July Baseball in Detroit Used to Sizzle Every Year
Whether you parked your buggy somewhere along Abbott Street or off Michigan Avenue, or in the Firestone lot across the street from the ballpark, the air was teeming with baseball electricity.
Maybe the Blue Jays were in town, or the Yankees. Perhaps those darn Orioles.
You headed toward Tiger Stadium, looming somewhere several blocks away, and you caught portions of conversations along the way, as you passed peanut vendors and the old-timers waving their hankies and towels, beckoning folks to park in their lot.
"Sparky's got the boys playing..."
"...can't stand that Rick Dempsey. Who's HE to talk about our..."
"Why isn't Ernie Whitt a Tiger? He's from Detroit, for God's sake..."
".,..meeting them at Hoot McInerney's; we're late..."
You hoofed it to the old ballpark---Tiger Stadium with its lights already on despite the fact that sundown was still a couple hours away. You couldn't wait to get there.
Don't start the party without me!
A mental note to stop at Sportsland U.S.A. afterward, maybe pick up a New Era cap, just like the big leaguers wear. Or a few blocks further to down a couple of pops at Nemo's.
Or back to the car for the short trip to the Lindell AC---simply the greatest sports bar that God ever placed on Earth.
But that was hours away. First, there was a big ballgame to witness.
This was Tiger Stadium, circa the 1980s and this was a quote-unquote big series played out in mid-summer.
From 1980-1988, the Tigers posted winning seasons. In many of those, they were contenders until long after the All-Star break---at least.
It was a far cry from the early Comerica Park days, when all the fun happened on Opening Day and that was it until...next Opening Day.
Not until 2006 did the Tigers begin playing meaningful ballgames at CoPa past April.
1981: The players go on strike for almost two months, return on August 9 with the All-Star Game in Cleveland. Kirk Gibson, hitting in the .230s in the first half thanks to a wrist injury, blasts out of the gate in the second half, his wrist apparently OK.
Gibby is sizzling, batting .370-ish and leading the Tigers in a race with the Milwaukee Brewers to a watered down second half division championship. The Tigers come up short, but it's the first "pennant race" in these parts since 1972.
1983: The Tigers are chasing the Orioles, who never seem to lose. The kids of the late-1970s are blossoming into bona fide big league veterans: Parrish, Whitaker, Trammell, Gibson, Morris, Petry, et al.
There's tension at the old ballpark throughout the summer, the scoreboard watched intently.
Look---the O's just got three runs in the eighth in Chicago to take the lead.
It comes down to seven games against the Orioles in September, but the Tigers pretty much have to win all seven to have a shot.
Doesn't happen, but maybe next year...
1984: The whole season is a carnival at Michigan and Trumbull. The only drama is whether the Blue Jays can get the Tigers tuned in, like a radio station far away from home. The Jays are always 8-10 games out, no matter what they do.
A trip to the ballpark that summer wracks no nerves. Most pennant races are suffered through like a root canal. But not in 1984; the Tigers that year are novocaine.
1986: The Gentleman from Virginia, Johnny Grubb, gets smoking hot sometime in July and the Tigers hop on. They're trying to catch the Red Sox and Grubber is Babe Ruth for a few weeks.
The Red Sox are managed by someone else named Joe Morgan that year, and they don't seem to lose, either. But Grubb gives it his best shot as a one-man wrecking crew.
Tigers fade in September. Maybe next year, again.
1987: This wasn't a pennant race, it was a seance.
The Tigers were moribund in May, with a record of 11-19. They died a few days later.
But then they picked up a graying veteran hitter named Bill "Mad Dog" Madlock in early June.
The Tigers came back to life, and began haunting the Blue Jays after the All-Star break.
This time, it was the Tigers who couldn't lose. They charged back, hugging the rail and blowing past all the East Division teams until the only one ahead of them was Toronto.
Even a 3-1/2 game lead with a week to play couldn't save the Blue Jays.
The Tigers swept Toronto in Detroit on the final weekend, capturing the division flag---still their last one, some 23 years later.
The Tigers go 87-45 after their bad start and end up with the best record in baseball.
The Twins' mastery over the Tigers in games played after September 1 begins in '87, when they beat them in five games in the ALCS.
1988: The Tigers pick up veteran hitter Freddie Lynn on August 31. It's a strange race that year, with just about the whole division in it until early-September, when the Red Sox begin to pull away. The Tigers had a lead in August but frittered it away.
Still, they make a September push but it's like a race between two senior citizens with rheumatoid arthritis. Neither the Red Sox nor the Tigers do much winning. The Red Sox nurse a slim lead while the Tigers run in place.
The final standings show the Red Sox winning the division by one game over the Tigers, but it's not that close; the Red Sox slump in the final week, but time runs out on everyone else, the Tigers included.
2010: This weekend, those menacing Twins hit town. It's July baseball, with amperage.
The division won't be decided this weekend; it'll just seem like it.
The three games will be like what legendary manager Earl Weaver once said about baseball: Each game is a series of nine nervous breakdowns.
If you're going to the ballpark, there'll be something extra in the air when you climb out of your vehicle.
The Twins are in town. July baseball with sizzle.
Just like it used to be.