As you may have read a little while ago, I did a recap on the (in)famous Game 163 from the 2009 season, with the Twins besting the Tigers in 12 innings to capture the American League Central title.
The reaction to it, on various media platforms, was, shall we say, mixed. I’d say it was a pretty even split between “That game was amazing, even though the Tigers lost” and “Why on Earth did you put me through that torture again?!”. Mission accomplished, baby.
I thought for a bit of a palate-cleanser, I’d take a deep dive on a much more pleasant game: October 4, 1987, Toronto Blue Jays vs. Detroit Tigers, at Tiger Stadium. To spoil the ending, the Tigers won, 1-0, on a Frank Tanana shutout and a Larry Herndon solo home run.
Let’s take a closer look.
The 1987 Season
After a middling 1986 in which the Tigers went 87-75, and three years removed from their latest World Series title, a more seasoned Detroit squad, mostly made up of the core of their championship team, was determined to right the ship. That ‘86 team was never seriously in contention for the division title, although after falling a dozen games back of the Red Sox in mid-June, they did claw back to 4 1/2 games behind Boston a month later. However, the Red Sox went on to easily win the East and eventually lost in a classic World Series to the Mets featuring Bill Buckner’s infamous error.
In the ‘86-’87 offseason, the free agent market was quiet. Too quiet, as the owner collusion scandal later revealed: Jack Morris and Lance Parrish were granted free agency, and Larry Herndon and Darrell Evans were both released. Detroit re-signed three of the four aforementioned, with The Big Wheel joining-on with the Phillies.
The starting rotation for the Tigers saw Morris lead with 18 wins; Walt Terrell was close behind with 17 and Frank Tanana, the hometown guy who’d turned his life and career around from his young fireballer days with the Angels, had 15. Morris completed 13 of his 34 starts, which was definitely not unusual for him in the ‘80s. Dan Petry had an off year with a 5.61 ERA, and Jeff Robinson wasn’t great either... but help would be on the way later in the season, as we will see.
The bullpen was held down by a couple of young guys, Eric King and Mike Henneman, and a veteran, Willie Hernández. (I’m not sure if he’d decided he wanted to switch back to “Guillermo” at that point.) It was more of a “closer by committee” system that year, as King had 9 saves, Hernández had 8, and Henneman had 7.
Up the middle on the infield, of course, were Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. (I’ll argue to my dying breath that Trammell should’ve won the 1987 AL MVP award over George Bell.) Darrell Evans hit 34 home runs as a 40-year-old first baseman, and Matt Nokes had his year in the sun, with 32 home runs from behind the plate. Third base was shared between Tom Brookens, Darnell Coles and Jim Morrison, with Brookens getting most of the starts.
In the outfield were Chet Lemon in center, Kirk Gibson in left, and Pat Sheridan, who was born in Ann Arbor and grew up in Wayne, in right. This would be Lemon’s last year in center, as he was 32 and aging is totally a thing; he’d be replaced there in 1988 by Gary Pettis. Gibson, of course, would bolt for the Dodgers in ‘88 and have himself a heck of a year; as a 10-year-old that season I was disappointed Gibby left, but was thrilled when he had a monster season and pulled off his World Series heroics.
Tiger Stadium, of course, was the Tigers’ home that year. Despite having a reputation as being a hitter’s park, and with the right-field overhang snagging a few fly balls for home runs, that year it actually favored pitchers a bit. The center field was ridiculously deep, of course, and the flagpole was in play — something the Tigers tried to bring to Comerica in 2000.
On April 27, the Tigers found themselves a distant 10 games behind the Brewers in the American League East with a 7-12 record. Of course, part of this gap was due to Milwaukee’s ridiculously hot start; at that point the Brewers were 17-1 after starting the season with 13 consecutive wins, but they would eventually cool off and finish in third place. On that day the Yankees were a more reasonable 14-5, and the Blue Jays were at 10-8, two years removed from their first division title.
By the end of May, the Brewers had come back to Earth and the Tigers were a half-dozen games back of New York. Toronto was right behind the Yankees, and the Tigers were still stuck in fifth place; the AL East was a ridiculously strong division that year, and at this point only two of the seven teams were under .500.
After the 1987 All-Star break, the Tigers were at home to face Seattle in a four-game series, and that’s where they made their big move. They took three of four from the Mariners, then won two out of three against Oakland to sit three games back on July 22, in a statistical tie with Toronto for second behind the Yankees. After winning the first two games against the White Sox a week after that, they were only a half-game behind New York, with Toronto a half-game behind Detroit. (Milwaukee, by this point, had slipped to nine games back and under .500.)
