were the reason Sparky’s last winning team hit a ceiling during the course of the long summer.
Detroit remade its pitching staff, letting go of veterans Walt Terrell and Frank Tanana. Neither would be missed, but no effective replacements were found. Mike Moore, a part of the great Oakland A’s teams from 1988-92, was signed on the free agent market. Moore was a horse and made 36 starts. But he wasn’t effective, with a bloated 5.22 ERA.
David Wells was also added as a free agent and his 4.19 ERA over thirty starts was respectable. But the fact it was the rotation’s best illustrates the problem. Veteran Bill Gullickson, along with John Doherty, ranged anywhere from mediocre to bad. The bullpen had a viable closer in Mike Henneman, but little beyond that. It added up to a staff ERA that ranked 12th in the 14-team American League.
Detroit opened the season in Oakland and promptly gave up 21 runs in losing the first two games. But they quickly righted the ship and won 13 of their next 16. In the middle of May they went to Toronto, where the Blue Jays were the defending World Series champs and odds-on favorite to again win the AL East division that included the Tigers, Indians and Brewers, along with perennials in the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles.
The Detroit bats unleashed north of the border and scored 25 runs in winning the first two games of the series. They led the finale 5-4 and had two outs on the ninth with two men aboard. Reliever Bob Macdonald gave up a two-run double to Paul Molitor and the Tigers lost 6-5. They had a missed a chance to sweep, but it was still a nice series win. Detroit went on to take five of six games on a trip through Milwaukee and Cleveland. When Memorial Day arrived, the Tigers were 30-18 and had a three-game lead in the AL East.
They continued to play well in early June, taking three of four from the Blue Jays at home. It was a nine-game road trip to Baltimore, New York and Boston were things went a bit awry. That is, if you consider losing all nine games to be “a bit awry.” The fact the pitching staff gave up 72 runs on the road trip might have been a little difficult to overcome.
Detroit had fallen four games off the pace, but they stopped by the bleeding by the All-Star break and crawled their way back within a ½ game of Toronto. The division itself was a logjam, with five teams within three games of the lead.
But the time of year when pitching starts to matter most would be predictably unkind to the Tigers. After managing a split with Texas out of the break, Detroit come home and promptly dropped six straight to Minnesota and Kansas City, neither of whom were anything special. The Tigers dropped a series to the contending Yankees, then lost three of four to the Blue Jays. By the time the calendar flipped to August 1, Detroit was in an eight-game hole.
Anderson was able to stabilize the team and they went 18-16 through August and in the runup to Labor Day. But Toronto and New York were separating themselves from the field and Detroit still stared at a seven-game gap. It was the Blue Jays who pulled away in September, en route to a repeat World Series title. Detroit settled for a respectable close, going 13-8 down the stretch, finishing 85-77 and taking third place in the AL East.
It was the most that could realistically be expected from a team with such pitching shortcomings, a tribute to the quality of the offense and of the manager. But hard times were ahead. Sparky managed two more years of sub-.500 baseball before retiring. The franchise itself went into a longer dry spell—they didn’t get their head back above water until Jim Leyland came to town and engineered an immediate one-year turnaround and a trip to the World Series in 2006.