The Detroit Tigers are not supposed to be traveling first class this year in the American League East, as formidable on the road as they are at home. The Tigers are supposed to be running scared and complaining about how badly their run production is off from last season.
But with the season just about half over, it is the Tigers who are riding high in first place. Although Detroit won the AL East last season with a 98-64 record, many observers wondered if the club had made a mistake in letting free-agent slugger Kirk Gibson get away to the Los Angeles Dodgers and trading for light-hitting outfielder Gary Pettis, who carries a .242 batting average and has little power.
Further dimming the outlook was the decling effectiveness of relief pitcher Willie Hernandez, whose saves dropped from 32 in 1984, when he won the Cy Young Award, to just eight last year. The screwball-throwing southpaw was pitching so poorly a year ago, the Tigers sent him back to the minors for two games to see if he could get straightened out.
``I enjoy it when people say we're nothing,'' Detroit manager Sparky Anderson says. ``But I know my players and what they can do. I know the kind of effort I'll get from them. I've never been around a better group.''
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it is only because Anderson has made statements like that hundreds of times before.
What has kept the Tigers jungle-tough has been their pitching, a tight defense that makes the routine plays as well as many spectacular ones, and more good role players than probably any other team in baseball. Reserves who sit on Sparky's bench never seem to have any problems with rust. He winds them up when he needs help and they produce.
Basically Anderson has only four players who can be called regulars: the double-play tandem of shortstop Alan Trammell and second baseman Lou Whitaker, and outfielders Chet Lemon and Pettis. Beyond that, Anderson platoons such players as Darrell Evans, Dave Bergman, Ray Knight, Luis Salazar, Pat Sheridan, Larry Herndon, Tom Brookens, Matt Nokes, and Mike Heath.
In the pitching department, Sparky has three wise old heads he can call on regularly in Jack Morris, Frank Tanana, and Doyle Alexander, plus second-year man Jeff Robinson. Robinson, a surprise last year at 9-6, has been even better this season. Morris, with a total of 94 victories in his last five years, has become the club's stopper again after struggling early.
Joining Hernandez in the bullpen has been Mike Henneman, who posted 13 saves this year in his first 14 chances. Recently, when Detroit swept a three-game series from the Yankees that contributed to Billy Martin's firing, the Tigers' bullpen allowed only one earned run in 11 innings.
Explained Brookens, who is beginning to sound like his manager: ``We're not a spectacular team; we're a blue-collar team. We have some good days and some bad days, but nobody can say we don't hustle. While it's true that this club isn't going to blow away any of its opponents, we're in this race to stay.'' Helpful Dodger
Dave Anderson was once considered the heir apparent to shortstop Bill Russell of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In fact, in 1984 Anderson played in 121 games for the Dodgers and hit an acceptable .251. Then he injured his back. Since then it has been a series of ongoing spot performances for Dave, sometimes at second base, sometimes at third, often at shortstop.
``We haven't thought about Anderson in terms of being a starter for a long time, and I don't think he has either,'' explained Russell, retired as a player but now the Dodgers' infield coach. ``However, Dave has talents, and the way he has played for us at shortstop and hit well since Alfredo Griffin went on the disabled list is a plus.''
Added Russell: ``I think what the Dodgers have been seeing is a man who has made up his mind to play through the injuries that had previously limited him in the field. I also see more determination and concentration from Anderson at the plate. Without Dave in there every day, we might have fallen out of the race.'' Briefly speaking
When pitcher Dave Cone of the New York Mets threw a two-hit shutout recently against the Philadelphia Phillies, he became the 17th pitcher this year to take a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Actually seven of those pitchers coaxed no-hitters into the ninth inning before a batter broke them up.
The San Diego Padres, who, in catcher Benito Santiago, has last season's National League Rookie of the Year, have another hot candidate in second baseman Sandy Alomar, whose father previously played in the big leagues. ``I like this kid because he shows a lot of range in the field and because he can turn the double play,'' volunteered St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog, who has a fine rookie second baseman in Luis Alicea.
Manager Tom Trebelhorn of the Milwaukee Brewers, a former schoolteacher, defuses his letter-writing critics by filling his return correspondence with notations like: ``Careless in spelling and grammar. Watch your capitalization. Grade D-minus!''
Reggie Jackson, after finishing out his career last season with Oakland, now owns a Chevrolet agency in Berkeley, just two blocks from the University of California campus. Jackson, who collects antique and exotic cars and who at last count had 57 of them, says the car he dreamed about owning when he was in high school was a '57 Chevy. He has since acquired several of them.
Former National League all-star first baseman Orlando Cepeda on Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale, who was not bashful about throwing at batters: ``The secret against Drysdale was to hit him before he hit you!''