How Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon Helped the Detroit Tigers Become Champions – Part 3

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: A detail of a Detroit Tigers hat and glove are seen during warm ups against the New York Yankees during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 6, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: A detail of a Detroit Tigers hat and glove are seen during warm ups against the New York Yankees during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 6, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon debuted with the Detroit Tigers in 1982. After the season, they each signed long-term contracts to stay in Detroit. Both outfielders were solid additions to a team that was growing into a contender and aiming for a championship.

Herndon had the better ’82 of the two. It had been a career year for him, and it was no surprise when he re-signed with the Tigers. As he prepared for the 1983 season, Herndon said,

"“I like this team, and I like Detroit. I felt comfortable there last year and didn’t have any trouble. I enjoyed it. Also, I thought I’d like to be with a team that can win, and I think this team can be a winning team for a lot of years.”"

For Lemon, 1982 had been a tough year. The pressure of being part of a high profile trade seemed to hang over his head while he struggled at the plate for the first four months of the season. Adapting to a change from center field to right field and dealing with physical ailments at times didn’t make things easier for him, either.

Once the season ended, Lemon seemed ready to put all of that behind him. When he put pen to paper and inked his new deal with Detroit in November, he had a brighter outlook. Anticipating a fresh start in 1983, he commented,

"“Now it’s of my own accord. It’s my own decision to be a Detroit Tiger. I’m going to be moving my family there. We’re going to be living in Detroit, and everything is going to be different. I’m really happy.”"

There would be one big difference for Lemon. Sparky Anderson decided to move him back to center field, his natural position. With Herndon in left field, the promising youngster Glenn Wilson installed in right field, and Kirk Gibson (a center fielder in 1982) handling designated hitter duties, the outfield situation was set.

Combined with the core of home-grown talent (Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish, Morris, Petry) that was getting better, the 1983 Tigers were ready to roll. Herndon exclaimed,

"“It’s a winning atmosphere here, the kind of atmosphere any player wants to be in, and I see us doing well. I think we’re as good as anybody in baseball. I really feel that way. I don’t see anyone that’s better.”"

The Tigers began to roar immediately after being uncaged on Opening Day. After Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell led off the game with back to back singles, Herndon cleared the bases with a home run. Lemon, hitting fifth, walked and scored on Whitaker’s second single of the inning as the Tigers took a 6-0 lead over the Twins in the first. (Their victim was Royal Oak native Brad Havens.)

Herndon doubled and scored in the second, and Lemon singled and scored in the fourth. The Tigers mauled the Twins 11-3. Sparky was happy to see that it was Herndon who’d hit the Tigers’ first home run of the season. He explained,

"“It just establishes away that he’s one of the big guys again. He’s just gotten better and better each year that he’s played. He’s much stronger. He’s just a good baseball player.”"

Lemon, Herndon, and the Tigers were ready for more the next day. Lemon doubled, singled three times, and scored two runs as the Tigers beat the Twins 9-5. Herndon capped things off with a ninth-inning home run against his nemesis from the previous season’s ugly brawl-scarred game, reliever Ron Davis.

By the end of May, the Tigers were languishing with a 22-23 record and mired in sixth place in a tightly-packed AL East. The Tigers did show some life with a five-game winning streak late in the month (which included Herndon’s walk-off single in the 12th inning of the second game of a doubleheader vs. the Twins on May 27).

The Tigers added a six-game winning streak in early June and began to make their way up the standings from there.

The Orioles had begun to establish themselves as the team to beat when the Tigers traveled to Baltimore for a weekend series beginning on June 24. The Orioles led the Blue Jays by a game and led the third-place Tigers by two. Although Baltimore has always been known for its amazing seafood, the hungry Tigers were looking to feast on something else.

In the Friday night series opener, Herndon singled and scored in a three-run first inning rally. Lemon hit a two-run home run in the fourth. Herndon singled in the fifth and later scored after Lemon reached safely on a Baltimore error. Herndon doubled and scored in the seventh. It ended up being a 9-0 Tigers win, which left them a game out of first. (The Blue Jays won their game to move into a first place tie.)

