They hardly ever fumble, and their 3-4 defense, which sometimes includes two All-Americas, has very few holes. They come out at intermission throwing the ball and hitting hard, and if they keep this up, the Detroit Tigers, hitherto known as the best football team in baseball, could end up being the best baseball team in baseball.
As of last Sunday, thanks to a nine-game winning streak, the Tigers had the best poststrike record in the majors (10-3) and led the American League East by two games over Milwaukee. Even had the season picked up where it left off, Detroit would be in first, with a one-game lead over the Yankees and a three-game edge over the Orioles.
Go ahead and say it. The Detroit Tigers? The team that Sparky Anderson took over a couple of years ago? The club with the wide receiver from Michigan State in the outfield and the quarterback from Michigan at first? Heck, the Tigers had a better chance of making the Rose Bowl this year than the World Series.
The team has to put up with grid gags constantly. Every time Kirk Gibson settles under a fly ball, it's a fair catch. Each throw Rick Leach makes is a completion—or an incompletion. The other day when Leach fouled a ball off his foot in the batting cage and started yelping, teammate Ricky Peters, a hot dog who dots the "i" in his name with a star, told him, "Just make believe the center stepped on your toe in a pass-block situation."
How these fellows became the Monsters of the Midway Through the Season is something of a mystery. They aren't exactly knocking down the fences, and their big hitters have yet to start hitting. Jack Morris, their All-Star pitcher, hasn't won a game since the Second Season began.
What the Tigers have done is combine an offense as pesky as the mosquitoes in the dugout with a relief staff that is, in the word of Anderson, "unreal." At one point the relievers hadn't allowed an earned run in 34⅖ innings. Detroit's emotional leader nowadays is a dark-haired, clear-eyed, round-bellied 25-year-old relief pitcher named Kevin Saucier. That's pronounced so-shea, although the manager still calls him saw-sea-air. Saucier has gotten five of his 12 saves since the break and lowered his ERA to 1.24. He is a free spirit who once said to Anderson after being summoned into a tight situation, "What seems to be the trouble here, Skip?" Each time "Hot Sauce" finishes a game, he stomps and dances and actively seeks out the hand of every Tiger. Saucier usually shakes Alan Trammell's hand first, but the shortstop has learned his lesson. "I kind of hold back a little, don't give Sauce too much of a hand," says Trammell. "That first handshake with him is dangerous. A guy could get a shoulder dislocated if he's not careful." Mark Fidrych may be in Evansville, but his spirit lives on.
The records show that Roger Craig gave up pitching in 1966, but, in truth, he has become the ace of the Tigers' staff. Craig, the pitching coach, calls all of Saucier's pitches, relaying signals to the catcher, who then puts down the fingers. Craig also dictates what relievers Dave Tobik, Dave Rozema and George Cappuzzello throw. "It's the next best thing to pitching," says Craig. "I guess I'm having a pretty good year."
Another reason for the Tigers' surge is a group modestly called the Riders of the Lonesome Pine, or the Pine Bros., for short. Infielder Mick Kelleher is El Capitan, and Outfielder Lynn Jones is King Pine. The other members are Stan Papi, Bill Fahey, John Wockenfuss, Champ Summers and Leach. These guys usually ride the bench, though Anderson likes to play everybody. In 70 games this year, he has used 53 different lineups. "The Pine Bros, have been more instrumental in this streak than the regulars," says regular Leftfielder Steve Kemp.
The Tigers' strong showing has surprised even their silver-haired and-tongued manager. Anderson went to Detroit in 1979, and proceeded to overrate his new charges. "I really did think they were better than they actually were," says Anderson. "Now, trying to be realistic, I think this club is going to be great in 1983 and 1984. That's when we'll go from being the hunted to the hunter. Of course, if this keeps up, I might have to move the timetable up." Anderson takes a pull of his pipe and looks out of his office into the clubhouse. "They're really enjoying this, you know," he continues. "I think it's delightful."
