#TBT Steve Kemp: A fan favorite during dark time for Detroit Tigers

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Throwback Thursday returns to Motor City Bengals after a holiday break. We bring it back by featuring a fan favorite, Steve Kemp.

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Kemp was requested by MCB Twitter follower @MrPaulOzzOslund. So Paul, this one is for you.

Steve Kemp was the top overall pick in the 1976 Draft by the Tigers as the consultation prize for the team’s worst season to that point, 1975. Kemp came in with a championship pedigree after winning the 1974 College World Series with USC.

The Tigers were at a crossroads. The competitive teams of the 1960’s were gone by the time Kemp came on scene. The aging core of the 1968 World Championship won a divisional crown in 1972 but failed to make it to the World Series. It was a gradual decline for the rest of the decade which saw the team lose 90 games in ’74 and 102 in ’75, the first time in franchise history they lost more than 100.

In 1976 Detroit improved by 15 games and established a bona fide star in Mark “The Bird” Fidrych who set the baseball world on fire with his antics and success on the mound. The Tigers hoped that Kemp could provide the hitting version of what The Bird brought to the team. After spending just one season in the minor leagues, Kemp made the 1977 roster as a left fielder.

He made his major league debut as a pinch hitter on Opening Day. Two days later he was a defensive replacement in the second game of the season and notched his first major league hit. The Tigers were swept in Detroit by the reigning AL West champion Kansas City Royals and then lost their first ever game to the expansion Blue Jays in Toronto to start the season 0-4.

One day later Detroit finally picked up the first win of their season with the help a three-run homer from Kemp. That would be the first of many for Kemp during his Tigers’ career. It was a somewhat slow first season for the 22-year old, hitting .257 with 18 homers but collected a respectable 88 RBIs in 151 games for the fourth-place Tigers.

His average ticked up while his power numbers remained about the same for 86-win Detroit the next season, the first season since 1973 they finished over .500. The following year, 1979, Kemp would establish himself as one of the better power hitters in the AL and become a fan favorite at Tiger Stadium.

In the season in which Sparky Anderson became the Tigers’ manager mid-year, Steve Kemp was raking. He hit over .400 throughout April and was still hitting around .360 when May ended. Kemp set career highs that would not be matched with a .318 average, 26 homers and 105 RBIs. He was named to his only All-Star Game.

Fans of that era will tell you that Kemp had a swing that could not be forgotten. A left-handed batter, his follow through after the swing would have his torso pointing toward first base with his knee hitting the gravel and the bat resting neatly between the two 3’s on his jersey.

The Tigers seemed to be building something special during Kemp’s ascension, with fellow young players such as Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris streaming up from the minor leagues. That youth took some time to gel and the Tigers didn’t improve much in the standings the next two seasons.

He put up decent numbers in 1980 (.293 avg, 21 HR, 101 RBI), but with a down year in the strike-shortened season of 1981, coupled with the arrival of young left fielder Kirk Gibson, Kemp became expendable. Some chalked Kemp’s abrupt departure to the notoriously stingy Tigers’ front office that was irritated when he filed for arbitration in 1980 and 1981.

Jim Campbell shipped Kemp to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Chet Lemon. The move was terribly unpopular at the time but worked out very well for Detroit (think of it as the Curtis Granderson/Edwin Jackson for Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson et al from a few years ago).

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It was so unpopular of a move that it made its way into pop culture, to the show of the most famous Tigers’ fan of the 1980s–Tom Selleck’s Magnum P.I. In an episode that aired in early 1982, fellow Tigers’ fan Lt. Tanaka asks Magnum if he’d heard the Tigers traded Kemp. To which Magnum replies, “for Lemon.”

The trade could have been because of the arbitration. More likely it was because the Tigers thought Kemp was declining, had another option in left with Gibson and picked up a better defender in Lemon. Whatever the reason, it turned out to be pretty savvy as Kemp bounced around the majors and battled injury issues throughout the rest of his career. He only had two more years of double-digit home runs (19 in ’82 with the White Sox and 12 in ’83 with the Yankees).

Kemp could do nothing but watch in 1984 as many of the players he came up with celebrated a World Championship. Despite fans ultimately coming to terms with the deal, and Lemon himself becoming a fan favorite, Kemp was never forgotten.

He appeared in 16 games for the 1988 Texas Rangers before retiring. One of those games was at Tiger Stadium on Opening Day. Despite it being seven seasons since he donned the Olde English D, and the team going to two postseasons since his departure, Kemp received a standing ovation from 51,504 fans.

He finished his 11-year career with 130 homers, 634 RBIs and a batting average of .278. Today Steve Kemp works in finance in Southern California and pops up with the Tigers from time to time, including the final game at Tiger Stadium in 1999 and occasional appearances at Tigers’ Fantasy Camp.

If you would like to see your favorite Tigers of the past featured here, please Tweet us @MCB_Tigers

Next: The fall and rise of Andrew Miller

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