The Tigers were ready to pluck more feathers the next day. Lemon’s two-run home run off starter Jim Palmer, which also scored Herndon, was part of a three-run rally in the second. The Tigers led 4-3 in the eighth when Lemon stepped in against Palmer again, this time with two on. With a chance to do some more damage against the future Hall of Famer, Lemon described his mindset at that moment, saying,

"“The natural thing to think in that spot is that they’re not going to give me anything good to hit. But then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Just see where the pitch is and hit it hard someplace, just drive it.’ You can’t start thinking with Jim Palmer, because he’s been around too much, and he’s too smart a pitcher for that.”"

Palmer’s pitch was a fastball over the plate that Lemon crushed for a three-run bomb. Herndon added a two-run homer in the ninth to seal a 9-3 win. The victory, combined with a Toronto loss elsewhere, put the Tigers in a three-way tie for first.

The Orioles, however, beat the Tigers in the series finale and then won two of three in Detroit right before the 1983 All-Star break to hold Sparky’s team at bay. The Tigers kept up the chase as they continued to play well in July.

In the midst of another five-game winning streak, Herndon enjoyed his most memorable day of the season for more reasons than one. On July 11, as the Tigers prepared to host the Angels, Herndon’s wife gave birth to their first son.

That evening, Herndon followed a Lou Whitaker leadoff homer and an Enos Cabell single with a 420-foot drive to center. It could’ve been a triple if it hadn’t bounced off the warning track and into the stands for a ground-rule double. He scored on a Lemon single as the Tigers rallied for five first-inning runs.

Herndon continued his tear in each of the next two innings with a single and RBI double, scoring both times. He added a two-run home run in the fifth. An eighth-inning single made it a five-hit day. After the game, a 12-6 Tigers win, Herndon returned to the hospital to rejoin his wife and the newborn Larry, Jr.

Later in July, the Tigers won eight games on a 12-game West Coast trip. The road trip came to an amazing end on July 24, with Chet Lemon’s signature moment as a major leaguer. On a Sunday afternoon in Anaheim, the Angels got off to an early 3-0 lead. Herndon’s leadoff homer in the fourth got the Tigers on the board. Lemon’s leadoff single in the seventh sparked a two-run game-tying rally.

Lance Parrish’s twelfth inning leadoff home run broke the tie. Tigers bullpen ace Aurelio Lopez struck out Mike Brown to start the bottom of the inning. The Angels ran into an out when Rob Wilfong was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double. Bob Boone beat out an infield grounder for a single.

Up stepped the pesky Rod Carew, one of the best hitters in the game. He was looking for his third hit of the game. The future Hall of Famer launched a pitch deep toward the left-center gap. Upon impact, Carew thought for sure that he’d just connected for a two-run walk-off home run.

Lemon, who Sparky had recently described as “the best center fielder I’ve been around”, had other ideas as he pursued the ball. He described the excitement that unfolded next, saying,

"“I just started running, and when I felt the warning track, I was scared that the ball would go out. I wanted to make sure when I jumped my glove would get over the fence.”"

Lemon called it a “do or die” moment. The timing of his jump, which he said was “the most difficult part”, was perfect. With his back against the wall, Lemon’s quest to rob Carew was successful. The Tigers won 4-3.

After Lemon’s feet touched back down on the ground, he excitedly pumped his right fist in the air. Left fielder Kirk Gibson came in to congratulate Lemon and got the first high-five as they ran off the field together. Dan McLean, covering the game for the San Pedro News-Pilot, perfectly captured the Tigers’ post-game mood. He wrote,

"“The Detroit dugout emptied immediately, players leaping in the air as though this July victory was the seventh game of the World Series.”"

Lemon received a hero’s welcome when the Tigers returned home two days later. The fans in the center field bleachers gave him a standing ovation when he took his position before the game. He gave them another reason to cheer later. Lemon’s two-run homer in the fourth broke a 3-3 tie. The Tigers piled on more runs and beat the Mariners 8-3.

Fans who saw the series finale with Seattle on July 28 saw Lemon play in his 1000th career game. He doubled and scored in a 6-1 Tigers win.

