The Detroit Tigers entered the 1990’s after losing a then-franchise record 103 games in 1989. The Tigers were actually the best team in baseball in terms of overall wins and losses from 1980 to 1988, winning two divisional titles, a pennant and World Series along the way.
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But it all came to a resounding thud in 1989 as the Tigers were beginning to rebuild on the fly while keeping the aging core of the 1984 championship together. The team decided to go in another direction in 1990, signing former Toronto Blue Jay Cecil Fielder after a successful year in Japan.
Fielder mashed 51 homers, becoming the first player in 13 years to hit 50 homers and first American League hitter to reach that mark since 1961. While Fielder’s presence on the team brought about a very solid recovery (improving by 20 wins), they still finished below .500. A lot of that had to do with the horrendous pitching staff that plagued the Tigers throughout the 1990’s, but it was also due to Detroit having no power behind Cecil.
That changed in 1991 when the Tigers brought in several power hitters to take advantage of Tiger Stadium’s favorable hitting dimensions and give assistance to Fielder. Those players included RF Rob Deer, DH Pete Incaviglia and today’s Throwback Thursday star, catcher Mickey Tettleton.
Mickey was a product of the same Oakland Athletics system that sired Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire so when he arrived in Detroit it was fitting that he helped himself and Cecil become the Detroit version of Oakland’s bash brothers.
He didn’t reach the zenith of his power with Oakland and never was a regular player for them. He was released during Spring Training 1988 and signed with the Baltimore Orioles. There his power peaked out for the first time, mashing 26 homers for the Orioles in 1988. His production dipped in 1990 so Mickey became dispensable and Baltimore dealt him to Detroit for pitcher Jeff Robinson.
Tettleton gave the Tigers something they had been lacking in recent years. When Lance Parrish left in 1986, rookie Matt Nokes stepped up to be the power hitting catcher Tigers’ fans were used to, but the ’87 campaign turned out to be a fluke and Nokes could never reach that plateau again.
Hitting behind Fielder, and in front of Deer and Incaviglia, provided a resurgence to Tettleton’s career as he topped 30 homers for the first time, garnering 101 RBIs. In a stretch of seven days, Tettleton hit seven homers, two of which sailed over the roof at Tiger Stadium, a feat that was not accomplished by many.
Based on the added power, the Tigers finished in second place in the 1991 AL East. It would be their highest position in the standings until finishing second and earning the AL Wild-Card spot in 2006. It would also be one of just two seasons above .500 for the team from 1989 to 2005.
While the Tigers dipped back under .500 in 1992, Mickey only got better. That year he would set his career high for homers with 32 (tied twice more) and amass a career high 122 RBIs. The following season the Tigers held first place for much of the first half, holding the reigning World Champion Blue Jays at bay until a 10-game losing streak in June knocked them out of the top spot in their division for roughly the next 16 years.
People look at guys like me who hit home runs and all of a sudden I’m suspected of doing something I didn’t do. Everybody has to make their own decisions. Baseball is doing everything within their power to clean the game up.
Mickey again put up the terrific power numbers of 32 homers and 110 RBIs. Younger fans will never understand this, but the Tigers-Blue Jays rivalry was one of the best in baseball for about a 15-year span beginning in the early 1980’s and ending when Detroit left the AL East after the 1997 season. So when Toronto manager Cito Gaston“snubbed Tettleton for the 1993 All-Star Game, many fans thought it was because of the intense rivalry between the teams.
While Tettleton’s power numbers were always there, so were the strikeouts. He struck out 407 times in his first three years in Detroit. While his homer numbers were outstanding, his average was dwindling, going from .263 in 1991 to .248 by 1994. This would be his final year in a Tigers’ uniform, hitting just 17 homers in 107 games of a strike-shortened season. Interesting enough, Gaston named Mickey to the All-Star team that year despite having just 14 round-trippers at the break. The ultimate makeup call.
Because of his dwindling power numbers, Detroit allowed Mickey to leave when baseball resumed in 1995 and he signed with the Texas Rangers. With a young Ivan Rodriguez holding down the catching duties, Tettleton became the Rangers’ primary DH with some time in right field. He had a terrific first year in Texas, hitting 32 homers again with more than 100 RBIs in a power hitting lineup that featured several future Tigers including Pudge, Juan Gonzalez and Dean Palmer.
Two years later, after struggling through the first 17 games in 1997, he decided to retire at the age of 36.
Because his power numbers occurred at the beginning of the PED age in baseball, Mickey’s name sometimes comes up in the discussion of players that could have been juicing. This is not only because of his power, but because he was around the Oakland organization with Conseco and McGwire in the early years and in Texas at the end of his career with players that have been put under suspicion as well.
Tettleton had this to say, according to NewsOK, prior to the announced 2013 suspensions for the Biogensis PED scandal:
"People look at guys like me who hit home runs and all of a sudden I’m suspected of doing something I didn’t do. Everybody has to make their own decisions. Baseball is doing everything within their power to clean the game up."
Bill James ranked Tettleton 37th in all-time major league catchers and the slugger finished with 245 homers and 732 RBIs.