Edson: A March Trade Changed Tigers History in 1984
It was 9 a.m. at spring training in Lakeland, Fla., on March 24, 1984. It was a day that would change Detroit Tigers history.
There were three of us sportswriters at camp early. We had heard there was something brewing well ahead of the 1 o’clock game that day.
Sure enough, one of the team’s public relations employees told us to be on standby.
“We’ll have an announcement in a couple of hours,” he said. “It will make headlines at your papers back in Michigan.”
Sure enough, it did. But it wasn’t the news that changed Tigers history, even though it was headline grabbing.
The Tigers announced late that morning they were releasing backup first baseman and former Michigan quarterback Rick Leach.
We rushed to his locker to get his reaction. Leach was disappointed, of course, but stood and answered our questions while his teammates walked by and offered their condolences.
A few minutes later, the Tigers handed out the official press release. Actually, it was a two-part release.
On the bottom half of the press release was news about a trade. The Tigers had dealt popular utility player John Wockenfuss and backup infielder Glenn Wilson to Philadelphia for two players we had barely heard of – pitcher Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergmann.
No one realized it at the time, but that trade changed Detroit Tigers history.
Hernandez was an average left-handed relief pitcher who hadn’t put up spectacular numbers. Bergmann was known as a fine fielding, light hitting first baseman. The trade didn’t seem like a big deal. The release of Leach did.
But then the 1984 season magically unfolded. Hernandez was nearly unhittable in relief. He went 9-3 with a 1.92 earned run average and saved 32 games. The Tigers won their first nine games, 35 of their first 40 and went on to capture their first World Series since 1968.
For his efforts, Hernandez won the Cy Young Award, MVP and a World Series ring.
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound pitcher earned all of $530,000 for his monster season. He later attributed his dramatic turnaround to Tigers pitching coach Roger Craig.
Craig helped Hernandez control his money pitch – the screwball. He also taught Hernandez how to “spot” his fastball.
Bergmann also had some shining moments during the 1984 season – including a memorable extra-inning home run to beat the Toronto Blue Jays.
Of course, the likes of Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish led the way.
But the trade that didn’t make headlines on March 24, 1984 certainly is looked back on these days with a smile by Tigers fans.
After all, that was the last time the Tigers won a World Series. And now, as spring training hits the halfway mark this week in 2017, we have to wonder if the Tigers have any trades up their sleeves.
Nick Edson is a retired Hall of Fame columnist and sportswriter. He worked 25 years at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, 18 as sports editor. He is a two-time president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association and a member of the Michigan Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.