Does that look like the guy you want leading your baseball franchise?
If you are slightly past middle aged and a Detroit Tiger fan like myself you remember the 80's vividly. I also remember that two of the biggest moments in World Series history were accomplished by two players who came up through the Tigers farm system.
This was a decade that showed so much promise with great young players like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Kurt Gibson, Jack Morris and Dan Petry forming the core of what we hoped would be a decade of dominance.
By the early eighties we couldn't imagine an all-star game without a healthy representation of Tigers on the team.
When the Tigers blew the doors off the competition in 1984 with that 35 and 5 start followed by a dominating performance in the post season it seemed like multiple World Series appearances and post season awards followed by enshrinement into the Hall of Fame seemed the only likely path for many of the players.
So what happened?
How was it that 1984 and a brief appearance in 1987 were the only seasons the Tigers made the playoffs?
Did we overrate the core players?
Baseball-Reference does a study where they find the most similar player based on statistics and a quick look at some of the Tigers could give us a clue. I will provide the closest player for their careers and just after the 1989 season, click on the Tiger to see the Baseball-Reference player page for more similar players among many other features.
career - Dennis Martinez, 1989 - Dave Stieb. This probably does not do him justice, consider that out of the top ten most similar pitchers they listed for career six of them are in the Hall of Fame.
career - Gary Carter, 1989 - Bill Freehan
career - Barry Larkin, 1989 - Edgar Renteria
Lou Whitaker 2nd base
career - Ryne Sandberg, 1989 - Jim Fregosi
Kirk Gibson OF
career - Ray Lankford, 1989 - Larry Hisle
career - Ken Hill, 1989 - Mudcat Grant
Chet Lemon OF
career - Johnny Callison, 1989 - Amos Otis
Darrell Evans DH/1st
career - Graig Nettles - 1989 same
career - Jim Brewer, 1989 - Dave LaRoche
Now these similarity scores are based on batting and pitching stats so the fielding abilities don't come into play but in most cases we know the Tigers were among the better fielders at their positions also.
We also have to remember that injuries played a large part in keeping down the totals of Kirk Gibson and Dan Petry but it is interesting to note that they still put together pretty respectable careers.
So what did that little look tell us?
Think of this line-up for a minute.
Do you think they could score some runs?
That's two Hall of Famers with some pretty impressive help, throw in the pitchers Dennis Martinez, Mudcat Grant and Jim Brewer and you have a pretty good core.
Even the fringe players like Larry Herndon (Kevin Bass) and Dave Bergmann (Gerald Perry) were similar to some pretty good players.
Built the way everybody says you have to do it too with strength up the middle and a big horse leading the pitching.
Clearly the Tigers had the main horses and I will write about a few of them a little more in the future but this article is about figuring out what went wrong in the eighties.
Don't forget the Tigers had a Hall of Fame manager with Sparky Anderson guiding them throughout the eighties. It is kind of hard to look his way when he had so much success with developing and managing the Big Red machine.
Sure, there were injuries to Kirk Gibson and Dan Petry but they still put in very good years and the rest of the team stayed pretty healthy.
There were no super teams like the Big Red machine or stirred by Reggie Oakland As to contend with. The only franchise to win multiple titles in the eighties were the Los Angeles Dodgers with two.
But it's that second Dodger title with Kirk Gibson leading the way that might give us a little clue.
The Tigers were nickled and dimed to death.
When John Fetzer sold the Tigers to Tom Monoghan in 1983 the Tigers future looked great with a robust farm system to go along with that impressive young core already in place.
Getting some fresh blood into the ownership seemed like the just the right addition and the young pizza mogul and self proclaimed baseball nut appeared to be the perfect answer.
What do they say about appearances?
Something about being deceiving?
While the Tigers showed their appreciation to Monoghan with that marvelous 1984 season he was cutting expenses throughout the organization.
At first it was the minor leagues and scouting that took the hit with many minor league coaching positions eliminated and replaced by a few roving coaches.
This development went largely unnoticed by the average fan but the results can be seen now as no new starting quality positional players came out of the farm system after Kirk Gibson in 1983 until Travis Fryman in 1991 and the after shock was felt well into the late nineties.
The minor league pitchers suffered a similar fate with relief pitcher Mike Henniman being the only addition of consequence of note added after Dan Petry.
I have to wonder if a little more minor league coaching couldn't have brought out a little better results from players like Torey Lovullo and Steve Searcy.
Maybe not, but it sure wouldn't have hurt and adding a player here and there would have made a big difference in the win column.
But Monoghan didn't stop there, he had to mess with that core too.
The eighties were just the beginning of true free agency in baseball and the Tigers were front and center for franchises that players were leaving behind.
Lance Parrish was the first to leave when he signed with the Phillies following the 1986 season yet the Tigers weathered that storm pretty well with a play off appearance in 1987.
Unfortunately when Gibson then Morris followed Parrish out of town the Bless You Boys era was over.
The Kirk Gibson saga was especially telling when Monoghan got involved with the negotiations personally and commented on how he didn't believe that with the unshaven look and gruff manner of Gibson he fit the image of the Tigers.
Now I will agree that a clean face and pleasant demeanor goes a long way in the Pizza business but the Dodgers seemed willing to overlook those defects all the way to a title in 1988.
Actually most followers credit that Gibson no nonsense attitude as being the backbone of the Dodger pennant and we sure could notice the difference in the Tiger's attitude after he left.
I can't find fault with the player for leaving, the Tigers always seemed to be lowballing them in the negotiations and Parrish, Gibson and Morris were in high demand. All-Star catchers and legitimate Aces don't grow on trees.
I really don't find fault with the GM Bill Lajoie either. He made some nice trades like the one that netted Willie Hernandez and some low rent signings like Darrell Evans and David Terrell.
Even the Smoltz for Alexander trade worked when Alexander went 9-0 down the stretch of the 1987 season.
Lajoie never was able to bid on some of the better free agents and I sure can't imagine a scenario like the Caberra trade where the owner approached the GM about raising the budget if it meant adding that kind of player.
Not even going to get on him for the decline of the farm system, remember he was the assistant GM when the Tigers brought in all those core players before Monoghan arrived. It's just very hard to maintain a farm system when the owner is cutting everything from coaches to equipment upgrades.
To me the one single reason for the disappointing eighties falls on one man's shoulders and I stopped eating his pizza twenty five years ago.
My little boycott didn't seem to make much of a difference though.
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