Friday, April 06, 2007

20 Years Since Tigers' AL East Miracle

Hard to believe, but it's been 20 years now. Twenty years since the Tigers pulled off a Phoenix-like comeback from the dead. Twenty years since they treated us to maybe the most exciting week of baseball this town has ever experienced.

The 1987 Tigers were a ragtag group, to be truthful. They weren't very highly regarded by the so-called experts. They were coming off a good but not great 1986 campaign. And they had lost catcher Lance Parrish to free agency, to the Phillies. With Mike Heath hurt, someone named Orlando Mercado was the Opening Day catcher. Things weren't looking great for the local boys.

An 11-19 start cemented what most folks believed: that the '87 Tigers would be also-rans in the AL East.

But the team acquired veteran hitter Bill Madlock, languishing on the Dodgers' bench, in early June. Mad Dog had been a batting champion, and his short, compact swing still had some spray left in it.

With Madlock infusing the offense and the pitching settling in, the Tigers began their gradual rise. They simply won with incredible consistency.

The Toronto Blue Jays were the team to beat in '87. They did their best to hold off the charging Tigers. The season looked like it would come down to a showdown in Toronto during the next-to-last weekend of the season. It was a four-game set, and the Tigers hit town 1/2 game behind Toronto. They lost the first three games of the series, prompting Kirk Gibson to declare, "Maybe we're setting the biggest bear trap in history." Tough talk, considering the Tigers were 3 1/2 games behind with eight games to play.

On that Sunday, the Tigers won a gutsy extra-inning contest, needing a run in the 9th to tie it.

They were 2 1/2 games behind with a week to play.

Incredibly, the Blue Jays wouldn't win another game. They finished their season 0-7 -- inlcuding a three-game sweep in Detroit that clinched the division for the Tigers. It was a wonderful, wild final week.

For 19 seasons, the last Tigers' bright spot was the image of Frank Tanana finishing his 1-0 win by fielding Garth Iorg's comebacker and underhanding the ball to Darrell Evans at first base.

The Tigers imploded in the ALCS, getting blasted out by the Twins in five games. But manager Sparky Anderson took it in stride, realizing his team had given him all it had. He said in his book, They Call Me Sparky, that he was never more proud of any team he managed than that 1987 group.

The lesson? Don't let a slow start by the Tigers, should it happen, dampen your spirits. Twenty years ago, a far less talented bunch than the 2007 Tigers was able to rebound from an 11-19 getaway to win its division.

Not the best way to do it, but it's how you finish, right?


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