Mid-August would see the Tigers flirt with first place before finally getting a game clear of the Blue Jays on August 29; the Yankees had slid back to five games behind Detroit and were fading quickly. The first three weeks of September saw the Tigers and Blue Jays trading places at the top of the division, neither team going up more than 1 1/2 games at any point, and the final drive to the finish line was sure to be a nail-biter.
The Doyle Alexander Trade
How could I summarize the 1987 season without mentioning this? It’d be like going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert and having them conveniently skipping “Freebird.” It just can’t be done in good conscience.
Doyle Alexander — a name that, to me, sounds like that of a British cavalry officer from the 1700s — turned 37 in September of 1987. His last year in baseball was 1989, a lousy season for both him and the Tigers, after which he decided to hang ‘em up. He’d had some good seasons in the ‘70s, but in the early ‘80s he bounced around from Atlanta to the Giants, then the Yankees, and finally found a home in Toronto, of all places, where he helped the Blue Jays to their 1985 American League East title.
His 1987 season in Atlanta, his second stint with that team, wasn’t going well. Through 16 starts he had a 4.13 ERA (with a 4.84 FIP, so he was actually a little lucky), a 5-10 record, and because I love it when pitchers hit even when they’re awful, was batting .029 (1-for-35). This was uncharacteristically bad, even for him; he was a .166 career hitter and managed to hit four doubles in 1981.
But the Tigers weren’t interested in his hitting prowess, meagre as it was: they were after his arm.
John Smoltz, who’d grown up in Lansing and was drafted in the 22nd round by the Tigers, was having a lousy go of it in the Eastern League for the Glens Falls Tigers. Sure, he was a 20-year-old, three years below the league average age, but his 5.68 ERA, 1.631 WHIP and 81 walks against 86 strikeouts in 21 starts weren’t really impressing anyone. His previous year in Lakeland he’d been a bit more successful, with a 3.56 ERA and a 1.219 WHIP, but the Florida State League has always been pretty pitcher-friendly.
The old saying goes, “The team that won the trade was the team that got the major-league-ready player.” And you can’t argue with the Tigers’ immediate results: they won the division and Alexander was a key factor. Could the Tigers have known Smoltz was going to have the career that he had? He turned it around quickly, too; in 1988 for Atlanta’s AAA affiliate in Richmond, he posted a 10-5 record with a 2.79 ERA and a 1.145 WHIP, drastically lowering his walks, bumping up his strikeouts, and only allowing five home runs in 20 starts.
Guess who was Smoltz’s pitching coach in Richmond in 1988, I dare you. I double dare you.
(You’re right. It was Leo Mazzone.)
So, Smoltz goes on to be a Hall of Famer, and Alexander had two seasons left in him after this one. Who won the trade? I’ll tell you who won: both teams did. Glad I could finally put that pseudo-debate to rest.
Alexander was traded by Atlanta to Detroit on August 12. His first start was on the 15th in Kansas City, an 8-4 win in which he got a no-decision and gave up four earned runs in six innings. Maybe he was just getting used to the new laundry detergent the Tigers’ clubhouse guys were using at first, because in his next start on the 20th against the Twins in Detroit he threw eight shutout innings, giving up five hits. Two starts later he’d toss a complete-game shutout against the Rangers, and two after that he duplicated the feat against the Orioles. His third shutout followed on September 23rd, a two-hitter on short rest in Boston, and he pitched into the 11th inning, on three days rest again, on September 27th in Toronto.
That’s a lot of innings, and a lot of success, in a month and a half. He went at least seven innings in ten of his 11 starts, and pitched nine or more in four of them.
The Last Week and a Half of September
After that September 23rd shutout in Boston, the Tigers went to Toronto to face the Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium for a crucial four-game series. “The Ex” should never have been a Major League Baseball stadium: it had been the site of the Toronto Argonauts’ home games since 1959, and was designed to be the temporary home of the Blue Jays until they could build something better... which came along in mid-1989 as the SkyDome.
The Tigers started that series a half-game behind Toronto, and lost the first game 4-3 to fall 1 1/2 games back. The next two games were even more heartbreaking, with two walk-off losses in a row (3-2 and 10-9, the second being a crazy game in which Henneman had to bat and eventually got tagged with the loss). Detroit managed to win the finale 3-2 in 13 innings, putting the Tigers 2 1/2 games back with a week to go.
