Detroit Tigers: The 1987 American League East Champions Part 1

1987: Manager Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers in 1987. Anderson managed the Tigers from 1979-1995. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
1987: Manager Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers in 1987. Anderson managed the Tigers from 1979-1995. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The 1987 Detroit Tigers were a team that is often overlooked among Tigers teams that made it to the post-season. They overcame a loss of a major cog in their machine and thanks to Bill Lajoie’s trades in June and August, Detroit would win their last American League East title. This is part 1 of a 2-part series as we look at Spring Training until June.

For anyone who lived in the Detroit area in 1987, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” were game shows that were on WDIV-Local 4 from 7 pm to 8 pm. This is still true to this day but a memory I had as a young baseball fan, you knew once you heard “We interrupt Wheel Of Fortune at its regularly scheduled time to bring you the following presentation of Detroit Tigers baseball” followed by one of the iconic images/animations in Detroit television history.

I was too young to remember the 1984 Detroit Tigers but I do remember this team in more detail. There was a lot that went into this division winner as manager Sparky Anderson and GM Bill Lajoie had to overcome two teams en route to have the best record in the American League but eventually, to an American League East title.

Spring Training 1987

The winter of 1986 heading into spring training of 1987 was an interesting one for Tigers GM Bill Lajoie and President Jim Campbell on how they were going to fill out the lineup.  They let catcher Lance Parrish go to the Phillies. Parrish was not happy with how the Tigers handled the negotiations at the time. They made an offer he didn’t agree with. Come to find out later that was the case with several Tigers but another story for another day.

The Tigers had Mike Heath and Dwight Lowry as their catchers. Heath was picked up from St.Louis via trade in 1986 and Lowry, who was backup, was limited due to a knee injury.  Depth wise if you are looking at the farm system, the Tigers did not feature too much when it came to positional talent at that time. If you look at the construction of what was the Opening Day roster in 1987, it did not feature any Tigers who were drafted in the 1980s. 

Catchers-Mike Heath, Matt Nokes, Dwight Lowry, and Orlando Mercado.

Infielders-Alan Trammell, Darrell Evans, Dave Bergman, Lou Whitaker, Tom Brookens, and Darnell Coles

Outfielders-Kirk Gibson, Chet Lemon, Pat Sheridan, Terry Harper, John Grubb, and Larry Herndon.

Pitchers-Starting Rotation: Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Walt Terrell, Frank Tanana. Bullpen: Eric King, Mark Thurmond, Willie Hernandez, Bryan Kelly, and Nate Snell.  So they carried four catchers and nine pitchers. Strange to think about it in 2020 you would carry four catchers but different times then.

There were many Tigers fans skeptical heading into the start of the 1987 season. Kirk Gibson would start the year on the DL, Trammell was hobbled with thigh issues and according to Sports Illustrated, Detroit was predicted to finish 5th in the AL East. Fans were expecting more after the 1984 World Series win. But as we all know, predictions do not mean a thing.

April Struggles Brings New Faces

While the Tigers got off to 11-19 start, Detroit was looking for answers across their roster. Willie Hernandez was put on the DL and the Tigers called up Mike Henneman on May 13th, 1987.  Hernandez did not pitch much due to elbow issues but Henneman, along with rookie right-hander Jeff Robinson, (he was called up in April) helped the Tigers hover among the division leaders, winning 13 out of 15 games to end the month of May.

Matt Nokes’s hot bat was clutch for Detroit early on, hitting 9 home runs between April and May but he turned up a notch in June, hitting .341 with 7 home runs. His sizzling start would get him to an All-Star game. After just 26 games in the majors between Detroit and San Francisco the prior two seasons, Nokes entrenched himself as the team’s number one catcher.

Coming up on part 2, Alan Trammell’s June & the struggles of one bat and the starting rotation would bring in two x-factors that would change the course of Detroit’s season.