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Are a thousand words worth a picture?

It was twenty years ago today… No, wait, it was actually 21 years ago. And it was 21 years ago tomorrow. That “twenty years ago today” line, though… Always makes folks think of Sergeant Pepper and stuff. But I digress.

Anyways, the date I am thinking of was June 4, 1984. Much of what I am about to write comes straight from my brain cells. Much more comes from the wonderful archives at retrosheet. What was happening on June 4, 1984? Well, any Tiger fan worth his salt will probably recall the 3-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Mariners in the King-dump over Memorial Day weekend (May 25-27) of that year that ended the fantastic, record-setting 35-5 start. What is less remembered is that we followed that up by taking 2 of 3 in Oakland, then returning to The Corner and losing 2 of 3 to the Orioles. And what were the Toronto Blue Jays doing at around that time? Over that Memorial Day weekend, they swept 4 games in 3 days from the Indians north of the border (an old-fashioned Sunday doubleheader). They then split 2 games (appears as though one may have been rained out) in Comiskey Park (the original), then returned north of the border (bizarre travel schedule, I must say) to take 2 of 3 from the visiting Yankees. In sum, then, the Tigers had gone 3-6 since the 35-5 mark (total of 38-11), while the Blue Jays had gone 7-2 in that time, building on their 27-14 start (for a total of 34-16). Or, in other words, in the space of two weekends plus the week in between (9 days), the Blue Jays improved their position from being 8½ games behind a team that had all the looks of a juggernaut to being a mere 4½ games behind a team that suddenly looked beatable, falling to such pitching luminaries as Ed Vande Berg, Mike Moore, Matt Young, Bill Krueger, Storm Davis and Mike Flanagan in those 9 days. These are the circumstances that set the stage for a 4-game set between the Blue Jays and Tigers at The Corner, starting on that fateful date, June 4, 1984.

Remember, now, that Bobby Higginson and I are the same age, with the same birth date to boot. For those too lazy to go look it up, that means I was set to turn 14 years of age later that summer, a fantastic age to cement my Tiger fandom with a team for the ages. But we didn’t know all that on Monday, June 4, 1984. We only knew then that the Tigers had fired off a great start, even a historic start. We did not yet know the finish, and here were the second-place Blue Jays, somehow just 4½ games back with 4 games head-to-head against the Tigers. I’ll also mention here that the Orioles were another 5 games back of the Jays in the standings, meaning that the Blue Jays were the only team that could make a plausible case for being able to catch the hot-start Tigers.

My dad is a paint chemist. He formulates different kinds of paint for multiple different applications. Living in the greater Detroit area, of course he worked almost exclusively for paint companies that were suppliers to The Big Three automobile manufacturers. Of course, these paint companies made sure to have a pair of season tickets to all the major sports teams in the area, to host a client and have a casual business chat over a ball game. My dad had secured the company pair of tickets for The Corner on the night of June 4, 1984. These were in the lower deck, third base side, second row behind the Tiger dugout. Seats so good that surrounding seats were owned by Jimmy Butsicaris, proprietor of the Lindell AC. At my first game ever (August 12, 1980, started by none other than Mark Fidrych on one of his many comeback attempts), Jimmy himself had gotten a ball tossed to him by one of the players and handed it to me.

So, on Monday, June 4, 1984, the Toronto Blue Jays were in town to play possibly the most pivotal early-June series in the history of baseball. It wasn’t a playoff game or even in the pennant drive, but it felt like it. I wish I could say the place was packed, but retrosheet tells me different (Attendance: 26,733). The Tigers had their fourth-best starter going, Juan Berenguer, against the Jays’ ace, Dave Stieb. I’ll summarize the early innings briefly: Willie Upshaw hit a solo shot in the top of the 2nd, and he was on base later for George Bell, who hit a 2-run shot in the top of the 6th for a 3-0 Jays lead. Through 6 innings, the Tigers could only manage 3 hits and 5 runners left on base against Steib. But, after the 7th inning stretch, Chet Lemon took one for the team, Dave Bergman singled, and Howard Johnson went yard off of Steib to tie the game. As a side note, Sparky had lifted Berenguer before that inning, bringing on none other than Willie Hernandez with 2 outs in the top of the 7th. Willie wriggled out of a man-on-third, nobody-out situation in the top of the 8th after the Tigers had tied it up, and he and Dennis Lamp (who had replaced Steib 3 batters after the Johnson home run) traded goose eggs right through to the bottom of the 9th, when Bobby Cox called on the lefty Jimmy Key to face Kirk Gibson with 2 outs and Dave Bergman standing on 3rd base. Sparky countered with Larry Herndon off of his bench (Johnny Grubb had drawn a spot start that night in LF), but Larry bounded back to Key to end the inning and send the game to extra frames.

