Opening Day Was a Good Day For the 1978 Detroit Tigers
The Detroit Tigers kick off the 1978 season
Fidrych easily handled the Blue Jays in the top of the first as the 78th season of Detroit Tigers baseball got underway. Rick Bosetti grounded out to Mankowski. Al Woods and Roy Howell each grounded back to The Bird. LeFlore drew a leadoff walk for the Tigers in the bottom half. A pair of groundouts moved him along to third, where he was stranded when Jason Thompson’s fly out to left ended the inning.
The Blue Jays’ two biggest acquisitions in spring training were the first two hitters to test Fidrych in the second. Rico Carty, a former National League batting champ and a .305 career hitter at that point, walked. John Mayberry, a Detroit native who averaged nearly four dozen extra-base hits a year in six seasons with the Kansas City Royals, followed with a single to right field. Suddenly, the Jays had a threat brewing. Tom Hutton’s single up the middle, which Trammell couldn’t glove in time, drove Carty in with the game’s first run. Mayberry took third.
The tandem of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker got into the action when Dave McKay grounded to Trammell. The shortstop fed his second baseman for the force play on Hutton, but Whitaker had to leap in order to avoid being taken out by the baserunner’s slide. His relay to first baseman Thompson was in time to nab McKay. It was the first time that Trammell and Whitaker turned a double play together at Tiger Stadium. There would be many, many more.
Mayberry scored on the play, however, to give Toronto a 2-0 lead. Fidrych escaped further damage by inducing a grounder back to the mound off the bat of Luis Gomez. Kemp walked to lead off the second but was erased when Corcoran hit into a double play. Milt May put the Tigers on the board with a home run to the upper deck in right. That brought Whitaker up.
As a September call up in 1977, “Sweet Lou” made only three starts at home, and the Tigers drew under 10,000 in two of those games. With a much larger crowd gathered this time around, a new tradition was about to be introduced at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Fans greeted the 20-year-old with a rousing chorus of “Loooooooou!” A confused Whitaker initially thought he was being booed but caught on quickly.
Whitaker further endeared himself to his rooters with a walk and a stolen base in the second inning. Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press wrote that the eventual 1978 American League Rookie of the Year had fans “buzzing with his dash and daring” and predicted that he “will have all their hearts by mid-May”. All these decades later, the Tiger who famously wore the soon-to-be-retired no. 1 still has them.
Trammell struck out to end the second frame. Fidrych bounced back in the third. He got Alan Ashby out on a grounder to Whitaker, then struck out Bosetti and Woods. With one out in the bottom of the third, Mankowski and Rusty Staub delivered back-to-back singles. Although Thompson struck out, Kemp tied the game, 2-2, with a single to left that drove in Mankowski.
Fidrych made quick work of the Blue Jays in the fourth. Howell grounded out to Whitaker and Carty grounded out to Fidrych. Thompson fielded a grounder off the bat of Mayberry, his fellow first baseman, and Fidrych hustled to the bag in time to complete the inning-ending play. With one out in the bottom half, Whitaker doubled to left field, and Trammell walked. Lemanczyk got a big out when he struck LeFlore out. The tide was about to turn, however.
Phil, The Man
For each of the seven season openers prior to this one, Aurelio Rodriguez was the Detroit Tigers’ starting third baseman. He was still with the team, and so Mankowski may have seemed like an odd choice to start the 1978 opener. Houk had already decided that he would be platooning a group of players, at least for the early stages of the season. Mankowski was part of the lineup that Houk wanted in there against right-handed pitchers.
In the fourth inning, Mankowski found himself in a two-on, two-out situation with a big opportunity to do some damage. He delivered. The left-handed hitter crushed a Lemanczyk pitch that landed in the upper-deck seats in right field. Mankowski’s three-run homer broke the tie and put the Tigers up, 5-2. The unlikely hitting hero, who was beginning his third season with the team, remarked,
"“It feels good to get off on the right foot…So far, it’s the biggest thrill I’ve had, starting on Opening Day and then having a good game. I felt a lot more confident going into spring training that I would have a spot on the 25-man team, but I didn’t think I’d be starting Opening Day.”"
