The 1983 Detroit Tigers were building momentum in pursuit of their first division title since 1972 and their first World Series championship since 1968. After a string of losing seasons, the Tigers had started playing winning baseball again in 1978 and were consistently over .500 for the next five years. Sparky Anderson arrived in 1980 and they nearly made the postseason in the strike-shortened year of 1981. In this 1983 season, the Tigers took an incremental step—they cleared the 90-win threshold and set the stage for the biggest breakthrough that would come a year later.
Detroit’s resurgence began when the middle infield combo of shortstop Alan Trammell and second baseman Lou Whitaker both came to the major leagues in ’78. By now, they were an established and well-respected duo. In 1983, Trammell hit .319 while Whitaker hit .320. Both had respectable pop, slugging over .450.
Larry Herndon had a good all-around season in left field, batting .302 with 20 home runs and 92 RBI. Chet Lemon, a solid and underrated centerfielder, hit 24 homers. Veteran first baseman Enos Cabell hit .311 and catcher Lance Parrish popped 27 homers and drove in 114 runs.
Even though the Detroit lineup had its weaknesses, with a bad year from outfielder Kirk Gibson the most notable disappointment, they could still hit. The Tigers were top four in the American League in batting average, doubles and homers. The one problem was patience at the plate—they were only ninth in walks. But even so, Detroit scored the fourth-most runs in the American League.
The pitching staff was anchored by two horses in Jack Morris and Dan Petry. They combined to make 75 starts. Morris was a 20-game winner and finished with a 3.34 ERA. It was enough to place third in the Cy Young voting. Petry won 19 and his ERA was 3.92. Milt Wilcox was respectable at #3, going 11-10 with a 3.97 ERA.
Even though no one else started as many as twenty games, Anderson was able to piece together reliable work at the back end of the rotation. Juan Berenguer and Dave Rozema were the most prominent in shuttling between the pen and the rotation, finishing with ERAs in the 3s. Anderson’s handling of the staff and bullpen, combined with a good year from 34-year-old closer Aurelio Lopez, enabled the Tigers to finish fourth in the AL for staff ERA.
Detroit muddled out of the gates and were at .500 on Memorial Day. The good news is that no one else in the AL East caught fire and all seven teams were within six games of first place.
This is probably a good place to point out that the alignment of the major leagues prior to 1994 had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West and only the first-place team went to the postseason. Detroit, along with Cleveland and Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998) were in the East along with that division’s current inhabitants from New York, Boston, Baltimore and Toronto.
The Tigers picked up the pace in early June. They went to Fenway and swept the Red Sox four straight. That started a stretch where they went 16-10 against AL East teams. By the All-Star break, Detroit was 41-35 and two games out of first place. The division remained jam-packed with only the Indians having fallen out of contention.
Tiger momentum continued in the late summer. They went 32-20 out of the break and into late August. Between July 19 and August 28 they were never more than two games out of first place and spent six days either tied for, or in sole possession of the division lead. The possibility of playoff baseball coming back to Motown was real.
Detroit split eight games leading into Labor Day, but Baltimore was heating up. The Orioles widened their lead to 4 ½ games over the Tigers and Yankees. The Brewers, the defending division champs were five back. Detroit’s remaining schedule would be against divisional rivals, including seven with Baltimore. The Tigers controlled their fate.
Over the next two weeks, Detroit went 8-5. Not bad, but Baltimore kept surging and stretched the lead to seven games. The Tigers were still in second place when the head-to-head games against the Orioles began. But any margin for error that might have remained was gone. Detroit needed to take at least three of four when Baltimore came to town on September 20.
Were the Tigers ready? Well, how does scoring 11 runs in the first inning of Tuesday night’s opener grab you? Whitaker and Herndon each homered in the barrage. The game was called due to rain after five innings, as close as MLB will ever get to a mercy rule. Detroit won 14-1.
But Wednesday’s twilight doubleheader saw fortunes go south. Morris matched up with Baltimore’s hot rookie pitcher Mike Boddicker and lost 6-0. In the nightcap, the Tiger bullpen collapsed. A 3-1 lead in the ninth inning turned into a 7-3 loss. Even though Detroit took the finale, this race was all but over and the Tigers were formally eliminated by the time their final week series in Baltimore took place.
Detroit still closed out the season on a good note. They swept the last series from the Orioles, posted a final record of 92-70 and took second in the AL East. Not only was that a playoff season by the more lenient standards of today, it was actually the third-best record in all of baseball in 1983, better than anyone in the National League.
The 1983 season was a clear sign that the Tigers were coming. And if anyone had any doubts, those were obliterated when Detroit opened 1984 by going 35-5 and ended it by winning the World Series.