First in an off-season series; a look back at higher profile free agent signings by the Tigers in winters past.
When it came to getting involved in free agency, the Tigers were late to the party.
With the exception of a one-year, $90,000 contract the team gave to 2B Tito Fuentes in 1977, the Tigers were never players in the annual winter scramble that saw one big name player after the other switch teams.
Tigers fans clamored for their team to get into the bidding wars for the likes of Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose et al, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. General manager Jim Campbell was notoriously tight-fisted with owner John Fetzer's money. Campbell didn't like to pay his own players, let alone mercenaries from other teams.
Campbell was steadfast in his belief that the best way to build a serious contender was through the draft and the farm system. It was a nice little theory, but the Tigers had been awful at drafting and cultivating their own players following the 1968 World Series triumph.
Campbell's stance was admirable but he didn't have the draft picks and young players to back it up. The result was that the Tigers imploded by the mid-1970s, their '68 heroes old and/or retired with nothing left to give.
Campbell squeezed a divisional title from the 1972 team, but there was no core of players to take over for the Loliches, Cashes and Kalines.
It wasn't until the mid-1970s when the Tigers turned their draft fortunes around. Household names like Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish and Morris were being selected and molded in the minors.
In December, 1983, the Tigers finally made a move in free agency.
By then, the Tigers had built a young core that was ready to contend. Campbell had been promoted to president and Bill Lajoie was the GM. The Tigers had given the Baltimore Orioles a battle for the 1983 AL East title before succumbing in September.
Lajoie, not a tightwad by any means, looked at the Tigers roster and felt that another bat was in order.
Darrell Evans was a 36-year-old corner infielder coming off a 30 home run season with the San Francisco Giants. Evans batted left and being a 30 home run guy playing in the swirling winds of Candlestick Park was no small feat.
In 1973, while playing for Atlanta, Evans was one of three Braves who hit 40-plus home runs, joining Hank Aaron and Davey Johnson.
Evans actually had been drafted by the Tigers in 1966 at age 19 but didn't sign with the team.
Seventeen years later, Evans signed on the dotted line for a four-year pact, giving the Tigers their first "real" free agent signee in franchise history. It was a marriage that looked promising on paper.
Evans was 36 and wanted a chance to play in a World Series for the first time in his big league career, which began in 1969. He saw the Tigers as the team that could give him that chance.
For the Tigers part, they felt that if Evans could hit 30 homers while playing half his games at Candlestick, imagine what he could do with Tiger Stadium's short porch in right.
The irony was that while Evans had a relatively lousy season—by his own admission as well—the Tigers won the World Series in 1984 anyway.
Evans didn't come close to producing the way the Tigers—and Evans himself—expected in 1984. He hit a home run in the Tigers' home opener, but hit just 15 more dingers the rest of the season. His batting average was a mediocre .232, though he did manage a .353 OBA thanks to his propensity to draw walks.
But maybe the Tigers didn't need Evans' bat as much as they thought, because while their new signee struggled, the team raced off to a 35-5 start.
More irony: in 1985, Evans broke loose, smacking 40 home runs and leading the American League at age 38, but the Tigers stumbled to 84 wins—20 fewer than the year before.
It wasn't until 1987 when the Tigers' success and Evans' prowess meshed. The 40-year-old Evans blasted 34 homers and the Tigers won the AL East.
In 1988, Evans hit 22 home runs but batted just .208 as the Tigers finished second, one game behind Boston in the East.
The Tigers let Evans go to free agency, where he signed with Atlanta for a second run with the Braves at age 41. He played 1989 as a part-timer with the Braves before retiring.
Despite his status as the Tigers' first free agent splash, most Detroit baseball fans, when they think of Darrell Evans, think of one thing, sadly—his base running blunder in the 1987 ALCS.
But they also surely recall the fans' reaction the next day.
In Game 4, with the Minnesota Twins leading the series, 2-1, Evans was on third base with one out and the Tigers trailing, 4-3 in the sixth inning. Dave Bergman was on second base.
There was yet more irony as former '84 Tigers teammate Juan Berenguer entered the game as a reliever for the Twins. I was at Tiger Stadium that night and the joint was jumping when Berenguer took the hill in the middle of quite a jam.
With the fans losing their minds, Evans took his lead off third base with Lou Whitaker at the plate.
Then, in a flash, the inning, the game and perhaps the series turned.
Twins catcher Tim Laudner, after a Berenguer pitch, suddenly bolted up and fired a strike to third baseman Gary Gaetti. The fans gasped as Evans, inexplicably trapped off third, tried to scramble to safety. But it was too late. Gaetti applied the tag and the crowd groaned.
I can still see Evans from my vantage point in the left field upper deck, on his knees and probably wishing the ground would open and swallow him up after the pick off. The crowd didn't boo; everyone was just too stunned to do much of anything.
Just like that, the whole game's complexion changed. It didn't help soothe anyone's feelings when, moments later, Berenguer uncorked a wild pitch that would have scored Evans with the tying run. But the Tigers didn't score again in the inning and they lost the game, 5-3.
The Twins took a 3-1 series lead.
The next day, Evans strode to the plate for his first at-bat of Game 5. He had been the goat, no question, of Game 4. He knew it, the fans knew it.
But in one of the most stirring moments in Detroit sports history, the fans rose to their feet and gave Evans a standing ovation, filled with love and forgiveness. The grizzled veteran, nearly overcome with emotion, had to take an extra few seconds to compose himself.
To this day, Darrell Evans still gets among the warmest receptions when he's introduced to Tigers fans whenever the team honors the 1984 champs.