Frank Tanana, second from right, is mobbed by Tigers teammates after his 1-0 win over the Blue Jays clinched the AL East in 1987. (Associated Press / Duane Burleson)
Detroit — Certainly, it’s not the same anymore. Nobody’s suggesting it is.
The luster is long gone, partly because the Blue Jays have been mostly terrible for so long, following a dark period in which the Tigers were mostly terrible for so long. They also no longer play in the same division anymore, that old and oh-so competitive American League East.
But there was, in fact, a time not long ago when a Blue Jays-Tigers game was, indeed, a big deal. In the 1980s, there were few rivalries more intense — the battle finally climaxing in an epic 11-day stretch of stunning and beautiful baseball to close out the 1987 regular season.
And here’s a fun fact: Outside of a handful of early April showdowns over the years, Tuesday night’s game at Comerica Park appears to mark the first time since that memorable and dramatic final series of 1987 that the Tigers and Blue Jays will play each other while both occupying first place.
This series, though, is just a mere blip on the baseball consciousness — just three of a measly six games the teams will play against each other, before the mighty Blue Jays (34-24) and balanced Tigers (31-22) turn their attention elsewhere, namely the AL East race for Toronto and the AL Central race for Detroit.
Then again, there is always the postseason. If the season ended today, the Tigers and Blue Jays would meet in the first round of the playoffs – and that’d be a first, although more than two decades ago, seemingly every time these two teams squared off, it sure felt like the playoffs.
“It’s one of those things that’s still near and dear to me,” said Dan Petry, a fine starting pitcher on those 1980s Tigers. “I was just over in Windsor on Thursday playing in a charity outing, and we were talking about that. I miss those days when the Tigers and Blue Jays actually played several times a year.
“I just remember how good we were, and how good they were.”
The Tigers and Blue Jays were two of the winningest teams of the 1980s, the Tigers 839-727 (second to only the Yankees) and the Blue Jays 817-746, impressive for a franchise that only launched in 1977. Each won two division championships, the Tigers in 1984 and ’87, the Blue Jays in 1985 and ’89. They finished one game apart in 1986 and ’88, two games apart in ’87, three games apart in ’83 and five games apart in ’82. In 1984, they were 1-2 in the standings, and in 1985 they were 1-3.
And head to head, it was even closer: 66-57, advantage Blue Jays. But if you take out the fading-fast Tigers’ abysmal 1989 season, the Tigers and Blue Jays each won 55 and lost 55 from 1980-88.
It all came to a head in 1987, particularly late in the season. Early in the season, not so much. The Tigers, with much the same core of the team that won the 1984 world championship, were eight games under .500 and 9.5 games back of first. Yet, their outspoken manager, Sparky Anderson, grinned as only he could and told veteran Detroit TV newsman Al Ackerman, in so many words, the Tigers would be there at the end.
“Man, you really are going sailing silly,” Anderson’s right-hand man, then-Tigers P.R. boss Dan Ewald, remembers saying, teasing his boss. “Sparky, you better wait till you get them a few more W’s.”
“But the team,” said Ewald, “backed him up.”
Things, still, didn’t look great in late September, when the Tigers arrived to play a four-game series at old Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. The Blue Jays, the leaders much of the year, still held a narrow half-game lead as the series began. Then they won the first three — including two in walk-off fashion. Then, in the series finale, the Tigers trailed 1-0 entering the ninth inning, and set to face super-tough closer Tom Henke.
A 4.5-game deficit on Sept. 27, with eight games to go, was staring them right in the face.
But leading off the ninth inning, Kirk Gibson hit a season-saving home run to tie it. Later, Darrell Evans homered to give the Tigers the lead, but the Blue Jays tied it in their half of the 11th inning. Finally, Gibson singled in the winning run in the 13th inning.
Now, Detroit still wasn’t out of the woods. Not evey close. The Tigers still trailed by 2.5 games with eight to go. Still, in the visitor’s clubhouse, Gibson held a team meeting.
“They don’t know it,” Gibson barked, of the Blue Jays. “But they just woke up a sleeping bear.”
Said Frank Tanana: “If Gibby doesn’t hit that home run … it would’ve been over.”
It’s true. Gibson’s career was known mostly for two heroic home runs — the World Series clincher in 1984 off Goose Gossage, who refused to walk Gibson late in Game 5; and the miraculous shot in Game 1 of the World Series in 1988, his first year with the Dodgers. So, obviously, the one in 1987 gets lost in the archives. But it was big, to be sure.
The Tigers and Blue Jays then parted company for a brief time, Detroit heading home to face the Orioles and Toronto welcoming in the Brewers. The Tigers split their four-game series, and the Blue Jays — playing without their shortstop, Tony Fernandez, who suffered a broken forearm Sept. 24 when he fell to the turf following a hard slide by Detroit’s Bill Madlock attempting to break up a double play — were swept in three.
That set up an all-eyes-on-Detroit series for Oct. 2-4, a fall weekend at Tiger Stadium, where the Blue Jays would play without another starter, catcher Ernie Whitt, the Detroit native who had had just suffered crack ribs. Still, the Blue Jays, managed by Jimy Williams, entered the marquee series with a slim one-game lead. But that was gone Friday, Oct. 2, Doyle Alexander improving to 9-0 with the Tigers following an Aug. 12, 1987, trade with the Braves for a low-level pitching prospect named John Smoltz.