Detroit came home for a four-game set with Baltimore, which they split two games apiece, and going into the final weekend the Tigers were a game behind Toronto in the standings. It would all come down to that early-October three-game series at Tiger Stadium.
For those of you who weren’t around, or weren’t following baseball, in the late 1980s, the Tigers-Jays rivalry was probably the best in the sport. They both had great teams and a lot of success, were in the same division a four-hour drive from each other, and played each other frequently. I grew up in southwestern Ontario, between London and Sarnia, which was very much split Jays/Tigers fan country. My two elderly neighbours, who were both my grandparents’ age, had flipped to being Jays fans — but we were a Tigers household, darn it. They would rib me about the latest Tigers loss, and I could dish it out back to them if Toronto lost. It was all in good fun, but I can’t say there wasn’t a little edge to it, too.
For a baseball-rabid 9-year-old, it was heaven.
The Friday night game saw Alexander face Jim Clancy, who had a run of great years in Toronto and isn’t as well-remembered as he should be. The Jays scored three in the second off a Manuel Lee three-run home run, his only homer of the year; Scott Lusader closed the gap to 3-2 in the bottom of the inning with a home run of his own. Trammell hit a solo shot to lead off the bottom of the third to tie the game; Evans followed with a walk, chasing Clancy for David Wells. Nokes hit a single to put runners on the corners and Lemon hit into a double play, scoring Trammell. That would be the end of the scoring as the Tigers hung on for a 4-3 win, with Henneman getting the six-out save, pulling the Tigers even with the Jays for the division lead.
The Saturday matinee was a tense affair on national television, with Mike Flanagan facing Morris. Flanagan lasted eleven fantastic innings, while Morris went nine; single runs were sprinkled over the first five innings, then nothing until the bottom of the twelfth. Flanagan gave way to Jeff Musselman, who got a quick Mike Heath groundout before singles by Whitaker and Bill Madlock put runners on first and second. Jim Walewander ran for Whitaker, and a Gibson walk loaded the bases. Trammell was the hero, hitting a single to left, scoring Walewander and putting Detroit a game ahead of the Blue Jays with one to go.
The stage was set: if the Tigers won Sunday, they’d clinch the division. If they lost, we’d have a one-game tiebreaker to decide the crown, which a coin-flip had already determined would be in Detroit. Gee, I wonder what a one-game tiebreaker involving the Tigers would look like.
The Early Innings
You can watch a digitized VHS copy of this game on YouTube. That sax-heavy bumper music from WDIV playing behind Bernie Smilovitz’s reading of the sponsor ads, to me, is still the bumper-music gold standard. The box score is here.
Naturally, on the above broadcast, the voices you hear are those of George Kell and Al Kaline. To me, growing up, these were the voices of baseball. Pair those up with Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey doing the games on WJR, a station I once was able to pick up through the air near Ottawa, and that was just a magical time to listen to, or watch, a Tiger baseball game.
Just over fifty-one thousand people packed Tiger Stadium that day; the start time had been moved back to 3:00, so the shadows were in play right from the start. If you’re too young to have ever visited that beautiful old ballpark, let me tell you, that place got loud. The upper deck was stacked on top of the lower deck — yes, this meant there were steel pillars that obstructed a few views, but this allowed the upper deck to be just as close to the action as the lower deck, something with which fans at Comerica are not similarly blessed. The roars would build and build, and if you were on the lower deck, if the upper deck fans were stomping their feet, it sounded like it might all come crashing down at any minute. I loved that place, cigar smoke and all.
Here were the starting lineups:
There are some curious choices made by Sparky Anderson here. I would’ve had Lemon lead off, seeing as how he was decently fast and had a .376 OBP. I’d have bumped Gibson up to second, batted Trammell third, then Evans and Herndon would round out the top five — but hey, I’m not a Hall of Fame manager. Tom Brookens, the everyday third baseman, was absent from the action that day due to “an upset stomach” which had him in the hospital the night before
The Blue Jays had some Tigers connections in that lineup: both Cecil Fielder (whose name Kell and Kaline both mispronounce, but he was young and relatively unknown at the time) and Lloyd Moseby went on to play for the Tigers. Garth Iorg’s son Cale (whose actual first name is also Garth) was drafted by the Tigers in 2007 while he was on a Mormon mission to Portugal. Cale got as far as Toledo, but never made the major leagues.
