The Disappointing Regression Of The 1982 Detroit Tigers

It was time for the Detroit Tigers. After three years of playing winning baseball, the Tigers made a real run at the playoffs in 1981. They made some big moves in the offseason and those moves proved to be good ones. It was time to return this franchise to the postseason for the first time in ten years. But not only did the 1982 Detroit Tigers fail in that regard, the failed to even come close and took a disappointing step backwards.

No one could blame the pitching. Jack Morris was the ace of the staff and while his 4.06 ERA was high for a #1, Morris made a workmanlike 37 starts and won 17 games. Dan Petry had an even better year, with a 3.22 ERA and 15 victories in his 35 trips to the mound. Milt Wilcox was solid, winning twelve times and posting a 3.62 ERA.

With offense up around the league—the American League average ERA rose from 3.66 to 4.07—the Morris-Petry-Wilcox trio was good enough to key a staff that led the league in ERA.

Detroit made a bold offseason decision to trade leftfielder Steve Kemp, their best all-around offensive player the past three years, to Chicago. The deal paid off. Kemp was never again the same elite player and the return was Chet Lemon, who went to post a stat line of .368 on-base percentage/.447 slugging percentage. Lemon would be a big part of this Tiger outfield for the balance of the decade.

The Tigers dealt Dan Schatzeder, a starting pitcher who hadn’t lived up to expectations and got Larry Herndon from San Francisco in return. Herndon hit 23 home runs in 1982 and, like Lemon, continued to be a key part for Detroit moving forward.

What the Tigers did not get was good production from their great young middle infielders. Alan Trammell, the future Hall of Fame shortstop, had just a .325 OBP in his fifth major league year. Lou Whitaker was a little better at second base, but his stat line of .341/.434 was merely respectable, rather than standout. With first base and third base being black holes of offensive production, and rightfielder Kirk Gibson limited by injuries to 69 games, that wasn’t going to be enough.

Detroit did get a big year from their young catcher Lance Parrish, who slugged 32 home runs. They got valuable bench work from utility man John Wockenfuss, whose stat line was .388/.472. But it was only enough to rank ninth in the American League for runs scored.

The alignment of major league baseball from 1969-93 had each league split into just an East and West division, with the first-place finisher moving directly to the League Championship Series. That meant that centrally located teams like Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee (an AL team prior to 1998) were placed in the East, along with that division’s current members, New York, Boston, Baltimore and Toronto.

New York had won this division five times in the last six years, but there was no shortage of competition. Baltimore was a perennial contender with Earl Weaver in the dugout. Boston was on the downswing after a strong run through the 1970s, but still very viable. Milwaukee was similar to Detroit—that young team looking to make the next step. The Brewers had stayed a step ahead of the Tigers the past several years, most notably at the end of 1981 when Milwaukee nipped Detroit for the “second half AL East title” in a strange year ripped apart by a strike. Collectively, the AL East of this era was baseball’s best.

The Tigers got off to strong start, ripping through the Yankees and Kansas City Royals (traditionally the best of the AL West in this era) with eight wins in ten games. In May, Detroit took advantage of the weaker Western Division with an eight-game winning streak. By Memorial Day, the Tigers were 28-17, in second place and just a half-game back of Boston.

Detroit continued to raise the hopes of the fan base by rolling into the early summer. They won three straight over the Angels, who would outlast the Royals in this year’s Western race. By June 9, the Tigers were 35-18 and into first place by a half-game.

Then it all started coming apart.

Milwaukee, after a sluggish start, made a managerial change and started turning “sluggish” into “slugfest”. The Tigers lost two of three at home to the Brewers and gave up 24 runs in the process. A return trip to Milwaukee ended up with four consecutive losses. In between, Detroit dropped a pair at lowly Cleveland. The Tigers went to Fenway Park and lost three straight to the Red Sox. The losing streak hit ten games.

A four-game series with Baltimore now had to be played with some urgency. Jerry Ujdur, the #4 starter, stopped the bleeding with a 7-1 win in the series opener. Detroit was still 37-29, within 4 ½ games of first and plenty of time left in the season. But they promptly lost the next two. In the series finale, a showdown between Morris and Oriole ace Jim Palmer, turned into a rout that the Tigers lost 13-1.

Detroit came home wounded, but with no time to waste. Boston was in town. The Tigers finally won a series, taking two of three and winning the rubber game 5-4 on a two-run double by Gibson in the eighth. Although they turned around and lost a weekend series to Baltimore going into the All-Star break.

The Tigers were now flirting with .500 at 43-41 and in fourth place, looking up at the Brewers, Red Sox and Orioles. But trailing by 5 ½ games was not insurmountable. There was still time for the hope of spring and summer to translate into a pennant race autumn.

That didn’t happen. Detroit started to play better and the highlight of the late summer was a 12-inning win over the Yanks where Morris pitched eleven frames. The problem was that the quality and depth of the AL East started to assert itself. Milwaukee and Baltimore took over the race and fought it to the final day. The Tigers reached Labor Day with a record of 70-65, but 10 ½ games off the lead.

Detroit’s chance to make an impact on the race would have to come as spoiler and they played a pair of series against Baltimore down the stretch. The Tigers won two of three at home. In the final week, they went to old Memorial Stadium. Those who lived in Milwaukee—like this then-12-year-old writer, were big Tigers fans, at least for a few days.

And they did not let us down. Even though Morris lost a 3-1 heartbreaker in the series opener, Detroit’s bats awoke from a season-long slumber to score 21 runs in winning the next two games. The wins gave the Brewers enough space to hold off a furious final charge from the Orioles over the weekend.

But playing spoiler wasn’t what Tiger fans or the organization had in mind. The 83-79 record, only seventh in the American League overall and 15th in the major leagues, was not even a playoff season by the more generous standards of today. From the perspective of history, Detroit fans know that 1983 saw them return to real pennant race contention and 1984 saw their ultimate breakthrough. But in 1982, they couldn’t be blamed for wondering if the promise of this young team would end up unfulfilled.