Throughout our hopefully short time without real live games, we’ll be taking a weekly look back at a specific year in baseball history. What happened, why it mattered, what we’ll remember most. Send us the years you’d most like us to talk about at [email protected].
All-MLB Team (chosen by me, in 2020):
There are certain years in baseball history that will forever be associated with one team. 1927? The Yankees. 1969? The Mets. 2004? The Red Sox.
1984 was that year. 1984 was the year of the Tigers.
When Sparky Anderson was hired as manager of the Tigers in June 1979, he said he had a “five-year plan” to bring the Tigers back to the World Series for the first time since '68. It was clear from the get-go that his plan was right on time. Just before the '84 season started, the Tigers traded for reliever Hernandez, meant to be the last piece for a team that seemed stocked everywhere else. In the season’s first week, Jack Morris threw a no-hitter -- the only one of his Hall of Fame career -- and the first for the Tigers since '58. (The game was on national television, but only because Tom Seaver was supposed to pitch for the White Sox in the game. A rainout pushed the start back, but everyone got to see the no-hitter.)
But the entire first month-and-a-half belonged to the Tigers. Detroit won its first nine games (Morris’ no-no was Game 4), and 16 of its first 17. After 40 games, the Tigers were 35-5, the greatest start in baseball history, to this day. On May 24, they were sitting in first place, already up by 8 1/2 games. It was like a video game in which you are cheating. They would end up clinching the American League East on Sept. 18, and they became the first team since the 1927 Yankees to lead the division from start to finish.
Morris was the star, but the best pitcher may have actually been right-hander Dan Petry, who had a 3.24 ERA. (Juan Berenguer started 27 games for this team, one of the few years of his career he wouldn’t primarily be a reliever.) And Hernandez, who had been an effective if unspectacular reliever before the trade, became an all-world pitcher, appearing in 80 games, putting up a 1.92 ERA and giving up only six homers in 140 1/3 innings. A guy who had never been considered for an All-Star Game was suddenly not just winning the Cy Young Award, but also the MVP Award. (Somehow Ripken, who had a 10 WAR season, finished tied for 27th.)
Everything in the 1984 regular season was about the Tigers, even popular culture! Not only was Tom Selleck regularly wearing his Tigers cap on the top-rated “Magnum, P.I.,” but the Disney Channel movie "Tiger Town," starring Roy Scheider as a Tigers player about to retire and a kid who is such good luck that they only win when he’s in attendance, was all about the team. And, for what it’s worth, it features some of the most breathtaking footage of the old Tiger Stadium you’ll ever see.
But no one would remember the 1984 Tigers if they had collapsed in the postseason. But they didn’t. They breezed past the Royals in the AL Championship Series and had little trouble with the upstart Padres in the World Series, winning in five games. It was beautiful, really, in every way. All those future Hall of Famers and iconic players. A legendary manager. A thriving city in the middle of a vital American industry. A gorgeous eternal stadium that never looked better.
It wouldn’t last. Nothing great ever does. But for one year, the Tigers were everything, the center of the baseball universe. They haven’t won a World Series since. But for that one year, the Tigers were perfect. The Tigers were everything. The Tigers were 1984.
Here are 10 other fun facts from the 1984 baseball season:
1. The other breakthrough team from 1984? The Chicago Cubs.
Led by burgeoning superstar Sandberg and buoyed by risky trades for Sutcliffe, Gary Matthews, Bob Dernier and Dennis Eckersley, the Cubs won 96 games to capture the National League East. They were heavy favorites heading into the NLCS and jumped out to a 2-0 series lead over the Padres, but they lost the next two in San Diego. The Cubs took a 3-0 lead in Game 5, but they’d lose it thanks to a through-the-legs error on a ground ball to Leon Durham during a four-run seventh. Durham had spilled Gatorade on his glove before the inning, and there was a brief time when there was talk of a “Gatorade” Cubs curse. Over the next 18 years, the Cubs would win just one postseason game.
2. Another big Cubs story that year
New Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t put Cubs postseason games in prime-time evening television, reportedly told the Cubs in 1984 that if they did not install lights at Wrigley Field, they would be forced to play at the home of their rivals, the Cardinals' Busch Stadium in St. Louis. By the time the Cubs played their next postseason game at Wrigley in '89, there would be lights.
3. Speaking of Ueberroth
Following his successful shepherding of the 1984 Summer Olympics to Los Angeles, Ueberroth was selected as Commissioner of baseball to succeed Bowie Kuhn. He won Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” later that year for his work on the Olympics.
4. Oh, and speaking of the Olympics …
Baseball was at the Olympics that year! It was a “demonstration” sport, meaning it was played for global promotion but the medals didn't go toward the official count. A team of American amateurs finished second to Japan for silver. They also led to some truly valuable baseball cards. The roster included future big leaguers Cory Snyder, Barry Larkin, B.J. Surhoff, Oddibe McDowell, Bobby Witt and Mark McGwire.
5. The true emergent baseball phenom that year was younger than all those Olympians.
It was Gooden, who at the age of 19, took baseball by storm, making 31 starts (in 218 innings! At the age of 19!) for the Mets and putting up a 2.60 ERA. But Gooden of course was all about the strikeouts, K’ing 276, which would end up being his career high, even better than his Cy Young season of 1985. He’d win the NL Rookie of the Year Award and become one of the most popular players in Mets history, immediately.
6. The Braves and Padres ended up having one of the greatest brawls in baseball history.
You really just need to watch it. Fair to say that if something like this happened today, we’d spend every hour of our day yelling about it.
7. This might not have been the best Padres team, but it boasts something no other Padres team can.
It won a game in a World Series. (The Padres were swept in their only other Fall Classic appearance in 1998.) This was also only the second Padres team to have a winning record, but it had Gwynn (who hit .351), Steve Garvey, Graig Nettles, Kevin McReynolds, Eric Show, Dave Dravecky and free-agent signee Rich Gossage, who signed the biggest contract for a reliever before the season. The Padres were also the only team in the NL West with a winning record, which helped. They were the beneficiary of Durham’s error in the NLCS, but they stood no chance against the mighty Tigers. The winning pitcher of the Padres’ lone World Series win, by the way? Andy Hawkins.
8. The White Sox and the Brewers played one of the longest games in baseball history.
On May 8, they halted play after 17 innings with the score tied at 3 because of Chicago’s curfew rules. They started it again the next afternoon, and the Brewers scored three runs in the top of the 21st … only to have the White Sox score three of their own in the bottom half. Harold Baines put everyone out of their misery in the 25th with a walk-off home run to center field. But the day was just beginning; they had another game to play, one the White Sox won, 5-4. The total running time: Eight hours, six minutes.
10. The Reds began the season with Vern Rapp as their manager.
We chronicled the highly unusual circumstances in a recent story. He was replaced by Pete Rose, who notched his 4,000th hit that season with the Expos, and remains the last player-manager in baseball history.
Send me the year you’d love to have me write about at [email protected].