Jimmy Key got the nod for the Jays, against Tanana for the Tigers. I’d always get nervous when Key faced Detroit; it seemed like he always had at least seven solid innings in him. He wasn’t going to no-hit you, but he wasn’t going to get blown out either; his 2.76 ERA on the season was a little flukey, as his FIP was 3.61, but his WHIP was 1.057. Key’s ERA and the WHIP both led the league, so Toronto manager Jimy Williams went with his best that day.
Tanana’s 1987 season was arguably his best with the Tigers; his WHIP was 1.244 and, for all the looping slow curveballs he threw, he only walked 56 batters in 218 2/3 innings (2.3 per 9 innings). Before this game Tanana had gone the distance four times, including two shutouts, so far in the ‘87 season. Key could also finish ‘em up, with seven complete games and one shutout going into the ultimate contest.
Liriano started off the game with a walk, after ripping a barely-foul drive down the left field line. He took second with a one-out single to left by Bell, but Tanana got out of the inning with a strikeout and a groundout.
Whitaker led off the first inning with a single to right field, but Madlock followed with a grounder to third that was turned into a double play. (Seriously... the lead-footed Bill Madlock, batting second?! Come on, now, Sparky!) Gibson popped out to shortstop for the third out.
Fielder, who was batting from a low crouch, led off the second by lining out to right; Kell finally got his name right, and also remarked how he had “tremendous power.” (Right you were, George.) Lee fouled-out to third, Iorg struck out, and Tanana took a seat.
Leading off the bottom of the second, Trammell — who was serenaded by “M-V-P!” chants, tried bunting for a base hit, to no avail. I was wandering around Baseball Reference and looked at a random Detroit-Boston box score from earlier that season, and the number of bunts was just astounding. Why is your cleanup hitter, who has smacked almost thirty home runs that year, bunting?! Oh, 1987 baseball strategy, you are a magnificent enigma.
And then... Herndon turned a 2-1 fastball around and snuck a line drive just over the fence in left field, probably helped by the wind, putting the Tigers ahead 1-0. A pair of ground balls by Lemon and Evans finished the frame, but the damage — indeed, all the damage anyone would ever do that day — had been done.
Moore, who’d been catching in lieu of Ernie Whitt’s injury, poked a flair into shallow centre to lead off the third. Interestingly, this would be the 1334th and last game in Moore’s baseball career; he’d spent over a decade as a catcher and sometime right fielder in Milwaukee. (He’d finish the game 2-for-2 with a walk. Well done, sir.) A wild curveball got Moore to second, and after Moseby struck out, an intentional walk to the (in my eyes) illegitimate MVP Bell put two runners on, and Beníquez grounded out to short.
Key got through the bottom of the third easily, with Morrison trying to bunt for a base hit (insert pained sigh here), a Heath groundout, and a Whitaker strike out/wild pitch/C-1B putout.
The Middle Innings
A very odd thing happened after Fielder singled to left with one out in the fourth: he tried to steal second. (He probably missed a sign.) As anyone who watched that Tigers/Twins game in 1995 in which he actually managed to steal his first career base knows, he got thrown out easily with Lee at the plate. It’s a good thing he did, too, as Lee proceeded to hit a ball hard off the right field wall that caromed past Herndon for a triple; slow as Fielder was, he definitely would’ve scored on that one. Iorg followed with a first-pitch flyout to Lemon in left-center for the third out, and that was that.
In the bottom of the fourth, Gibson walked with one out and stole second without a throw. Trammell was intentionally walked for forceout-inducing purposes, but Herndon struck out and Lemon grounded out to second.
Moore led off the top of the fifth with a walk, but was involved in a nifty 6-4-3 double play turned by Detroit on a ground ball hit by the speedy Liriano. If Tiger fans were lucky with their TV and radio commentators, they were even luckier having Whitaker and Trammell as their double-play combination from late 1977 through 1995 when Whitaker retired. They played 1874 games together and turned over 1100 double plays, the most as a duo in history. As we all know, Whitaker still isn’t in the Hall of Fame, which I fully expect to be rectified: if Bert Blyleven can eventually make it in, so can Lou. Moseby then hit a tapper to first; Evans tossed to Tanana, and that was it.
