After last place finishes in 1974 and 1975, there was some hope in Detroit, at least in the outfield. Ron LeFlore started the season with a 30 game hitting streak and was an All Star. He also showed more speed than anyone in a Detroit uniform since Ty Cobb. Rusty Staub came over in the trade for Mickey Lolich (which I hated at the time) and played in every game. Just missing the .300 mark (.299), Staub added some power as well. Alex Johnson, in his final season, did alright, when he felt like playing, of course. I've never found out why Ralph Houk disliked Ben Oglivie so much. Even back then, I could see that the guy could flat out hit and Benji added some power as well. He'll work his way into a platoon with Johnson in left. While none of these players were noted for their range or defense, there is super sub, Mickey Stanley, on the bench. Stanley did everything but pitch and catch and his 1's and 2's for his fielding ratings sure make me wish there were a couple more players just like him on the team. Stanley also chipped in with the bat, as well.
Aurelio Rodriguez brings his prized 3b-1 to the team, a real blessing for the infield. However, he won't hit much. Jason Thompson was called up after two weeks, when it became apparent that Dan Meyer wasn't going to be able to produce any power. Thompson was force fed first base and showed he was over matched, hitting under .220, but he did show signs of his power, slamming 17 homeruns and drawing the second most walks on the team. Thompson would break out next season. At shortstop, Tom Veryzer declined again, a wasted #1 pick. The real black hole is at second base. Gary Sutherland, Jerry Manuel and Pedro Garcia couldn't hit or field. There is always infield backup Chuck Scrivener, who had a career year, hitting .224. Yeah, I know, but it's a whole lot better than 1977's .083.
Bill Freehan was supposed to back up young Milt May. When May crashed into a wall and injured his knee, needing season ending surgery after just six games, Freehan was the man again. He ended his career trying to teach young Bruce Kim and John Wockenfuss how to catch, while having a decent year at the plate.
When healthy, Willie Horton is solid at the DH spot.
The pitching is another story. Joe Coleman was supposed to be the new ace, but far too many innings that past several years had taken it's toll on his arm and he was sold to the Cubs in June. Lefty Dave Roberts should be pretty decent and ended up pitching the most innings for the team. Vern Ruhle and Ray Bare will be so-so as starters. John Hiller IS the bullpen and I'll overuse him, just like in real life. There really is no choice, I've found that out already in the games I've played. Steve Grilli, Jim Crawford, Bill Laxton and Dave Lemanczyk are the kind of guys you just close your eyes and roll the dice, hoping for the best, but afraid to watch.
Then, there is the Bird. Not even on the 40 man roster, Mark Fidrych somehow made the team out of spring training. Left on the bench to rot for the first two months, he was pressed into service as a starter in late May. The rest is history. The goofy farm kid, he was part Yogi Berra, "A hit is as good as a walk" and part naive little kid (After Mickey Stanley had just been thrown out at third, Fidrych tried to fire the team up by yelling out, "alright now, let's take advantage of that!"). And it was no act, the sheltered farm kid was just like most of us, in awe that he was playing baseball with all of his heroes, in front of huge crowds and getting paid for it. Besides his pitching ability, that was the real effect he had on this team. His child like belief that they could win every game and that his heroes could do all kinds of amazing things rubbed off on the players. It made playing the game fun again and gave them hope that the team was on the upswing. Willie Horton told a story of how he came to the ballpark, on crutches due to an injured ankle, unable to walk. Fidrych kept coming into the trainers room, telling Horton to get ready for the game, because they would need him in the 9th inning. Horton went from telling Fidrych he was crazy to suiting up and.....going out to pinch hit in the bottom of the 9th. Horton legged out a walk off double. While standing on second base, Horton said that he then realized he couldn't walk and had to be carried back to the dugout. Horton said that Fidrych had instilled this belief in him that he could do something that he knew he really couldn't do. That was what Fidrych really brought to the team.
Sadly, the naive Fidrych was no match for greed. While he made the ML minimum salary, the Tigers, the other A.L. teams and television made a fortune off of him, with the crowds and ratings he drew. When Fidrych injured his knee in spring training in 1977, the Tigers didn't see an injured, overworked kid. They just saw the money they were losing with him not pitching. So, just like with Frank Lary back in 1962, Fidrych was rushed back onto the mound way before his knee had healed. And, just like Lary, to try to protect his knee, Fidrych had to change his pitching motion and ended up blowing out his rotater cuff. While the Tigers kept running Fidrych out to the mound, year after year, instead of getting him the proper treatment, the results and the pain, got worse and worse until the Tigers let him go after the 1981 season. Fidrych was never bitter about his treatment though and never complained about all of the money that he missed out on. He always figured that he'd be a farmer and couldn't believe that he got paid to play baseball. Flaky, yes, but also classy. He left the earth far too soon and there will never, sadly, ever, be another player like the Bird.