The lights-out closer on the 1984 World Champion Tigers talks about salaries then and now, a health issue, faith, Aurelio Lopez and Sparky Anderson. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Detroit — Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez swore he was dead over a decade ago.
Heart problems in his native Puerto Rico forced him to a Boston hospital in 2007 for a procedure to have a pacemaker installed.
Twelve years later, there he was on Thursday, back on a pitcher’s mound in Detroit, in a celebration of his legendary Tigers career.
The 64-year-old blew on his hand, licked his fingers and toed the rubber at Comerica Park to throw the ceremonial pitch to open baseball season in Detroit against the Kansas City Royals.
The pitch, caught by Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, bounced a bit before home plate.
All and all, a great outcome for a man of faith.
“I passed away putting a pacemaker into my heart and I wake up later on,” Hernandez told assembled media after his pitch. “Because God’s got my heart, so nobody is going to bother my heart. No one is going to touch my heart.”
Hernandez said he later had visions of seeing Jesus give him his own heart while he was ill. Doctors said he’d have to rest for a year before leaving Boston. He said Thursday he was on his way in nine months.
Tigers fans might argue that 35 years ago, he had another miraculous span of several months, winning a Most Valuable Player award, Cy Young and World Series championship in 1984. He is one of 10 pitchers to win MVP, joined by Denny McLain (1968) and Justin Verlander (2011) on that list.
Hernandez came over in a 1984 spring training trade from Philadelphia with first baseman Dave Bergman for outfielder Glenn Wilson and utility player John Wockenfuss. Hernandez helped the Phillies to the 1983 World Series.
“He came over so late in spring training that nobody really knew him,” teammate Dan Petry said. “He got kind of used to the team and what we were all about, then obviously Cy Young and MVP, so the rest is history.”
Hernandez, who lives in Florida, was a three-time All-Star.
Early in 1984, Hernandez alternated closing duties with Aurelio Lopez, but eventually Hernandez took the job full-time after a Lopez injury.
The results spoke for themselves, but manager Sparky Anderson still allowed himself to do a little talking.
“Sparky Anderson told the media, ‘I am the smartest and I am the best manager in baseball history,’” Hernandez recalled of the late manager. “They ask, ‘Why you say that?’
“He said, ‘Because I’ve got Willie Hernandez in the bullpen.’ That was him that said that. Not me, I never give me that kind of credit.”
Hernandez went to three All-Star Games and retired after the 1989 season. He was in Lakeland during the winter, stopping by the Tigers fantasy camp.
The 1984 pitching staff had their fingerprints all over Thursday’s opener as Petry made his debut as an analyst for FOX Sports Detroit, and Hall of Famer Jack Morris was in the booth for a more regular shift as color analyst, alongside new Tigers television voice Matt Shepard.
Morris and Petry were the anchors of the starting staff, but Hernandez usually sent everyone home.
Hernandez finished the season 9-3 with a 1.92 ERA with 32 saves in 80 appearances.
But the most impressive stat maybe have been his 140 ⅓ innings pitched, a workhorse in tense situations, often throwing multi-inning saves.
“That group was a little bit ahead of its time, I would say,” Petry said. “We had Aurelio Lopez, who was fantastic and a really, really good set-up guy and then Willie.
“So yes, we went deep into games, but we also had a wonderful bullpen when we didn’t, and we were only going five or six.”
It was a Hernandez signature two-inning save that closed Game 5 of the World Series, getting Tony Gwynn out on a short fly ball to Larry Herndon in left for the clincher, setting off pandemonium at Tiger Stadium.
“It was a great honor for me to be here today,” Hernandez said Thursday. “When we’re talking about Hall of Famers, who cares? If you put me in, I’ll be honored. But I don’t want to forget the glory of God, because he offered it to me.”
Tigers fans knew him as Willie early, though he preferred Guillermo later.
Asked Thursday which it is now, Hernandez referred once again to larger matters.
“That’s overrated. I mean, I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t care because if you can call me a son of God, it’s better.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.