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Not a baseball fan in America seemed awed by the fact that the Detroit Tigers were leading the East Division of the American League. Anybody, obviously, could lead the easy, easy East. O.K., people said, the Tigers lead, but have they reached .500 yet? Have they won two in a row? Are they still so old their fight song is Brahms' Lullaby?
Well, the Tigers may resemble 25 guys wearing funny clothes to a Ted Weems revival, but they play very well when they pitch well, and that cannot always be said of the live teams behind them. Over the last three weeks Detroit has won 12 of 18 games, a performance due less to the efforts of Joe Coleman, Mickey Lolich, Al Kaline and Willie Horton than to John Hiller, a 30-year-old left-handed relief pitcher with brown eyes, a mustache and three pitches, which he throws mostly for strikes. With Chicago's Terry Forster, Hiller leads the American League in appearances with 18 and he tops the majors in saves with 10—and in valor with as much as the occasion demands.
On a January morning in 1971, Hiller was seated at the breakfast table in his home in Duluth, Minn. He had just finished a cup of coffee and taken a drag on his first cigarette of the day. Suddenly he felt pain in his chest; three hours later he was in the hospital. At the age of 27 he had suffered a heart attack. The record he appeared to be leaving behind was hardly spectacular. It showed some six years of service with the Tigers, covering 23 wins and 19 losses.
John Hiller was that interesting rarity in sports, a kid who signed a contract for no bonus. He did not ask the Tigers for a 27-year, no-cut contract or even a condominium in Nassau. The Tigers found him in 1962 on a sandlot on the outskirts of Toronto and said, "We will give you $400 a month and send you to Jamestown, New York." He said, "Yes, that seems all right," and went dutifully to Jamestown. "I could throw pretty good but not real hard." he says. Hard enough, however, to win 14 games at Jamestown and strike out 172 batters in 181 innings. Hard enough, too, to be elevated through Duluth, Knoxville and Montgomery and up to the Tigers in two seasons. "I had pretty good luck getting the ball over the plate," he says. In 1967 he struck out 49 men and walked only nine as a Tiger. That kind of control is something more than luck. The following August he set a major-league record by striking out six Cleveland Indians in a row at the start of a game. But until the winter of his heart attack Hiller was considered merely a nice kind of player. The Tigers used him as a relief pitcher and spot starter; he was a man who was paid just to do a job. He never worked more than 128 innings for the Tigers in any season, but he never had a losing record.
At the time of his heart attack Hiller weighed 220 pounds. This soon dropped to 148, which acutely concerned the Tigers, who were reminded that Chuck Hughes of the football Lions had suffered a fatal heart attack during a game in Tiger Stadium and Hiller's was relatively severe. As his recovery progressed, he was assigned to Detroit's minor-league club in Lakeland, Fla. as a coach. "We had to make a decision on John," says Tiger General Manager Jim Campbell. "I had my mind made up to release him after I read some of the medical reports. I flew to Florida to tell him I thought the best thing for everybody was that he not try to force himself to come back.
"Well, Hiller is some kind of man. He talked me right out of what I was going to do." Hiller returned to the Tigers last July. Billy Martin brought him back slowly, using him a couple of innings here, a couple there. "The first few times I went out on the mound," says Hiller, "I truly did not know who the players were that I was pitching against. My catcher, Bill Freehan, would call for one pitch and I'd throw another. I was completely without concentration. It was eerie. There seemed to be hundreds of things going through my mind."
Nevertheless, Hiller's comeback was extraordinary. He appeared in 24 games and had three saves, one win and two losses and an earned run average of 2.05.
The other evening in Bloomington, Minn. Hiller came into a game in the seventh inning and received an ovation from the crowd of 20,000 at Metropolitan Stadium. He faced only eight batters. The last was Harmon Killebrew. Before he pitched to Killebrew he stood on the mound with a small smile on his face. Freehan trotted out to the mound to talk things over. "Nobody had sent me more get-well cards than Harmon when I was in the hospital," Hiller said later. "Nobody wanted me back in baseball more than Harmon. Heck, the first five times I faced him in 1970 he got one home run and four walks off me." Hiller got Killebrew out to end the game. Then the Tigers gave him an ovation of their own.
"The tight situations don't seem as tight to me now as they once did," he said. "I used to be a nervous pitcher. I figure now that other things in my life might have been harder. And maybe when I go out there and pitch, other people who have had heart attacks think to themselves, 'There's a guy who is functioning fairly well. I ought to be able to go back and do my job all right.' "
Seven weeks from now the American League will try to win the All-Star Game for only the second time in 11 years. With more obstinacy than wisdom last season the Americans picked no relief pitchers for their All-Star squad. Two words to the wise in 1973: John Hiller.