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At the end of spring training the Detroit Tigers had more wins than any team in baseball. At the end of last week, those same Tigers were in first place in the American League's East Division with a 6-2 record. But despite his club's early foot, Manager Ralph Houk has not swallowed his tobacco chaw in excitement. After all, "great" teams invariably come in first, "good" ones finish second, and "good young" ones end up third. The Tigers are of the last category—"the best young team in baseball," says Houk. But young, nonetheless, with toddling players like 23-year-olds Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, who has won his first two starts, and heavy hitters Jason Thompson and Steve Kemp. "It's hard for kids to compete with proven stars," Houk says between spits. "But I sure couldn't complain about third."
Third would keep the Tigers' rebuilding program right on schedule. They were fourth a year ago, fifth in 1976 and sixth in both 1975 and 1974. Once a team of despair, or "non-competitive," as one player says, they are now a team of destiny—"a championship contender within a year or two," another Tiger insists.
Just how far Detroit has come—and how much further it has to go—was evident in games last week at Texas and Toronto. The Rangers finished second in the West last year and are favored by some experts to win it this season, but the Tigers beat them twice, 6-2 behind 21-year-old Dave Rozema and 3-2 behind Fidrych. That is as many times as Detroit defeated Texas all last season.
The Toronto Blue Jays are not expected to improve on their last-place finish of 1977. Nonetheless, against the Blue Jays in weather so snowy and cold that Fidrych wore socks to keep his hands warm (see cover), the Tigers last Friday committed three errors, three wild pitches and a passed ball, got two runners thrown out between third and home, blew a 3-0 first-inning lead and lost 10-8. Obviously, when a team is both good and young, anything can happen.
Last weekend, only good things happened to the Tigers. On Saturday, Ron LeFlore had three hits, including his third home run, as Jack Billingham, a Cincinnati discard, won his second straight start by beating Toronto 6-3. On Sunday, Thompson stroked a two-run single in the seventh that lifted Detroit to a 4-3 victory over the Blue Jays.
The Tigers are trying to improve in the traditional way, by developing players within their own organization instead of buying them in the free-agent market or trading for them at the expense of younger talent. Of the 18 players who have been in the starting lineup this season, 11 were originally signed by Detroit. Not only are they young (their average age is 25.5), but they are also new to Detroit (only Centerfielder LeFlore and Third Baseman Aurelio Rodriguez remain from the regular lineup of three years ago).
Detroit has been able to build from within because it has one of the best minor league systems in baseball. Last year Class AA Montgomery won its third straight Southern League pennant, and Class A Lakeland took its second consecutive Florida State League crown. In addition, two other farm teams, Evansville of the AAA American Association and Bristol (Tenn.) of the Rookie Appalachian League, finished third and second, respectively.
But as good a job as the scouting and development departments have done, there have been some foul-ups. In 1971 the Tigers made Shortstop Tom Veryzer, now a Cleveland Indian, their No. 1 pick and overlooked a Detroit schoolboy named Frank Tanana. The Angels have been grateful ever since.
Such slipups have been rare enough that Detroit believes it is starting another decade of success like the one that produced nine winning seasons between 1964 and 1973. The best years were 1968, when Denny McLain won 31 games and Detroit beat St. Louis to win the World Series, and 1972, when the Tigers, managed by Billy Martin, took the East Division. Of the six men who started on both those clubs, five—among them Catcher Bill Freehan and Outfielder Willie Horton—were home grown. "We did it once before," says General Manager Jim Campbell, "and we feel, God willing, we can do it again."
Houk has had a difficult time deciding which of his young players to put on the bench. "I don't think it's right not to use a player who did well in the spring," Houk says. Among those who have won their way into Houk's platoon system is Rightfielder Tim Corcoran, 25, who hit .356 in spring training. On Tuesday night against Texas he had three hits and two RBIs and scored two runs. Another is Rookie Catcher Lance Parrish, 21, the Tigers' No. 1 draft choice in 1974, who hit .325 in Florida and helped beat the Rangers Wednesday night with a home run.