June (18-10) and July (19-9) were good months for the Tigers, but a 15-15 August had dropped them down to third place. On August 28, Lemon and the Tigers showed that they still had some fight left in them. Trailing the Blue Jays 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Lemon stepped in to face Jays reliever Joey McLaughlin. The Tigers were down to their last out. There were two on, so there was still hope.

Lemon hit McLaughlin’s fastball into the left-field stands. It was the first walk-off home run of his career. He basked in the glory of the moment afterward and compared the thrill to his recent heroics in Anaheim. Lemon said,

"“People asked me after my catch in California if I’d ever made a bigger one, and I said I had made better ones, but not a bigger one. Now, this home run…well, I don’t think you can get a bigger one than with two out in the ninth to win a game.”"

That home run was Lemon’s 19th of the season. His 20th came off of future Tiger teammate Frank Tanana on September 1 in a 5-0 Tigers win over the Rangers.

In September, the Tigers were able to establish themselves as the second-best team in the AL East. Seven of their last thirteen games would be against Baltimore, who led the division by seven games. Instead of being intimidated by what they saw in the first place Orioles, the Tigers were inspired. As they prepared to host the O’s in a four-game series, Lemon explained,

"“Baltimore is the best team in baseball. They play the best as a team – better than anybody. We’re close. We’re getting there…We’re still gonna give it our best shot against them. We’re gonna be out there battlin’ and fightin’ and scratchin’ and pinchin’ if necessary. The Tigers aren’t out of it yet. We’ve still got a glimmer.”"

It was a rainy Tuesday night in Detroit for the series opener on September 20. After Lou Whitaker’s leadoff groundout, nobody could’ve have known that the Tigers’ lineup was about to put together its craziest inning of the season.

Alan Trammell singled, stole second, and then stole third while Herndon was at the plate. Herndon drew a walk. With Lance Parrish at the plate, Herndon broke for second. Catcher Joe Nolan’s pickoff attempt went wild, allowing Trammell to score. Herndon advanced to third on the error and scored on Parrish’s single. Kirk Gibson tripled Parrish in, and Enos Cabell singled Gibson in.

Lemon was up next and sent a pitch soaring to center field that hit the Tiger Stadium flagpole about 20 feet above the ground and bounced into left center. It was an RBI triple, but Sparky thought that it should have been a home run. The umpires’ ruling was that because it bounced onto the field, not into the stands, it was still in play.

The Tigers’ rout continued as Glenn Wilson singled Lemon in. Wayne Krenchicki singled to turn the lineup over. Whitaker returned to the plate to hit a three-run home run, and Trammell notched his second single.

Herndon, in his second trip to the plate in the inning, added a two-run homer. The Tigers would put two more runners on before Lemon’s flyball to left brought the Orioles’ misery to an end. When the smoke cleared, the Tigers led 11-0. Heavy rains came down after the fifth inning ended, and the game was never resumed. It was a short and sweet 14-1 Tigers win.

The teams split that four-game series in Detroit. The Orioles went on to clinch the division in their next series in Milwaukee. The Tigers then swept three games in Baltimore in the final week of the season. Those games turned out to be important for Herndon, who played in his 1000th career game in the series opener.

Herndon went 8 for 12 in the last Baltimore series, which put him above .300 for the year. His 20th home run of the season, a two-run shot, was part of an 8-run rally in the second inning of the second game.

Herndon finished at .302/.351/.478 with a 129 OPS+ and 3.9 WAR. With the exception of a slugging percentage that was two points lower, all of those numbers were improvements over 1982. He also topped the previous season’s totals in hits (182), doubles (28), RBI (92), and walks (46).

For Lemon, 1983’s line of .255/.350/.464 wasn’t too different than1982’s line. The average and on-base percentage were down, but the slugging percentage jumped up a bit thanks to an increase in home runs. Lemon’s 24 longballs were a career-high. His OPS+ was a slightly higher 126, and he jumped up to 6.2 in WAR (good for second on the team behind Whitaker’s 6.7).

The 1983 season was an important one for the  Tigers. They won 92 games. It was the franchise’s first 90-win season since the 1971 team won 91. One question remained. If the Baltimore Orioles could go from a second-place finish in 1982 to a World Championship in 1983, could the Detroit Tigers go from a second-place finish in 1983 to a World Championship in 1984?

(To be continued.)