The Detroit Tigers launched a new era in 1978 when two key rookies made their first Opening Day starts together. In a way, that game was also the beginning of the end for a lovable pitching sensation.
If you ask some people what the most festive day of the year is, they may pick a holiday like Christmas, Halloween, or the Fourth of July. If you pose the same question to ardent baseball fans, Opening Day may be the only answer you get, especially if their favorite team is the Detroit Tigers.
On Opening Day in 1978, Tigers fans celebrated what Jim Hawkins of the Detroit Free Press described as “an ideal start”, one that “could hardly have been much better”.
The festivities actually took place a day later than originally scheduled. The ’78 Detroit Tigers were supposed to host the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday, April 6, but the game was rained out and postponed until the following day. Friday’s forecast, sunny and 67 degrees with a breeze blowing out toward right field, was much better for baseball.
There was a full house at Tiger Stadium, ready to cheer on Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and the Tigers. Two seasons earlier, large crowds in Detroit had become the norm whenever Fidrych pitched. The excitement of seeing The Bird in action again, combined with the anticipation of a brand-new season, lured 52,528 people to the ballpark. The Tigers hadn’t drawn over 50,000 for a home opener since 1971. It was also the largest audience to attend one of Fidrych’s starts at home. Among the attendees on this afternoon was Paul Fidrych, Mark’s dad. He came in from Massachusetts to watch his son’s first Opening Day start.
Mark Fidrych undoubtedly would’ve been the Tigers’ starting pitcher in the 1977 opener if not for the infamous left-knee injury that he sustained in spring training. After finally debuting in late May, Fidrych didn’t make it to the end of the first inning on July 12. He faced three batters before leaving with right-shoulder trouble and didn’t pitch again that season. The Blue Jays were the Bird’s opponents on that fateful day, so it was fitting that he would be facing them again in his return to the mound for this April 7th matchup
Toronto countered with Dave Lemanczyk, who debuted with Detroit in 1973. He was part of the first wave of prospects that emerged during an era of rebuilding. The right-hander pitched primarily as a reliever for the Tigers, but he also picked up 10 starts for them in 1976. Ultimately, Lemanczyk was unable to establish himself as a keeper, and he was left unprotected in that fall’s expansion draft. The brand-new Blue Jays snapped him up. Lemanczyk was charged with 119 earned runs in 1977, which tied him with Oakland’s Vida Blue for the American League lead. Ironically, the Tigers scored more earned runs off Lemanczyk (15) than any other opponent that year.
Optimism runs rampant through the major leagues on Opening Day, and it was no different in the Motor City in 1978. Manager Ralph Houk was beginning his fifth (and final) season at the helm of the Detroit Tigers. He was pleased with what he’d seen down in Lakeland. He boasted,
"“In all my years in baseball, I’ve never had a team come out of spring training looking as good as this. Right now, this club has pitching, hitting, and defense. I honestly can’t ask for anything more. Most important, this is a ground-ball pitching staff.”"
Compared to a year earlier, the defense that Houk mentioned had a relatively new look to it. Five players; second baseman Lou Whitaker, shortstop Alan Trammell, third baseman Phil Mankowski, left fielder Steve Kemp, and right fielder Tim Corcoran; were appearing in an Opening Day starting lineup for the first time. Kemp, who debuted as a pinch-hitter in the ’77 opener before taking the departed Willie Horton’s job, was the most experienced of that bunch.
Tiger Stadium also sported a new look in 1978, although it was still a work in progress. The old ballpark was in the midst of a major renovation. Throughout the lower deck, blue plastic seats replaced the green wooden chairs that had been in place for what may have seemed like forever to longtime fans. The upper deck hadn’t yet been refurbished, and the old chairs were still in place. The visually striking dual-color scheme was captured on film for posterity in May, when scenes were shot for a made-for-TV biopic about Tiger center fielder Ron LeFlore.