It was the biggest home run of the eight that Mankowski hit in his career. Waiting for him at home plate were Whitaker and Trammell, who scored on the bomb, and Staub, who’d been in the on-deck circle. Staub followed Mankowski’s homer with a single to right, and that was it for Lemanczyk. Righty Jesse Jefferson came on to get the elusive third out for the Jays.
Pitching with a lead for the first time all day, Fidrych began the fifth by getting Hutton to fly out to left. It was the first ball that any of the visitors hit to the outfield since Hutton’s single to center back in the second inning. As the next Toronto batter strode to the plate, nobody at Tiger Stadium had any idea that the scariest moment of the game was about to happen.
McKay hit a slow roller on the right side of the infield. Whitaker and Fidrych both charged the ball, each unaware of the other’s presence. As a result, there was a collision. The Bird went airborne at the last second in an attempt to avoid his teammate, but his knee clipped Sweet Lou in the neck. The second baseman crumpled to the ground, and the pitcher tumbled over him, landing on his own right shoulder. Even now, seeing the photos of the crash that ran in the next day’s Detroit Free Press is enough to make one wince and shudder.
Both players were momentarily shaken up but stayed in the game. Whitaker described the impact as “one of those 15-second hurts”. He said that as soon as he looked around to see if his teammate was okay, Fidrych was already up and back on the mound. Afterward, Mark admitted that he was “out of my area”.
Houk guessed that Fidrych probably wasn’t “used to seeing anybody over that far”. The comment was interpreted as a compliment on Whitaker’s range. Indeed, Fidrych hadn’t played with a second baseman like Whitaker before. In The Bird’s first two seasons, five different guys started there behind him: Pedro Garcia, Chuck Scrivener, Gary Sutherland, Jerry Manuel, and Tito Fuentes. Of that bunch, only Sutherland (10 games with the St. Louis Cardinals) and Fuentes (13 games with the Oakland A’s) played in the major leagues in 1978. Needless to say, it didn’t take Whitaker too long to solidify the position in Detroit.
Disaster was averted, but the Tigers quickly found themselves on shaky ground. Gomez singled and Ashby walked to load the bases. That turned the lineup over for Bosetti, who worked the count full. Fidrych, who had been his usual animated self throughout the game, was clearly agitated. He needed a moment to stalk around the mound and talk to himself. The capacity crowd urged him on with a “Go, Bird! Go!” chant. Once he was ready again, The Bird bore down and blew strike three past Bosetti. Woods grounded out to Whitaker to end the threat. Fidrych said,
"“When I got that guy out with the bases loaded, it made me happy. I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t try to overthrow, keep your rhythm, throw the ball down the middle of the plate and make him hit it.’ Then I struck him out, and that’s the neatest thing you can do.”"
Whatever momentum the Blue Jays might have had brewing in the fifth was nonexistent in the sixth. Fidrych mowed Toronto down 1-2-3. The first two outs came on ground balls to Whitaker, who finished with six assists on the day. Thompson made an unassisted putout on the third grounder of the inning. In the seventh, Hutton grounded to Thompson, and Fidrych hustled to the bag to take the throw and make the play for the first out.
Fidrych’s eagerness to contribute defensively almost cost him after that. The Blue Jays’ next hitter, McKay, hit a dribbler up the first-base line. Fidrych bolted off the mound to field it, and he managed to hold on to the ball when he and McKay collided. It was a hard-earned second out. Afterward, The Bird offered an explanation that seems especially ominous in hindsight, considering how the rest of his career turned out. He said,
"“In a game, you don’t ever think about getting hurt. If I’m gonna get hurt again, I’d rather get hurt on the field than off it.”"