That Saturday, the Tigers won again, on an Alan Trammell walk-off single in the 12th inning. That gave the Tigers their first lead in the division since Sept. 20, and it set up a Game 162 for the ages, and for national television.
Even that Sunday morning, you could sense it would be a special day.
“It was, ‘God almighty,’” said Mike Henneman, a rookie reliever on those 1987 Tigers. “I remember going to the yard, it was a day game, and I could just smell the barbecue. Everybody was tailgating. When I came to the yard, they had already started. I’m like, holy Toledo!
“It was something I’ll never forget.”
The game featured a meeting of two good left-handed pitchers, Jimmy Key for the Blue Jays and Tanana for the Tigers. On that day, both went the distance — “which I never did in those days,” Tanana said, chuckling — but it was Tanana, a Blue Jays killer that year (3-0, 0.55 ERA), who threw the shutout.
The only run of the game came courtesy of Larry Herndon, who, batting in the second inning with a stiff breeze blowing in from left field, hit a ball into the seats — to the dismay of George Bell, who’d scaled the blue fence only to see the ball land well out of his reach.
And Tanana, a fireballer early in his career but by now a soft-tosser, did the rest, scattering six hits and three walks while striking out nine in his nine innings. With two out in the ninth, Garth Iorg hit a slow roller to the right side of the infield. Tanana raced over, grabbed it, twirled and flipped to Evans, the first baseman.
And the celebration, with a building-shaking crowd of 51,005, was underway.
It was an incredible finish, to be sure. The teams had met seven times in the last 11 days of the season, Toronto taking the first three and Detroit the last four. Each game — and this is absolutely amazing — was decided by a single run. And in those seven games, besides the 1-0 shutout, the team that scored first lost every time.
“That,” said Henneman, “was the World Series, the last three games. Honest to goodness, it really was.”
Tanana, the Detroit native, took it even further.
“Those last seven games,” he said. “Honestly, if they had been World Series games, it would’ve been considered, no doubt, the greatest ever.”
The Tigers, perhaps drained by the stretch run, lost to the eventual world champion Twins in the ALCS, finished a game out of first in 1988 (and a game ahead of the Blue Jays), and didn’t make the playoffs again until 2006. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, took off, winning back-to-back World Series in 1992-93, before their fade into mediocrity.
One team went one away, the other went another — and eventually, in 1998, they were separated for good, the Tigers moving from what then was a five-team AL East to the new AL Central when the Brewers were relocated to the National League. The Blue Jays remained in the AL East.
And there went any hope of rekindling a rivalry that, in the 1980s, was as pure as could be.
Tigers-Blue Jays. It was a natural rivalry. Only Cleveland has a Major League Baseball team closer to Detroit than Toronto. No team is closer to Toronto. Detroit also is separated from Canada only by a narrow waterway — a big reason many Windsor baseball fans lean toward the Tigers, and even London, Ontario, remains relatively split.
But Tigers-Blue Jays wasn’t a rivalry by today’s standards — where rivalries, seemingly, more are defined by how many times they have benches-clearing brawls.
Outside of a few batters hit on purpose, there wasn’t much animosity between the clubs in the 1980s. Sure, the Madlock slide into Fernandez was deemed dirty by the Blue Jays, but Fernandez wasn’t hurt by the slide, exactly — he broke the forearm when he came down on the cutout in the turf, which back then was lined with thick wood.
“There was a mutual respect,” Petry said.
Even the fans were mostly respectful — and both fan bases made the 231-mile trek between cities in droves, Tigers fans flocking to Exhibition Stadium and Blue Jays fans taking over Tiger Stadium, often traveling by train. About the nastiest the Blue Jays faithful got was a game Alexander was pitching late in the year. A plane flew overhead, carrying the banner, “Foil Doyle.” Ooh, burn. Canadians, eh.
Tigers fans, meanwhile, remain miffed about the MVP race that year. Bell, the Blue Jays slugger, won, taking 16 first-place votes to Trammell’s 12. Some suspect many writers cast their ballots before the season was over, figuring the Blue Jays would win the division. But the Tigers did, thanks in large part to Trammell, who, over those last 11 games batted .381 with an on-base percentage of .480. Truth is, both were deserving; Bell hit .308 with 47 homers and 134 RBIs, Trammell .343 with 28 homers and 105 RBIs.
Nowadays, the rivalry is gone — a victim of MLB’s expansion boom of the 1990s. With the Brewers in the NL, and the Expos gone, neither the Tigers nor the Blue Jays can even claim to have a true rivalry anymore.
That’s not to say there might not be some bad blood, however, this week at Comerica Park.
Remember, last July, Blue Jays outfileder Colby Rasmsus took out then-Tigers second baseman Omar Infante with a really late slide. It cost Infante more than a month, and infuriated the Tigers — particularly the Tigers pitchers, who spoke very openly about wanting to, but not being able to retaliate, because they already had one pitcher, Rick Porcello, set to serve a suspension in the coming days.
So who knows? Maybe that bill finally comes due this week in Detroit. Or maybe the Tigers are over it, especially with Infante now with the Royals.
Either way, it won’t be the same, Tigers-Blue Jays.
“It was just awesome,” said Henneman, now a pitching coach in the Tigers minor-league system, at Single A West Michigan. “For two weeks, it was just gut-wrenching. “Then it all comes down to three games, and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ As a rookie, you’re thinking, ‘Damn, I don’t think I can survive this kind of pressure. This is crazy.’
“It was crazy.”