February 03, 2015

The RETURN of Kirk Gibson: The Aberration of an Illusion & the 1990s Detroit Tigers



As all of my loyal readers know, I have an affinity for The Sporting News. The newsweekly provided life–changing opportunities for me as a child. I was "in the know" as a youngster because I read the magazine from front to back — not just the baseball information but all of the sports as well. I was disappointed when the writers analyzed the Tigers chances as between nil and none, but I continued to read. I even kept reading it after they let go some of my favorite writers, including Joe Falls who wrote for years as the sports editor at the Detroit News. The Tigers have always been my team, but the Tigers of the '90s and early '00s were "not good."

Mr. I's first year with the Tigers promised "A Whole New Ballgame." For a season, it seemed as if this proclamation were true. It was just an aberration in the midst of a long slide for the Detroit Nine. 


TSN always provided a baseball preview issue, as well. But many other companies published an annual baseball preview. I used to look at all of them on the magazine stand. The way I chose which to purchase was based on where the editors predicted the Tigers would finish. If the scribe picked the Tigers to finish first, I bought it without a doubt. However, we Tigers fans went through many years when the Tigers weren't likely to win 60 games, let alone first place. For many (many, many!!!) years it was hard to identify a worthy Detroit Tiger, so I can't imagine how difficult it was putting together annual predictions. No one said much good about the Tigers in the '90s, even if things looked "better" prior to the '93 season.

Kirk Gibson was my first baseball hero. When he returned in '93, it seemed to make baseball right again, if only for a minute. 


It's amazing to think that from about 1989 until 2006, the Detroit Tigers put such a poor product on the field. They went through several general managers, even more managers, and a great deal many players. After just missing winning the East Division in 1988, the Tigers went on a spin that was abysmal. Seriously, the lone high spot during that run was 1993 when the Tigers starters had high ERAs, Kirk Gibson returned in the outfield, and two 20-run games in the first month of the season. (It's all true, you can look it up.) The team finished 85-77 and actually had a fun season for the Detroiters. It was a team that would make the Yankees and Red Sox of later years envious: lots of walks. (The 1991 team was 84-78 but that team doesn't stick out beyond Bill Gullickson's 20 win season and Frank Tanana's decent season.)

During the crazy days of the '90s Tigers, the Tom Monaghan braintrust thought it would be a great idea to fire broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell. Later on down the road, the Tigers front office crew with (now, different names) would decide that Sparky Anderson (#11 in the background) also should be jettisoned. The Tigers became the property of Mike Illitch in August 1992, when he bought the team from fellow pizza magnate Monaghan. 

We believed the Tigers prospect–circus when they told us about the youngsters who would become stars. Tony Clark, Bobby Higginson, Damian Easley, and Luis Gonzalez were all entering their prime as hitters. Justin Thompson, Brian Mohler, and Seth Greisinger all seemed to be the future of a great starting rotation. Todd Jones and Doug Brocail anchored a strong bullpen. And Larry Parrish would lead this young team to the promised land. I once read that Buddy Bell had talked with Randy Smith and demanded a contract extension and when that didn't happen, he abruptly resigned. I also heard that the man who would take the helm, Larry Parrish, may have helped in the process … Anyhow, this team did not pan out.

Tony Clark, Bobby Higginson, Damion Easley, and Luis Gonzalez were all entering their prime as hitters. Justin Thompson, Brian Mohler, and Seth Greisinger all seemed to be the future of a great starting rotation.

Dean Palmer joined the fray for the '99 season and Brad Ausmus returned to lead the young pitching staff. Gonzalez was jettisoned to the Arizona Diamondbacks for the upstart Karim Garcia. The team looked like it might be halfway decent. It was not.


I for one did not recall that the Tigers gave Pete Incaviglia a second cup of coffee with the team in 1998. Am I the only one who doesn't remember that acquisition? Randy Smith the the general manager at the time, Buddy Bell sat in the manager's seat until Larry Parrish suddenly took over. These, friends, were dark days for the Detroit Tigers? We went through Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, Phil Garner, Luis Pujols, and Alan Trammell during a historic eight–year run. After the 2005 season, Trammell, Tigers' legend, was replaced by Jim Leyland, former Tigers farm system manager. It was the beginning of the return of the coolness of the Old English D.

The Tigers of 2006 begat a renaissance for the organization. 

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