Former Tigers Alan Trammell, left, and Lou Whitaker were cornerstones of the 1984 World Series championship squad. (Detroit News file)
Once upon a time, the team had roared away from its competition in the early days of a new season and even at high-level success the ballplayers were crabby.
“You guys are always comparing us to them,” the athletes grumbled to a posse of sports journalists inside their cramped clubhouse in Boston. “We’re not them. We’re our own team.
“We deserve to have our own identity.”
They were right, but we guys considered ourselves historians. Thus, it was our duty to make comparisons. That is the way history evolves. You take one ancient epoch and match it against the achievements of the current athletes.
And the current athletes get miffed about it. They were mere children riding their bicycles with their gloves attached to the handlebars when the players they were being compared to were winning a championship.
This is how it was 30 years ago, when the Tigers were 8-0 –— and surging — in Boston in April. Two rainy days of postponements forced creativity on the journalists traveling with the ballclub.
“Well, they’re not the ’68 Tigers yet,” we historians figured. “They don’t have any Denny McLain and they don’t have Mickey Lolich and they don’t have Willie Horton and Jim Northrup — and for sure they don’t have Al Kaline.”
The star of yesteryear had been turned into deities for 16 years in the nostalgic prose of we the media.
And it is true, the 1984 Tigers deserved their own identity.
And by the time the 1984 season was very far along, the team —Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris, Lance Parrish and Dan Petry, Darrell Evans and Guillermo Hernandez, Larry Herndon and Dave Bergman — had established their own identity as a ballclub.
For sure the ’84 club had Sparky Anderson managing the Tigers with force, compared to Mayo Smith’s homey, fortune-cookie style in 1968.
Waaaaal, as Mayo might have said, the ’84 guys did not have a Gates Brown.
Nope, but they had Kirk Gibson.
Sparky fell into the comparison trap himself: “Gibson is the next Reggie Jackson.”
The June test
Thirty years later, the wisdom of Sparky remains etched in cement, to borrow one of his phrases.
“You don’t know nothin’ until the first of June.”
This was Sparky Anderson telling you what the Tigers did in April and May 1984 amounted to zilch. The Tigers were approaching June 1 with their historic 35-and-5 start.
They were out on the West Coast. They had swept through Anaheim, Calif., with a rout of the Angels. Then they were off to Seattle for three more games.
The Mariners, the sad-sack Mariners, took the runaway, 35-5 Tigers and beat them three straight. It was a series of continuous frustrations. The image still burns of Alan Trammell — usually so calm and devoid of emotion — flinging his bat in anger at the back wall of the dugout in Seattle’s dumpy Kingdome.
By June 1, 1984, the Tigers were locked into a losing streak.
Starting in Seattle, they lost 8 of 12 ballgames. And the fear was on.
Of course, the Tigers quickly regained their equilibrium and continued on to win their division with 104 victories. They trounced the Royals in the pennant playoffs. Then crushed the Padres in the World Series.
Thirty years ago. You could look it up. It seemed as if Sparky had a dynasty in the making.
The Tigers have not won a World Series since.
It was after the conquest of the Padres that Sparky revealed his true feelings. He had fidgeted through the entire summer from June 1 on after the 35-5 start. He feared the worst sort of embarrassment. His team going belly-up. Taking a pratfall.
“I was worried, worried that we’d lose it all,” he admitted.
Well, the 2014 pennant race is just now under way, according to the ancient words of Sparky Anderson.
And again, the Tigers have been spending the weekend in Seattle.
It was philosopher-essayist-poet-novelist George Santayana who delivered one of my favorite statements, now oft-repeated:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
It is true.
A few weeks ago those with a sense of history started the comparison of the 2014 Tigers with their 1984 forebears. And among the most grizzled of journalists, a comparison with the 1968 Tigers.
It was inevitable — Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander vs. Morris vs. McLain. Miguel Cabrera vs. Gibson vs. Horton.
Then the 2014 swoon — in May.
The certain skid. Temporary, no worse.
Fear of looking bad
What I noticed back home in Detroit a week ago — before the Tigers went westward again, Oakland and again Seattle — was the fear of embarrassment. The fear that the Tigers, in command through April and much of May, were flopping and troubled.
But what unnerved Sparky 30 years ago when the Tigers had their monstrous start should never affect current manager Brad Ausmus. When Sparky endured that so-scary — for him — 1984 season, Ausmus was just a 15-year-old youngster in Connecticut, thinking “Yankees stink.”
Ausmus vs. Sparky vs. Mayo?
That comparison could never happen — except by a few media dreamers.
Ausmus has his own identity.
He is balanced and unemotional. He does not fracture the language. He is not homey. He could never develop into the self-styled oracle that made Sparky into an egotistical creature exuding so much baseball fun. Ausmus is totally different than Sparky ever was.
And Brad is totally different than Jimmy Leyland ever was as a manager.
In a personal study of the history of major-league managers, Brad Ausmus reminds me more of Tony La Russa than any other manager.
With smarts and commonsense — and the fires contained inside.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Saturdays at detroitnews.com.