The Tiger hitting has been good enough to keep the team in the first division, but that's about all. "We hit well enough to burn some of the contenders," says a Tiger player, "but to make a real run for the pennant the Big Man has to have a big year."
The Big Man—Al Kaline—slumped last season (17 HRs, 68 RBIs), but he was bothered by a foot injury most of the year. This spring the foot felt fine, and Kaline may be ready to hit the way he did in 1963 (27 HRs. 101 RBIs). Don Demeter also had problems and ended up with only 80 RBIs—27 fewer than he knocked in for the Phillies in 1962. Nonetheless, Demeter was a real tiger when there were men on base—he drove in the tying or leading run 36 times. "'I guess I concentrate more when I'm challenged," he said.
Norm Cash hit 23 home runs and knocked in 83 runs (tops on the team), but he batted only .275. If Cash were to get hot, he could carry the team with his momentum alone, as he did in 1961 when he hit 41 homers, won the batting title (.361) and had the Tigers ahead of the Yankees most of the season. But some think the home runs ruined Cash as a hitter. "He tries to pull every pitch," admitted Coach Bob Swift, the Tigers' manager pro tern until Charley Dressen recovers from a springtime heart attack.
The Tigers' best batter last season was 23-year-old Bill Freehan, who took over as first-string catcher and batted an even .300, with 80 runs batted in. Don Wert also became a regular and hit a useful .257. Gates Brown (.272 as a rookie in 1964) is being challenged for the left-field spot by Willie Horton (.288 at Syracuse) and rookie Jim Northrup (.312 at Syracuse), as well as by onetime bonus baby George Thomas, who hit .286 for the Tigers in 308 at bats. Horton hit 28 home runs at Syracuse and lots more in Florida the past two springs ("He's a tough act to follow," says Freehan) but hardly any at all in a brief trial with the Tigers (1 HR, .163 BA in 25 games). Jerry Lumpe and Dick McAuliffe slipped 20 points below their 1963 averages, but McAuliffe made up for it by blossoming into a home run hitter. (He hit 24 to lead the team.) He had averaged 10 a year in his previous three seasons.
Early in the spring Hank Aguirre, the cheerful left-hander who is a bit of a hypochondriac, asked a catcher, "How's my curvature?" He was told that his curvature was perfect, better than it ever has been, and that his screwball was great, too. That was not so last season, when he completed only three games in 27 starts and slipped from 14 wins to five. First, Aguirre pulled a leg muscle, and then he decided that his arm had gone dead. Half the season was over before he realized his arm was fine. Phil Regan, too, looks more like the 15-9 pitcher he was in 1963 than the 5-10 pitcher he was last season. "Regan was slider crazy," said Swift. "He went to the slider so often that he couldn't throw his curve. This year I told him to forget the slider and stick to the curve."
With Aguirre and Regan off form last season, the Tigers' only dependable starters were Dave Wickersham (19-12) and Mickey Lolich (18-9). Wickersham never has problems with his arm—he doesn't throw hard enough to hurt it. ("I'd be ashamed to throw his flat, dinky curve," said a fellow pitcher.) Wickersham pitches with his head as much as his arm; he keeps a written book on all the hitters in the league. His wife, Carol Sue, helps him keep track by listening to major league broadcasts. "He's amazing," one Tiger said. "He not only knows where he's going to throw the ball to the batter, but he also knows where the batter's going to hit it. One day against Boston, Wick called time with a man on base and Stuart up and told Cash to hug the chalk. Darned if that wasn't where Stuart hit the ball." Lolich, on the other hand, just fires the ball. Still, he knows where it is going, too. Last year he had the biggest surplus of strikeouts over walks of any American League pitcher (192 strikeouts, 64 walks).
In the bullpen, Terry Fox (4-3) appears to be rid of the arm trouble that has plagued him the past four years, and Larry Sherry (7-5)—thanks to a tip from his brother Norm—is releasing the ball the way he did before he tore a shoulder muscle. These two and Fred Gladding (7-4) could give Detroit a strong relief corps. Best of the rookies is Bruce Brubaker (15-9, 2.63 ERA at Syracuse), who has an overhand curve almost as good as Minnesota's Camilo Pascual.
The outfield is in good hands with Kaline in right, Demeter in center and either Thomas or Northrup in left. If Brown or Horton play left it will be because of their bats, not their gloves. McAuliffe committed more errors (32) than any other American League shortstop, but he also handled more chances than any other except Ron Hansen of Chicago. The rest of the infield—Cash, Lumpe and Wert—is better than average, and in Freehan the Tigers have the best young catcher in the league.
Year after year Detroit is everyone's favorite dark horse, and year after year Detroit finishes up the track. This season the long-shot lovers are ignoring the Tigers, and it seems a shame, because they look stronger now than they have in a long time.