Tigers ’68 hero Lolich relives Series magic via Cubs

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

People forget. Big-league baseball players double as big-league baseball fans.

They’re even human beings. They have favorite teams. They drive to sports bars to watch games, as Mickey Lolich did Wednesday night in joining close friends for Game 7 of the World Series, which in Lolich’s case came 48 years after he started for the Tigers in a Game 7 against the Cardinals that delivered Detroit’s 1968 world championship.

This dilly of a 2016 Series ended Wednesday when 40 million viewers watched the Cubs, who had last played in a World Series in 1945 against the Tigers, finally put away the Indians for a championship that seemed to make all of baseball a winner.

“As we went into the Series,” Lolich said Thursday, “people would ask, ‘Who are you pulling for?’ I’d say to them that it was a tough one for me to figure out. Here we have Cleveland, which is in our division, and we (Tigers) finished in second place to them.

“Being an American Leaguer all my life, I always pull for the American League. But knowing it was 108 years without winning a World Series, I could pull for the Cubs real easy, too.”

It got easier as this 2016 grand finale, which seemed to be a blessed antidote to election-year toxins, became steadily a modern-era baseball treasure. The Indians were an unpretentious gang with a manager, Terry Francona, whom fans found spellbinding as he slotted pitchers into games and innings as if they were chess pieces.

The Cubs, well, they were the Cubs. But no longer baseball’s version of Charlie Brown’s All-Stars. They were regal with their oodles of young, charismatic talent steered by a white-bearded skipper, Joe Maddon.

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“I’d say that I really didn’t care who wins, that either team would be OK,” said Lolich, one of the grandest Tigers pitchers in history, with 207 victories in his 13 seasons and a basket full of Cy Young and MVP votes. “But when they got down to that seventh game, I have to admit I was pulling for the Cubs.

“For the first time, I had to say it: ‘I’m going to switch allegiance and pull for the Cubs.’”

But again. Those common threads between a hallowed Tigers team and this year’s Cubs were unmistakable.

The 1968 Tigers, like this year’s Cubs, were down three 3-1 in the Series before winning Game 5 at home, followed by the improbable: two victories on the road in Games 6 and 7.

Only one team in the interim, the 1979 Pirates, was able to pull off the same three-game sweep with the last two games of a seven-game set at the enemy’s park.

Lolich won three times in that 1968 Series, all complete games, including a storybook Game 7 when he and the Tigers whipped Bob Gibson and the Cardinals, 4-1.

The Tigers, like the Cubs in the 3-2 squeaker at Wrigley Field, also won a tight Game 5, which in Detroit’s case featured a three-run seventh and a heaven-sent, two-run single from Al Kaline that helped it stay alive and pack for St. Louis by way of a 5-3 victory.

Game 6, for those with long memories, was almost spookily similar to the Tigers road blowout in Game 6. The Cubs romped 9-3, and got a grand slam from Addison Russell, just as the Tigers had gotten a grand slam from Jim Northrup in their 14-1 drubbing of the Cardinals.

The only common chords in each team’s Game 7 was: Victory.

The Tigers got nine more impeccable innings from Lolich and won 4-1. The Indians and Cubs went extra innings before the Cubs sent much of Chicago, if not the baseball cosmos, into delirium with an 8-7 conquest that ended your basic 108-year championship drought.

For all the alignment between two championship teams separated by 48 years, differences were also pronounced. In 1968 there was no designated hitter, which was five years from birth.

Also, as Lolich confirmed nobly and historically, starting pitchers of his time might throw nine innings. He did it regularly for the Tigers. But it’s a different game now. Late innings belong to bullpens and relievers, as embodied by Indians maestro Andrew Miller and the 100-mph Cubs man, Aroldis Chapman, who, with their reliever buddies, might enter games early and often.

Lolich’s personal Tigers lore got an extra splash of gold dust when he pitched Game 7 on two days of rest. Yes: A two-day break between nine-inning starts.

It is unfathomable today. It was viewed as nearly maniacal then.

Lolich remembers Game 6 in St. Louis, when Detroit put its 14-run billy club on the Cardinals. Mayo Smith, the Tigers manager, all but tip-toed over to Lolich and asked if he might be able to pitch the next day.

“Yeah, I can go a couple of innings of relief,” said Lolich, who learned Smith was more interested in a start.

“All I want is five innings,” Smith said.

It was fine with Lolich, who the next day was in a 0-0 tie with the great Gibson until the fourth when the Tigers got three runs. They added a fourth run in the seventh.

Lolich, who was unacquainted with the term “pitch-count,” turned to Smith, shrugged, and said: “I’ll finish it for you.”

Smith, with a wee smile, nodded.

“That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Lolich was such a lock the Tigers didn’t even warm a reliever in the ninth. Their world championship was iced.

There was no such economy Wednesday night at Progressive Field. These great teams, the Indians and Cubs, built heavily around strong arms, used 10 pitchers. It’s the way baseball is played in 2016.

And as Lolich had to acknowledge Wednesday night, sitting with his buddies, watching 2016’s for-the-ages drama unfurl, that’s not a bad tradeoff.

Not when baseball becomes the real winner, as even those grand champion Cubs, after their 108 years in the desert, might well agree.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: Lynn_Henning