They hardly ever fumble, and their 3-4 defense, which sometimes includes two All-Americas, has very few holes. They come out at intermission throwing the ball and hitting hard, and if they keep this up, the Detroit Tigers, hitherto known as the best football team in baseball, could end up being the best baseball team in baseball.
As of last Sunday, thanks to a nine-game winning streak, the Tigers had the best poststrike record in the majors (10-3) and led the American League East by two games over Milwaukee. Even had the season picked up where it left off, Detroit would be in first, with a one-game lead over the Yankees and a three-game edge over the Orioles.
Go ahead and say it. The Detroit Tigers? The team that Sparky Anderson took over a couple of years ago? The club with the wide receiver from Michigan State in the outfield and the quarterback from Michigan at first? Heck, the Tigers had a better chance of making the Rose Bowl this year than the World Series.
The team has to put up with grid gags constantly. Every time Kirk Gibson settles under a fly ball, it's a fair catch. Each throw Rick Leach makes is a completion—or an incompletion. The other day when Leach fouled a ball off his foot in the batting cage and started yelping, teammate Ricky Peters, a hot dog who dots the "i" in his name with a star, told him, "Just make believe the center stepped on your toe in a pass-block situation."
How these fellows became the Monsters of the Midway Through the Season is something of a mystery. They aren't exactly knocking down the fences, and their big hitters have yet to start hitting. Jack Morris, their All-Star pitcher, hasn't won a game since the Second Season began.
What the Tigers have done is combine an offense as pesky as the mosquitoes in the dugout with a relief staff that is, in the word of Anderson, "unreal." At one point the relievers hadn't allowed an earned run in 34⅔ innings. Detroit's emotional leader nowadays is a dark-haired, clear-eyed, round-bellied 25-year-old relief pitcher named Kevin Saucier. That's pronounced so-shea, although the manager still calls him saw-sea-air. Saucier has gotten five of his 12 saves since the break and lowered his ERA to 1.24. He is a free spirit who once said to Anderson after being summoned into a tight situation, "What seems to be the trouble here, Skip?" Each time "Hot Sauce" finishes a game, he stomps and dances and actively seeks out the hand of every Tiger. Saucier usually shakes Alan Trammell's hand first, but the shortstop has learned his lesson. "I kind of hold back a little, don't give Sauce too much of a hand," says Trammell. "That first handshake with him is dangerous. A guy could get a shoulder dislocated if he's not careful." Mark Fidrych may be in Evansville, but his spirit lives on.
The records show that Roger Craig gave up pitching in 1966, but, in truth, he has become the ace of the Tigers' staff. Craig, the pitching coach, calls all of Saucier's pitches, relaying signals to the catcher, who then puts down the fingers. Craig also dictates what relievers Dave Tobik, Dave Rozema and George Cappuzzello throw. "It's the next best thing to pitching," says Craig. "I guess I'm having a pretty good year."
Another reason for the Tigers' surge is a group modestly called the Riders of the Lonesome Pine, or the Pine Bros., for short. Infielder Mick Kelleher is El Capitan, and Outfielder Lynn Jones is King Pine. The other members are Stan Papi, Bill Fahey, John Wockenfuss, Champ Summers and Leach. These guys usually ride the bench, though Anderson likes to play everybody. In 70 games this year, he has used 53 different lineups. "The Pine Bros, have been more instrumental in this streak than the regulars," says regular Leftfielder Steve Kemp.
The Tigers' strong showing has surprised even their silver-haired and-tongued manager. Anderson went to Detroit in 1979, and proceeded to overrate his new charges. "I really did think they were better than they actually were," says Anderson. "Now, trying to be realistic, I think this club is going to be great in 1983 and 1984. That's when we'll go from being the hunted to the hunter. Of course, if this keeps up, I might have to move the timetable up." Anderson takes a pull of his pipe and looks out of his office into the clubhouse. "They're really enjoying this, you know," he continues. "I think it's delightful."
The delight began on Friday night, Aug. 14, in Detroit. The Tigers, 1-3 at the time, beat the Yankees 1-0 as Milt Wilcox, enjoying the best season of a so-so career, shut out New York on three hits over 8⅔ innings. Saucier came in for the last dance. The next night Detroit came from behind twice to defeat the Yankees 8-5 as Al Cowens hit a two-run homer and Saucier pitched 2⅓ innings of shutout relief. On Sunday, the Tigers were trailing the Yankees 4-2 with one out and two on in the ninth when Gibson hit a breathtaking shot that landed deep in Section 43 of the right centerfield bleachers. He trotted home to a mob scene at the plate. It was the Tigers' most euphoric moment since the Bird was in full flight.