The bottom of the fifth and the top of the sixth were 1-2-3 innings, as the pitchers settled-in: the Tigers managed two groundouts and a foul popup to first, and the Blue Jays got a flyout and a pair of groundouts to third, including a scorcher for the third out. The bottom of the second saw Whitaker hitting a single to center, but Madlock followed with another double-play grounder, and Gibson struck out looking.
One of the things we used to get a kick out of when I was a kid watching Tiger games on TV was how, after Gibby struck out, the camera would often follow him into the dugout to see if he was mad enough to yell or break something. Sometimes he would.
The Late Innings
Early in the game, Tanana was having trouble controlling his curveball, but he was starting to dial it in by the time the seventh inning rolled around. Whoops, not so fast! With two outs, Iorg struck out on a huge, looping curveball that bounced far enough from Heath that Iorg took first without a throw. Moore followed with a single to left, pushing Iorg up to second. You really had to wonder if this is when Toronto was going to break through; Sparky got Mark Thurmond and Dickie Noles up in the bullpen, but a sharp Liriano grounder to shortstop, and a quick toss to second, got Tanana and the Tigers out of trouble.
After the stretch, Trammell led off with a walk but yet another ground ball double play, this time from Herndon, erased the baserunner. Lemon struck out to end the seventh, and the game was still at 1-0 as the crowd could sense that the game, and the division title, would go right down to the wire. The buzz from the crowd was both excited and nervous.
Moseby singled to right on the first pitch of the eighth, and after a Bell flyout, Moseby stole second; the throw was a little high and an on-the-money throw might’ve gotten him. Beníquez lined out to right; Lusader had been inserted as a defensive replacement, and his throw to third wasn’t in time to get an advancing Moseby. The Blue Jays had the tying run on third base with two out in the bottom of the eighth with the dangerous Barfield at bat, but Tanana got Barfield to hit a chopper back to the mound that he had to jump to field. The throw to first was just in time to get the speedy Barfield, and the Tigers had three more outs to get.
Key, with plenty left in the tank, struck out Evans, Morrison and Heath, all swinging, in the bottom of the eighth. At this point Henneman started warming in the bullpen, as did Blue Jays closer Tom Henke. As a young Tiger fan, I always hated seeing Henke come into the game. He was a bit of an incongruous sight out there: tall, somewhat dorky-looking, with glasses. He looked like an accountant. But, darn it if he didn’t nail down a lot of saves for those hated Jays.
Tanana had three outs to get, and the young Jim Walewander replaced Morrison at third base for the ninth. Fielder struck out on a full-count fastball; Tanana reached back and gave it everything he got on that one. Lee was next, and while showing bunt early, he worked the count to 2-0 before Tanana eventually got Lee to hit a one-hopper to Walewander at third. The throw to Evans at first was a little low but was scooped up for the second out.
That would leave it all up to Iorg. Tanana floated a first-pitch changeup high and outside, and Iorg swung at it a little awkwardly. He hit a tapper back to Tanana who ranged to his left, spun, and tossed underhanded to Evans at first.
The crowd in Detroit that day screamed themselves hoarse and refused to leave. Sparky calmly handed his clipboard to someone else — he’d been tracking pitches for the entire game — and walked out onto the field. A few fans made it onto the grass, but the swarm of police officers, some on horses, kept most of them in the stands. The sweep was complete, the Tigers won the division... and, well, we know what happened next against Minnesota.
The next morning, I cut a picture of the Tigers celebrating out of the London Free Press and taped it up on my bedroom wall; it stayed there for many years. While the Blue Jays went on to win the division in 1989 and nabbed a pair of World Series titles, I still had the 1987 stretch drive, where the Tigers took on the Blue Jays and came out victorious, to hold onto. Many of my friends who hadn’t been terribly into baseball suddenly became pretty interested in the likes of Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar in the early 1990s.
The Tigers would drop the American League Championship Series to Minnesota in five games, perhaps wrung-out from the emotional September they had. The Twins, as you well know, would go on to beat the Cardinals in the 1987 World Series, featuring the first such games inside a domed stadium. Four years later the Twins would win another championship, that time against Atlanta. So, I guess it turned out pretty well for them.
The Blue Jays, as mentioned above, would win the 1992 and 1993 World Series, against Atlanta and Philadelphia, respectively. Not too shabby.
Within two years of winning the 1987 American League East, though, the aging Tigers would fall to last place in the division, losing 103 games. They’d briefly flirt with relevance in the early 1990s, even spending a couple of months in first place in the 1993 season before a July swoon knocked them out of contention for, well, about 13 years.