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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Essay # 9 - Detroit Tigers 1987 Pennant Race Thrills

As a Detroit Tiger fan, this time of year is usually meaningless.  With our team relevant again, my thoughts turned to the 1987 playoff run, which was very exciting.  In 1984, we were in first place the whole year, with a target on our backs.  In 1987, we were the hunter.

The 1987 season started like a lot of baseball seasons in Detroit--they got off to a slow and frustrating start—11 and 19.  Lance Parrish had left via free agency, which really stung me as a fan.  In his place, we had a rookie catcher, Matt Nokes, along with Mike Heath.  We had youngsters like Jim Walewander and Scott Lusader.  Pat Sheridan played a larger role now.  Our rotation was Morris, Petry, Jeff Robinson, Tanana and Terrell.  The closer role was less defined, with Guillermo Hernandez (8), Mike Henneman (7), Eric King (9), and Mark Thurmond (5) each having a handful of saves.

Pretty early on, Sparky proclaimed, “I want to tell people something right now, this is a very good baseball team. Make no question about that. And this will be a very good baseball team. I will say this: the people of Detroit will be very happy come October 4.”

They picked up Bill Madlock around June, who caught fire when he arrived.  At the trade deadline, they made the John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander deal.  People often talk about this deal as the classic "mortgaging the future" deal, whenever a similar deal is made.  That year, it worked for us though--Doyle went 9-0 in 11 starts down the stretch.  He was awesome.

In August, with the team still in the hunt, my brother and I went to the Tiger Stadium box office and bought tickets for the last game, “just in case”. 
The last weekend in September was a crucial four game series in Toronto.  The Tigers were ½ game behind Toronto going in.   They lost each of the first three games by one run, including the nationally televised Saturday game, where they blew a 9-4 lead.  After the Saturday loss, Kirk Gibson said, ““Maybe we’re just setting the greatest bear trap in history.”  The next day was an extra inning victory featuring a Gibson homerun and game winning single.  They entered the last week, 2 ½ games behind with 7 left to play.
That week, Toronto was swept by Milwaukee, and Detroit split a four game series with Baltimore.  Toronto came into Detroit for the final weekend with a one-game lead.
That Friday night, my brother, his friend, and I went down to the ballpark, hoping to buy bleacher seats.   But knowing our odds were slim.  The line to the Bleacher Box Office was around the stadium.  It looked pretty doubtful, but we jumped in line anyway.  After a few minutes, a hot chick and her friend walked up to us, at the back of the long line and said, “if you want these three tickets, I’ll give them to you for face value.”   I thought, “She must be an angel.  Hot chicks don’t walk up to people with tickets.  They give them to their boyfriend.”  We scraped together $12 and walked past the entire line, and into the ballpark.
It was a rainy, damp Friday night.  I remember watching the steam waft out of the park into the lights.   The Tigers won 4-3, behind Doyle Alexander.   The Tigers chased Jim Clancy out in the 3rd inning, and David Wells pitched 6 scoreless innings.  As we were walking out, there was an electricity in the air—people high-fiving in the streets.  We saw Tom Monaghan’s helicopter land one of the buildings across the street.   
The Saturday game went 12 innings, with Morris pitching 9 and giving up two runs, and Trammell singling in the winning run in the 12th.  That was Trammell’s 105th RBI, and we thought he was the shoo-in for MVP.

Sunday morning, my stomach was in a knot.  We were up by a game now, and trying to avoid game 163.  The funny part is, we had six tickets and four people—my brother, my dad, my brother-in-law, and me.  Two had backed out, and we were having trouble finding people to go with us.  In the end, my brother-in-law invited his brother, and my dad invited my godfather.
It was a nice autumn day—partly sunny with a little nip in the air.  Our seats were in upper deck right field.    Herndon put us on the board in the 2nd inning with a bases-empty home run.  From there, I saw one of the most exciting pitching duels  of my life, between Jimmy Key, and one of my favorite pitchers, Frank Tanana.
I always loved Tanana.  He came up as a fireballer, ran into arm problems and totally reinvented himself as a finesse pitcher.  It was always fun watching him frustrate hitters.  On that day, he pitched a 9-inning shut-out.  In the 9th, I remember security guards and horses on the field.  I remember that giant knot in my stomach getting tighter and tighter.  It wasn’t an easy shut-out.  There were six hits and three walks peppered in there.
I taped the game, and I can remember George Kell’s call on the last play, with Garth Iorg at the plate: “And a tap to the mound, this could be it!  It’s all over!  The Tigers win it! The Tigers win it!  It’s all over.”  Here is the footage.  This is video gold for Tiger fans.  Here is Ernie Harwell's call of the last half-inning, also gold.  Fans rushed the field, and we sat and watched the chaos.  It felt so good.
That capped off one of my favorite sports moments and periods.  I felt very lucky and blessed to be able to share it with my dad and brother.  I’ve been to a lot of great sporting events since then, including the final game at Tiger Stadium, and Game 4 of the ALDS (where we eliminated the Yankees), but the final game of 1987 at Tiger Stadium is probably the most special to me.
I like to block out the series that followed, with Minnesota.  That’s where my dislike (and respect) of that franchise originated. 
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