July 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers of '84 can remind current team a world championship can't be taken for granted

1984 Detroit Tigers honored at Comerica Park
1984 Detroit Tigers honored at Comerica Park: World Series champs Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Dave Bergman remember the glory

Detroit — It seemed like it would never end, all the fun, all the winning, game after game. It was the perfect season, about as perfect as it gets in baseball, and the images are frozen in time.

Everything else, though, moves on, and the years pile up. Only the memories remain unchanged from the summer of 1984, when the Tigers were the best team by a wide margin, a unique collection of everyman players and a few greats. From the 35-5 start to the 104-58 finish to the World Series romp, the Tigers were so good, they seemed destined to be good for a long time.

This is the fleeting nature of baseball, even more fleeting than life. It’s a cautionary tale for the current Tigers, who have a lot of individual talent but not limitless chances. It’s unfair to compare these Tigers with a championship team, but as the ’84 players gathered for a reunion at Comerica Park on Monday night, the reality was stark.

Sparky Anderson is gone, defeated by dementia four years ago. Others show their age as they tell their stories, although Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were spry again, turning an imaginary double-play in the pregame ceremony. The out at first base was recorded by Dave Bergman, who understands time’s rampage as much as anyone.

Bergman’s frame is thin, and his hair is thinner. At 61, he has dealt with a serious illness he’d rather not discuss, except to say, “I’ve had some issues, but I’m on the road to recovery, and I’m very thankful for that.”

His eyes lit and his smile broadened when he talked about one of the most famous at-bats of that fantastic season. It was a 13-pitch battle with Blue Jays slugger Roy Lee Jackson on a Monday night in June, and it ended with Bergman crushing a low slider into Tiger Stadium’s upper deck in right field for a 10th-inning, walk-off, three-run homer.

After the Tigers incredible start, their lead was down to 4˝ games that night, and the Blue Jays were determined to push them all summer. But that at-bat became a symbol of the Tigers doggedness, and Bergman’s clutch preparedness. He wasn’t necessarily a fearsome hitter but he was a superb fielder with feisty perseverance, a trait still evident — and needed — today.

The home run remains the primary topic whenever Bergman meets someone, and he has no problem detailing every moment, including a 2-2 pitch that was just barely outside.

“It was like being in the right place at the right time, and all the stars being aligned properly,” said Bergman, an investment counselor in Grosse Pointe. “That was one of those at-bats, I just felt something good was gonna happen. It’s nice to be remembered for that instead of a ground ball going through my legs like Bill Buckner. Bill Buckner had close to a Hall of Fame career, and yet people remember one play. So I’m lucky in that respect.”

He was lucky, too, when he arrived in a spring-training trade with the Phillies, just before the ’84 season. The other guy the Tigers received? Willie Hernandez, who became the game’s best closer and won the AL MVP and Cy Young awards.

Slipping away

Nothing lasts, not Hernandez’s brilliance — he never again approached a season like that — or the Tigers’ dominance. They reached the playoffs once more, in 1987, and lost to the Twins. Key players — Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson — began to sign elsewhere, and by 1989, the Tigers had fallen to 59-103.

That team didn’t have a guaranteed Hall of Famer such as Miguel Cabrera, or the fire-balling ferocity of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. But the Tigers had a Hall of Fame manager who used his deep roster, top to bottom, and enough youth to think they were just getting started.

“Oh, my gosh, we thought we’d be good for a long period of time,” Trammell said. “We were built with a nucleus in their mid 20s. Now, looking back, we found out how difficult it really is.”

A few seats away in the interview room Monday, Whitaker echoed the sentiment. He and Trammell were 27 and 26, respectively, in 1984, but a team’s window sometimes closes before you realize it.

No stars

The core of the current Tigers reached the World Series in 2006 and 2012, and they’ve been favored many years, yet still are hunting for that championship.

“I’m sure everybody probably thinks you win one, you can win ’em all,” Whitaker said. “It’s not that easy. When you get a chance, don’t let it go. I mean, just imagine if we’d lost. Whew!”

They won without Hall of Fame players, although that wrong should be corrected by the veteran’s committee, which still can induct Trammell and Whitaker. Both would love that, but neither is defined by their omission. There’s no sense pining away the time, not when you spent your life playing a sport with no clock, and were part of a storied championship.

More players returned five years ago for the 25th anniversary, partly because they knew the end was near for Anderson.

“Physically he’s not here, but spiritually he is, and we all feel it,” Bergman said. “We wish he was here, but we also knew five years ago that night would be the last many of us would see him. And that’s just the cycle of life. It’s the nature of the beast, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

You embrace the battle, whether it’s 13 pitches or significantly longer, because regardless of the outcome, there’s always another.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Former Tiger Lou Whitaker waves to the Comerica Park crowd during a pregame ceremony honoring the 1984 Tigers. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News