The Detroit Tigers were an organization slowly gaining steam under manager Sparky Anderson coming into 1984. Anderson, the leader of the Big Red Machine, had been pushed out in Cincinnati following the 1978 season and was hired by Detroit a year later.
The Tigers had been in a holding pattern since their AL East title of 1972—save for a 102-loss year in 1975, they were never awful, but nor did they ever break 90 wins and seriously contend. Anderson contended in 1981, won 92 games in 1983, and the 1984 Detroit Tigers were the big breakthrough that dominated wire-to-wire and won the city’s first World Series title since 1968.
Detroit had a talented young middle infield in shortstop Alan Trammell and second baseman Lou Whitaker. Trammell had an on-base percentage of .382 and a slugging percentage of .468. Whitaker posted numbers of .357/.407, and both were sound defensively. Kirk Gibson was another young star in rightfield, hitting 27 home runs with a stat line of .363/.516. All three players were 27-years-old or younger.
They were joined by catcher Lance Parrish, who hit 33 home runs. Centerfielder Chet Lemon quietly put together an excellent season, at .357/.495. Dave Bergmann at first base, and 34-year-old designated hitter Darrell Evans were patient hitters with solid on-base percentages. The lineup as a whole led the American League in runs scored.
Anderson’s pitching staff had similar young talent. Jack Morris, the 29-year-old ace, won 19 games with a 3.60 ERA, pitched nine complete games and throughout his career showed a knack for having his best games in either big spots or nights when the offense wasn’t hitting. Dan Petry, 25-years-old, won 18 games with a 3.24 ERA and seven complete games.
The rotation was a little top-heavy reliant on Morris and Petry, though Milt Wilcox did win 17 games with a 4.00 ERA. The bullpen had two outstanding arms. Aurelio Lopez pitched 137 innings, won ten games and had a 2.94 ERA.
But no one, either in the lineup, the rotation or the bullpen, made a bigger impact than left-handed closer Willie Hernandez. He worked 140 innings, saved 32 games, won nine more and finished with a 1.9 ERA. Hernandez won both the Cy Young and MVP award—the second closer in four years to do so, following Rollie Fingers of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1981.
Detroit’s schedule in April and May did not have any of the anticipated AL East contenders on the schedule. The Baltimore Orioles were the defending World Series champs, Milwaukee had been a consistent contender over the past several years and no one ever wrote off the New York Yankees.
Of the Tiger rivals in the old AL East, only the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians were on the schedule in the first two months. Neither would be a contender, nor was such expected of them in April. To the chagrin of the rest of the contenders, by the time Detroit began playing serious contenders, they were in control of the race with a historic start.
The Tigers’ stunning 35-5 opening to the ’84 season remains an MLB record and they were 37-9 when June 1 arrived. The Toronto Blue Jays were shaping up as the prime competition, off to red-hot start themselves. The Jays had the second-best record in all of baseball and were a manageable 5 ½ games off the pace. The Orioles were in third, still hoping to work themselves back into the mix. The next 14 games—all against Toronto and Baltimore were a chance for the challengers to dent Detroit’s margin.
The Orioles came in to Tiger Stadium for a weekend sent. Detroit’s bats were ready. Trammell had three-hits, including a two-run homer. The Tigers struck for six runs in the second and cruised home to a 14-2 rout.
But the bats fell silent the rest of the weekend. Morris struggled on Saturday afternoon in a 5-0 loss. And good pitching from Wilcox and Rozema was wasted in Sunday’s 2-1 loss.
When Toronto came in on Monday, the offense continued to struggle in silence. Blue Jay ace Dave Stieb was up 3-0 in the seventh and this June test suddenly wasn’t going so well.
Then Lemon was hit by a pitch and Bergmann singled. Howard Johnson came to the plate. By the latter part of the 1980s, “HoJo” would become one of the game’s best all-around players with the Mets. In 1984 he was still just an unproven utility infield player. HoJo nailed Stieb for a three-run blast that tied the game.
The 3-3 tie stayed until the 10th inning. Bergmann came through again. With two on and two out, he homered. Detroit had a 6-3 walkoff win.
