Ex-Tiger Lemon never overlooked by teammates

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Former Detroit Tiger Chet Lemon, left, receives a present made of crystal from former Tiger Jake Wood, right, and Willie Horton, center, before the Tigers baseball game against the Chicago White Sox Sunday in Detroit. Lemon was honored as part of Negro League weekend at Comerica Park.

Detroit – It was an "Oh, crap" moment, to be sure.

And, then again, it probably was the perfect moment, too, when Chet Lemon's framed jersey was toppled over by the wind in a pregame ceremony Sunday at Comerica Park.

Even his framed jersey couldn't stay upright, just like Lemon, the king of leaving his feet – whether in center field or heading into first base – during his high-energy major-league career, spent entirely with the two teams squaring off in Detroit this weekend, the Tigers and Chicago White Sox.

"I know, right!" Lemon said, laughing during an in-game chat with reporters. "Holy cow. I can't stay clean, no matter what!"

Lemon, as part of the Tigers' 22nd annual Negro Leagues Tribute weekend, was presented with the Willie Horton African American Legacy Award, which has been won by three members of the 1984 championship, including Lou Whitaker and Larry Herndon.

Horton and another previous winner, Jake Wood, helped present the honor to Lemon.

The wind didn't cooperate, though, knocking the framed jersey off its easel. Glass shattered, and the grounds crew even had to bring out a vacuum to clean it up before first pitch.

Lemon, 61 but looking way younger, never did win a Gold Glove during his 16-year career (nine with the Tigers), but his former manager, Sparky Anderson, called him the best center fielder he'd ever seen.

"The good thing about that is a lot of people thought that," Lemon said with a smile. "A lot of people I played with thought that. You just work as hard as you can to be the best you can be.

"I worked really hard at it."

Lemon, who roamed center field in some spacious parks, first at old Comiskey, then Tiger Stadium, had a nice offensive career, hitting 215 homers to go with a .273/.355/.442 slash line.

But his defense was a big reason he finished with a career WAR of 55.5, higher than some Hall of Famers, including Jim Rice.

He was always on the highlight reels, diving for this ball or diving for that ball.

Of course, no catch stands out more than the one in 1983 in Anaheim, where he raced to the wall in left-center field and leapt high over it to take a home run away from Rod Carew.

The clip was turned into an often-played promo on WDIV, where it used the game footage – but edited in Lemon stopping just before the track, flipping up his shades, and saying, "You probably think that ball's outta here. No way." Then it cut back to Lemon making the catch, and pumping his fist.

"I never played Rod really deep because Rod was a line-drive type of guy," Lemon said. "I never anticipated Rod being able to hit a ball to the fence, let alone an opposite-field home run.

"Everybody met me in center field. I n ever got to second base. My whole team was already out there.

"To this very day, all of our kids, say, 'Coach, coach, I saw you on YouTube!.'"

That catch ended a big game for a Tigers team that was in the hunt in 1983.

Of course, it was the next year the Tigers would really make a splash, winning the franchise's fourth – and still most recent – World Series championship.

"What a team," Lemon said. "We rushed to get to the ballpark. We loved coming to the ballpark in 1984.

"There was no greater place to be."

Lemon talked about his special relationships from that team, especially with late manager Sparky Anderson, whose words of wisdom Lemon still uses when working with his kids at the Chet Lemon School of Baseball in Florida; next week is the MLB draft, and his school claims nearly 50 first-round picks over the years.

He also raved about Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, wondering how they heck they aren't in the Hall of Fame.

He called Jack Morris the fiercest competitor he's ever seen.

But there were a lot of other good players on that team, some that get overlooked, Lemon among them. But he never was overlooked by his teammates, who loved the way he played the game – even if the general manager at the time, Bill Lajoie, once threatened to fine Lemon if he ever saw him sliding head-first into first base ever again. Lemon did it again two days later, and Lajoie dropped the threat, realizing that's just how Lemon played the game. Hard, all the time.

"I used to look to my right and left, there was nobody there. Honestly. Gibby was on the right-field line, and Hondo (Herndon) was on the left-field line. They said, 'You got it,'" said a chuckling Lemon, traded to the Tigers for Steve Kemp in November 1981, after contract talks broke down between Lemon and the White Sox. "When I was catching baseballs, and this is no exaggeration, my team was off the field.

"I used to say, 'If I had dropped this ball, who would I have to throw to? There ain't nobody out there. Tram was gone, Lou was gone, Hondo was gone, and Gibby was passing in front of me. It was crazy, but it was fun. I think it was just the confidence they had in me."