The delight began on Friday night, Aug. 14, in Detroit. The Tigers, 1-3 at the time, beat the Yankees 1-0 as Milt Wilcox, enjoying the best season of a so-so career, shut out New York on three hits over 8⅖ innings. Saucier came in for the last dance. The next night Detroit came from behind twice to defeat the Yankees 8-5 as Al Cowens hit a two-run homer and Saucier pitched 2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings of shutout relief. On Sunday, the Tigers were trailing the Yankees 4-2 with one out and two on in the ninth when Gibson hit a breathtaking shot that landed deep in Section 43 of the right centerfield bleachers. He trotted home to a mob scene at the plate. It was the Tigers' most euphoric moment since the Bird was in full flight.
The Twins came into town for three, and left town with three more losses. On Monday, Detroit won 12-2, thanks to an eight-run first inning, six RBIs by the splendid double-play combination of Trammell and Lou Whitaker and two more RBIs by Gibson. It was Leach's turn to be the hero the next night. He hit a three-run homer that accounted for all the Tigers' runs as Wilcox and Saucier again teamed up for the shutout. "I can't say that was the biggest thrill of my life," says Leach. "I did have a few at Michigan. But it was my biggest in baseball." Dan Schatzeder and Tobik combined to shut out the Twins 4-0 on Wednesday, and one of the Pine Bros., Papi, came through with a two-run homer.
The Twins, however, aren't the '27 Yankees. Nor are they even the '81 Rangers, who came into Detroit last Friday. The Tigers had to start Aurelio Lopez, normally a reliever, because Morris had a stiff shoulder, but this was the night the regulars started hitting the long ball. First Baseman Richie Hebner smote a two-run homer in the first, Kemp a solo shot in the third and Whitaker a two-run home run in the seventh. Going into the game, the Tigers had hit only 24 homers in 36 games in Tiger Stadium, which is usually a very good home-run ball park.
Lopez left after five innings, giving way to Cappuzzello, who held the fort until Saucier arrived in the seventh. Al Oliver led off the eighth with a harmless home run, the first homer off Saucier all year and the first run he had given up in 21 innings. He actually shook off Craig's signal on that pitch. Following orders, Saucier didn't allow another hit, and he picked up his 11th save in the 7-4 victory.
On Saturday, Anderson and Craig set what must be a major league record for trips to the mound—six—in a shutout. They nursed Dan Petry through six innings of constant trouble, though he gave up only one hit. Then Rozema came on and pitched well until giving up a lead-off single in the ninth. Sure enough, he had shaken off Craig on the pitch. Guess who came on? The Rangers sent up Bill Stein, batting .403 as a pinch hitter, against Saucier. After Stein swung at a fastball and missed, Craig, sitting in the dugout, touched his left ear, his right ear, the bill of his cap, his nose and his mouth. Catcher Lance Parrish got the message and relayed it to Saucier, who threw a cruel slider that Stein beat into the ground for a 4-6-3 double play. Saucier then retired Billy Sample for save and dance No. 12. Together the three pitchers yielded only four hits in the 2-0 win.
On Sunday the left-leaning Tigers faced Jon Matlack, their ninth lefthander in 13 games. Gibson's two-run homer in the first staked them to an early lead, but Wilcox didn't have his good stuff and had to leave after six with the score tied 3-3. The Rangers went ahead 4-3 in the ninth, and for the less-than-faithful, it appeared that the winning streak might end.
But Jones led off the bottom of the inning against Matlack with only the sixth homer of his career. Kemp, who didn't start because of a sore wrist, singled off reliever Jim Kern and went to second on a sacrifice. After Whitaker was intentionally walked, Peters hit for Cowens and brought the count to 3-0. Steve Comer relieved Kern and got one strike, and then Peters chopped a grounder just off the glove of First Baseman Stein to score Kemp with the winning run.
The outside of Tiger Stadium is badly in need of a paint job, and the club knows it. Ninety cents of every ticket sale is earmarked for renovation. On the field, though, the paint job begun four years ago is nearly complete. The Tigers still have a few patches to touch up—they could use a regular third baseman and a power-hitting outfielder, preferably righthanded—but the first coat is down. First came Kemp in 1977, out of USC with only 125 minor league games under his belt. He turned into one of the best hitters in the league in just three years. Although he feels he's having a subpar season—.295, 34 RBIs, seven homers—and is hearing boos after winning a $600,000 salary in arbitration, he's still the most dangerous batter on the team. "The strike hurt me a lot," says Kemp. "I have a very active swing, and timing is important. I was hitting the ball well before the strike, but I don't feel good at the plate. Plus I'm mentally fatigued. A pennant race would cure that."