Those late heroics looked even bigger when Tiger pitching faltered on Tuesday and Wednesday, giving up a combined 14 runs in two losses. Thursday afternoon’s getaway day finale was shaping up as a big summer game.
And who else would you want on the mound other than Jack Morris? The ace kept the game tied 1-1 into the sixth when the Detroit bats opened up. Parrish singled, Evans drew a walk and backup outfielder Ruppert Jones ripped a home run. The Tigers won 5-3. They had gotten a split of the four-game set almost exclusively on the power of a trio of three-run blasts.
Now it was time to take the show on the road and that started with a return trip to Baltimore on Friday night. Wilcox was pitching well, but trailing 2-1 in the seventh, he looked ready to take his second hard-luck loss in a week to these Orioles.
Then the heroes of the Toronto series went to work. Bergman worked a one-out walk. HoJo doubled to tie up the game and took third on an error. Trammell’s sac fly gave the Tigers a 3-2 lead that Hernandez made stand up.
When Detroit lost 4-0 on Saturday, it looked like the pattern of the previous weekend might repeat itself. But as it turned out, this Sunday in Baltimore would be a significant day in the season.
The Tiger bats roared in a doubleheader. The top three in the order—Whitaker, Trammell and Gibson dominated the opener. Whitaker scored five runs, Trammell and Gibson had four RBIs apiece. The final was 10-4. Trammell and Gibson went for three more hits apiece in the nightcap, an easy 8-0 win behind Petry.
Taking three of four put a big crimp in any hope Baltimore had of turning this race around. And in the meantime, Toronto was being swept up in New York. The Tiger lead was back to seven games.
Trammell and Whitaker kept hitting on Monday, leading the way to a 5-4 win in Toronto. Even though Morris and Wilcox struggled over the next two games, allowing 19 combined runs, the Tigers had survived this big schedule stretch. An AL East lead that was at 5 ½ games when the 14-game sequence began, now stood at seven games.
Detroit went on to win nine of thirteen against Milwaukee and New York and pushed the lead up to ten games. An early July slump against AL West teams allowed Toronto to knock it back down to seven by the All-Star break. But the Tigers responded by winning 11 of 14 out of the break and pushing the margin back to a comfortable 11 ½ games.
Some middling play in August gave Toronto room to at least stay within shouting distance. On Labor Day, Detroit led by 8 ½ games. Baltimore was in third, 14 games out. It would be a stretch to call this a race, but with another long sequence against Toronto and Baltimore—this one twelve games—there was still a ray of hope, at least for the Blue Jays.
The Tigers lost four of six to the Orioles, but it was way too late for Baltimore. Toronto was the team Detroit needed to beat. And they went north of the border, rolled up 24 runs and won three straight. Then the Tigers took two of three from the Jays back home.
Detroit was up twelve games with two weeks to go. It was all but over. Two days later, when Hernandez nailed down a 3-0 win in Milwaukee, the champagne could flow.
It was the first of three champagne celebrations in the Motor City. The Tigers met the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series, still a best-of-five affair for one more year before being changed to best-of-seven for 1985. Even though the Royals were the pre-eminent team of the old AL West, and would win a World Series one year later, this was not a particularly good team. Kansas City only won 84 games, a figure that was exceeded by Toronto, New York, Boston and Baltimore in the AL East.
A short series is never free of anxiety and this one was no different. The first two games were in Kansas City and after a blowout in the opener, the Tigers needed two nail-biters in Games 2 & 3 to secure the pennant.
It was on to the World Series with the San Diego Padres. After splitting the first two games in San Diego, the Tigers came home and swept the middle three games. The final one was culminated when Gibson hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning to break open an 8-4 win. The Tigers were champs.
The 1984 Detroit Tigers are correctly remembered as one of the great teams of the modern era. Where some modest disappointment comes in, is that in spite of the young talent, the Tigers only won one more AL East title, in 1987, and never made it back to the World Series.
Yes, that is a surprise and disappointment, but the ultimate legacy of the 1984 Detroit Tigers is this—they were an extraordinary team, went wire-to-wire and got only modest challenges in the postseason. That’s greatness.