Opening Day Was a Good Day For the 1978 Detroit Tigers

Mark Fidrych answers the cheering crowd at Tiger Stadium. (Source: Detroit Free Press)
Mark Fidrych answers the cheering crowd at Tiger Stadium. (Source: Detroit Free Press) /
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Detroit Tigers
Jason Thompson, circa 1978. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Detroit Tigers first baseman Jason Thompson goes off the roof

For his part, Jefferson had managed to keep the Tigers at bay for 2 1/3 innings after taking over for Lemanczyk, but he wasn’t able to leave unscathed. Thompson gave the crowd another thrill in the seventh inning with a leadoff home run that bounced off the roof in right-center field. One season earlier, Thompson had cleared that roof twice with monster home runs. Lynn Henning, then with the Lansing State Journal, reported that Thompson’s blast was only a couple feet shy of completely leaving the ballpark and was right in the vicinity of Reggie Jackson’s legendary homer in the 1971 All-Star Game. The Tigers had a comfortable 6-2 lead.

Thompson, Detroit’s biggest longball threat, was coming off a season in which he led the team with 31 homers. (He went on to lead the Tigers again in 1978 with 26.) The left-handed hitting slugger had been 0-for-3 in the game before unloading on Jefferson. Thompson said,

"“The funny thing was, up until that time, I had been swinging hard. I finally told myself to just try and hit the ball square and it worked. I don’t know what it was – fastball, slider, or what – because it was in the shadows. But it was nice.”"

In the eighth inning, the Blue Jays made one last attempt to get back into the game. Bosetti reached on an error by Mankowski, and Howell singled to center. With runners on the corners and two down, Fidrych took on Carty one more time. The 38-year-old designated hitter went on to hit a career-high 38 home runs in 1978, but Carty was helpless against a Fidrych slider. According to Jeff Jacobs of Port Huron’s The Times Herald, “he waved at it like a Little Leaguer”. Catcher Milt May called it a breaking pitch that “broke almost down to the ground”. It was Fidrych’s fifth strikeout of the game.

Although a pitcher making his first start after returning from a shoulder ailment today would be handled much differently, there was no doubt that afternoon that Houk was going to send The Bird out to finish what he started. Fidrych led the AL with 24 complete games in 1976, and he completed seven of the 11 starts he made in the injury-shortened 1977 season. Explaining his decision, Houk simply stated,

"“The thing that amazes me is the way he can finish. In the eighth and ninth, he really goes after those hitters.”"

Mayberry popped out to Mankowski in foul territory to begin the ninth inning. Hutton grounded out to Thompson, who made his third unassisted putout of the game. With one out to go, Fidrych kept McKay waiting at the plate momentarily while he chased after hot-dog wrappers that the breeze had carried out to the mound area. He tracked down and pocketed four of them, and the fervent Detroit Tigers fans cheered the eccentric pitcher on all the way.

Finally, it was time to get back to business, and Fidrych induced a grounder back to the mound with his 114th or 115th pitch of the game (reports varied, but of course this was back in an era before pitch counts were emphasized and scrutinized). He made the toss to Thompson to end the game. Defensively, Fidrych helped his own cause by tallying three putouts and five assists in the Tigers’ 6-2 victory.