Whitaker and Trammell won their jobs at second and short, respectively, in '78, and their faces still look as if they came out of a high school yearbook. After an off year, Whitaker is back hitting .265, and Trammell is batting .297, highest among the regulars, after a slow start. Before Friday night's game, he belatedly accepted his Gold Glove from Rawlings.
The other key up the middle is Parrish, who started catching full time in '79 and has hit 43 homers the last two years. He looks as if he could beat the living daylights out of any runner who tries to score, which no doubt helped him land a job as a bodyguard for singer Tina Turner over the winter. Parrish is struggling at the plate—.227 with only seven homers—but he's suffering his slump with the same nonchalance he shows his squealing teenybopper fans.
The golden boy is, of course, Gibson. "He has no idea of how good he is," says Summers. "All he needs is time." One of the most impressive things that Gibson did last week was get thrown out at first. On Friday night he hit a routine double-play ball to second but beat the throw to first, although the umpire mistakenly called him out. Leach doesn't have Gibson's baseball talent, but, says Anderson, "The kid's a winner. He's the kind of guy you don't notice until you go over the scorebook and find out he figured in every run." The Tigers plan to play Leach more in the outfield, especially now that they have acquired First Baseman Ron Jackson from the Twins.
Meanwhile, Detroit has the Pine Bros. Membership perks include a card, a license plate and an official T shirt, suitable, says Kelleher, "for pregame lounging and postgame interviews." Anderson keeps his bench happier than most managers do simply because he plays all 25 men. "That may not be the key to making money," says King Pine Jones, who is, by the way, the leading hitter on the team at .302, "but it's the key to winning." In the Tigers' winning streak, eight different players had the game-winning hit, Gibson being the only repeater.
The most significant improvement in the Tigers is the pitching staff, which has lowered its ERA from 4.25 last year to 3.47 so far this season. Wilcox, a sometime breeder of chinchillas, gives most of the credit to Craig. "He taught me a forkball and got me throwing an overhand curve instead of a slider," says Wilcox, "but mentally, he's helped me even more. He said I was the best pitcher in the league, and I started believing him. And even though he doesn't call the pitches for me anymore, he changed my whole pattern around."
Morris came into his own under Craig, as well. Tobik, Cappuzzello, Petry and Rozema are all reclamation projects. Says Rozema, "A lot of guys have occupied these pitchers' lockers since I got here five years ago. Right now we have the best staff I can remember."
There to rescue them all is Saucier, who came to the Tigers almost by accident. This time last year, he was in another pennant race, serving mostly as an observer from the Phillies' bullpen. He was the player to be named in the deal that sent Sparky Lyle to Philadelphia from the Rangers. Three weeks later, the Tigers traded spare Shortstop Mark Wagner to Texas for Saucier. "I'd never seen him," says Anderson, "but our scout was very high on him. The funny thing was, we had two lefthanded relievers in mind. The other one is in the minors now."
What with the football players on his baseball team, Anderson naturally goes to boxing for an analogy. "Managing the Reds was like managing Joe Louis," he says. "We'd stalk our opponents. Managing the Tigers is like managing Billy Conn. We have to do a lot of dancing." Students of boxing will recall that had the first Louis-Conn fight ended after 10 rounds, Conn would have won. Who knows what can happen in this 10-round season?
Off the bench and into the breach come the Riders of the Lonesome Pine: Stan Papi, Mick Kelleher, Rick Leach, Lynn Jones, Bill Fahey and John Wockenfuss.
Reliever Saucier, who has saved 12 games and has a 1.24 ERA, leads the applause for himself.
Anderson had said the Tigers would be tough by 1983, but he's having to revise that timetable.
Gibson, an All-America wide receiver at Michigan State, may be the most talented Tiger of all.
Shortstop Trammell is the top hitter among the starters.
Second Baseman Whitaker and Trammell make up one of the game's best double-play combinations.