When Sparky’s sluggers thrilled fans at Tiger Stadium on Opening Day

Rob Deer hit home runs about as far as anyone ever has at Tiger Stadium.

Rob Deer hit home runs about as far as anyone ever has at Tiger Stadium.

Comerica Park is only a few blocks away from The Corner of Michigan and Trumbull, but it’s light years removed from Tiger Stadium when it comes to being a hitter’s ballpark. The old home of the Detroit Tigers was always a haven for hitters, producing some of the most potent offenses the National Pastime has ever seen.

During the reign of Sparky Anderson, the Tigers fielded their share of powerful lineups, none more so than the slugging Bengals of the early 1990s. Those lineups were stacked with players who truly made the team a nightmare for opposing hurlers. Twenty years ago, in the lid-lifter of the ’93 home season, the Terrifying Tabbies put so many runners across the plate they threatened to short circuit the scoreboard.

Those were the days when the Tiger lineup seemed to rival the Detroit Lions in size and ferocity. Cecil Fielder, Rob Deer, and Mickey Tettleton looked like they should have been wearing a helmet and chasing a frightened quarterback. Kirk Gibson, a former All-American wideout at Michigan State, was still as reckless and ferocious on the basepaths as he’d ever been. The Tigers were a muscle-bound team with hard-hitting bats at nearly every position.

But Sparky’s crew wasn’t expected to muster much more than a meow that season. They’d came out on the wrong end of 87 games the previous season and finished 6th in a 7-team division. They were an aging team and they had little in the farm system that pointed to a bright future. The DP combo of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were in their mid-30s, playing out the final few seasons of their careers. Talented? Yes. Capable of carrying a team to the top of the standings? Nope.

Fielder was the star of the team, having socked 130 homers the previous three years while leading all of baseball in runs batted in each season. Big Daddy was a sight to see, with his massive thighs, paunchy belly, enormous arms, and mighty swing. He was Paul Bunyon in baseball pants. But even Fielder couldn’t have foreseen how the offense would click in the first few weeks of the ’93 season.

The Tigs limped home after a season-opening west coast trip with a 2-4 mark, eyeing their home opener against Oakland. It was a clear Tuesday afternoon at The Corner. Ernie Harwell, after inexplicably being fired by the radio station and the club, and calling games part-time for the California Angels in 1992, was back behind the microphone at Tiger Stadium. Maybe it was his cool, southern baritone that helped lead to the magic on the diamond that day, April 13, 1993.

Facing an Oakland team that had been to the post-season in four of the previous five seasons, the Tigers dove right in. In the first inning, Sweet Lou Whitaker lined a sharp single over the A’s second baseman’s head and then stole a base. He scampered home a few minutes later on a pop single by Travis Fryman. Fielder singled, and then Deer blasted a pitch to deep left center field that landed in the bleachers. It was a titanic blast from one of the strongest men in the game. Oakland hurler Storm Davis got Tettleton to swing through one of his fastballs, but he was probably still dazed by Deer’s homer when he walked back to the visitor’s dugout. It was 4-0 Tigers.

Detroit scored three more runs in the second inning on two walks, two singles, and an error. Davis was sent to the showers in the next inning after he walked two more. By this time the crowd was buzzing about the 8-2 Tiger lead and they had barely settled into their seats for Opening Day. In the 4th, Detroit’s lineup really flexed their muscles, scoring eight times. The big blows were 3-run homers by Tettleton and Fryman. Both were towering shots to left field. In that inning, Oakland got so harried that relief pitcher Ed Nunez committed a balk without ever having thrown a pitch. The Tigers had set a franchise record with 16 tallies. But they weren’t done yet.

It was the 5th inning and Tony LaRussa was waving the white flag: he replaced most of his starting lineup. The Tigers poured it on, scoring four more times in the 8th to win by a score of 20-4. It was the highest scoring opening day game in baseball history and the most lopsided win by the Tigers on opening day. Nearly 50,000 fans filed out of Tier Stadium very happy, having witnessed history and several mammoth home runs. The Tigers had rattled the cages with 18 hits and drawn an incredible 12 walks. Leadoff man Tony Phillips drew four bases on balls himself.

Four days later at home against the Mariners, the Tigers put up 20 runs again. They scored 8 the next day, and in the first three games of a road trip in Minnesota against the Twins, the lineup laid it on for scores of 12-4, 17-1, and 16-5. It was part of a six-game winning streak that vaulted the surprising Tigers to the top of the AL East. Deer, Fielder, Tettleton, Fryman, and Chad Kreuter were all among the league leaders in runs scored, runs batted in, and home runs. Sparky’s lineup was clicking: Phillips, Whitaker, Fryman, Fielder, Gibson, Deer, Tettleton, Kreuter, third baseman Scott Livinstone, and center fielder Milt Cuyler were circling the bases at a record-setting pace. Detroit was averaging more than 8 runs per game and on pace to score more than 1,100 runs. It was like the slow-pitch softball league where the beer-guzzling factory worker team was teeing off against the church league.

The Tigs came back to earth, of course. They were in first place until the last week in June until a 10-game skid dropped them out of the race. In 8 of those losses the offense scored fewer five runs, which shows just how cold even a great-hitting team can become.

Sparky’s charges won 85 games and finished in 3rd place, 10 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. But it was an entertaining season that proved to be the last competitive one for Sparky. The next two seasons would be marred by labor strikes and mark the end of the Anderson era in Motown. In some ways, the ’93 home opener at Tiger Stadium was the beginning of the end for a remarkable era in Detroit sports history.