My dad loves the Tigers, but he did have to get back to work the next morning. We lived kind of far out from Detroit, and he had a 50-mile one-way commute. He had, earlier that day, commuted those 50 miles home to get me, then came back those same 50 miles (and then some) to get to The Corner. He made a little agreement with me that we would stay for the end of any inning that started before midnight. If the clock struck 12:01 before the start of, say, the 12th inning, we were just going to rush to the car and listen to the remainder of the game on the radio on the way home. So, the Jays came up to bat with Willie Hernandez STILL on the mound. He struck out Lloyd Moseby and got Willie Upshaw on a fly ball to center field. Note that Moseby and Upshaw were both left-handed hitters. At this point, Sparky called on Aurelio Lopez, who got Cliff Johnson (right-handed batter) to ground out to second. For the bottom of the 10th, I think Bobby Cox must have wanted Jimmy Key (his left-hander) to pitch to Darrell Evans, but he, unfortunately, had to get past Lance Parrish first. Parrish stroked a single to lead off the inning. Evans bunted Parrish over, and Cox called for Roy Lee Jackson, a righty, to face righties Rusty Kuntz and Chet Lemon coming up. Kuntz grounded out back to the box, but Chet Lemon managed to work a 2-out walk, leaving things up to Dave Bergman with 2 on and 2 out. It is here that I depart from retrosheet’s information and give the account from my own memory, not even from a scorecard.

I took a peek at the scoreboard clock when Dave Bergman came to the plate: 11:36. In my adolescent mind, I was thinking that, with 2 on and 2 outs, if Bergie could just hurry up and either get a base hit or make the 3rd out, a theoretical 11th inning COULD be played fast enough that the 12th could begin before midnight. Dave Bergman had other ideas. He worked the count against Jackson to two balls and a strike, then took a called strike two. He then proceeded to put on The Dave Bergman Show. He fouled off the fifth pitch, and fouled off another. And yet another, and yet another. At some point, I lost count (I didn’t count things like that back then). He finally decided to take a pitch, which the umpire agreed with him on, calling it ball 3. Bergie wasn’t done yet. Now facing a full count, he fouled off another pitch. And another, and yet another, and yet another. I can’t be positive, but he fouled off at least 3 or 4 pitches on the 2-2 count, and at least that many again on 3-2. I had forgotten all about the time. Then, Jackson threw one in, and Bergman connected for a 3-run homer into the upper deck in right field. He didn’t need the overhang, either. From where I was sitting along the third base line, the ball was traveling dead straight away from me, as if I had thrown it from my seat. I don’t know if it was a cloudy sky that night, or if it was a new moon, but the sky seemed particularly dark. I can still see the flight of that ball in my mind’s eye as if it happened yesterday, the white ball lit brightly by the stadium lights against an inky black sky. Oh, yeah, and I noticed the stadium clock when Bergman came around and touched home plate. It read 11:51. He had been at bat for 15 minutes. Sparky called it the greatest at-bat he had ever seen the next day in the papers. (If anyone has their copy of “Bless You Boys” still around, I’d love it if you would pitch in and type in Sparky’s comments on Bergie’s at-bat in the comments.)

Well, then the Tigers lost the next 2 to the Jays before salvaging the series split with a win in the final game of the series. We went on to take 3 of 4 from the Orioles before facing off against the Jays in Toronto the following Monday (the Jays got swept in 3 by the Yankees in between) for a 3-game set, with the Jays taking 2 of the 3, and you could argue that we really put the Jays away by gaining those 3½ games between the two Jays series and going 11-5 for the remainder of the month of June while they went 7-10 (including being swept in a 4-game series in Milwaukee), thus gaining another 4½ games and leaving the Jays a full 10 games back as of the morning of July 1st. But that was one sweet homer that I’ll never forget in quite possibly the highest pressure game ever played in the early part of the month of June (notice all the pinch-hitting, pinch-running, and especially Sparky’s use of his best reliever for 3 full innings, including bringing him in when the team was down by 3!). Let’s just say that a lot of Tiger fans may have wondered why Dave Bergman was included among the former Tigers to take the field at the closing ceremony for Tiger Stadium. But as for me, I was proving Tom Hanks wrong. There is crying in baseball.

Okay, so that is exactly 1,900 words. So I lied.

Sorry. I don’t have a copy of “Bless You Boys”. I never even heard of it. Is it the story of the ’84 Tigers? If so, I must have it!

I might still have Roger Craig’s book retelling of the ’84 campaign and it might contain some Sparky quotes from THE at-bat.

I do remember well the Bergmann at bat. I didn’t see the game, only the ESPN replay and Sparky’s interview about THE at-bat.

I also remember being very frustrated, at the start of that series, that the Tigers had such an outstanding record, but a very slim division lead to go along with it.

Excellent nostalgia piece. And hey, are you ever going to do a retro blog on the ’68 Tigers?

Posted by Doug Purdie on June 3rd, 2005 at 5:31 pm

No time to pull out Bless you Boys at the moment, hopefully later, but thanks for the brilliant recap. I was 12 that summer, and like you will remember every moment of that incredible summer the rest of my life. Aside from Tanana’s shutout against the Jays on the last day of the 87 season, that was the single greatest regular season Tiger game that I ever witnessed.


Posted by KS on June 3rd, 2005 at 6:31 pm

Sorry I was away for a while right after I posted that… Yeah, “Bless You Boys” was one of those “By Sparky Anderson with…” (name of local sportswriter here… probably either Joe Falls or Tom Gage, I don’t remember which) books. I do recall that it was done in a diary style, that something was said about each and every game. That’s why I mentioned it.

Maybe I could get my dad to do a retro blog on the 68 Tigers… They were before my time. In fact, maybe he could include the part about my older sister being born on Oct. 13, 1968… But my dad made it to 2 games of the World Series! Actual quote to my mom: “We can have more kids any time we want, but the Tigers in the World Series is something that is out of my control.”

Posted by jeff k on June 9th, 2005 at 11:28 am

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