In 1980 a veteran Detroit Tiger outfielder ignored those directions and navigated his own path directly up the middle of the diamond. His reason for performing that startling maneuver was to even the score, not in the scoreboard sense, but in the interest of revenge.
The Tigers acquired Al Cowens from the California Angels two months into the 1980 season in a straight-up trade for first baseman Jason Thompson. Sparky Anderson, in his first full season as Tiger manager, identified Thompson as one of those players in his clubhouse who would never be part of a winning team. Like Ron LeFlore and Rusty Staub before him and Steve Kemp later, Thompson was an All-Star player with a personality that didn’t mesh with the Tigers white-haired dugout leader.
At 28, Cowens had already enjoyed several good big league systems. In 1977 he’d finished second in American League Most Valuable Player voting, when he won a Gold Glove, hit 23 homers, drove in 112 runs, and batted .312 for the Kansas City Royals. But Cowens was dealt to the Angels after the 1979 season, having been involved in a few contract squabbles that hastened his exit from Kansas City.
While still playing with the Royals in 1979, on May 8, in a game against the Rangers, Cowens was injured when a pitch by reliever Ed Farmer struck the right-handed batter in the jaw. Also in that game, Cowens’ teammate Frank White was hit by a Farmer pitch. As a result of his beaning, Cowens missed three weeks. When he returned he wore a protective mask attached to his helmet to guard his surgically repaired jaw.
More than a year later, in a Tiger uniform, Cowens finally faced Farmer again. With the Tigers facing the White Sox in Chicago (Farmer had moved on to a new team also), Cowens led off the 11th inning of a 3-3 contest. After the tall right-hander coaxed Cowens into a grounder to short, he turned to watch the play behind him. Instead of going to first base, Cowens went straight out to the mound, surprising Farmer by tackling him from behind. Both benches emptied, as did the bullpens. Cowens was ejected, of course. But in his mind, he’d exacted a level of revenge.
Cowens bizarre tactic rattled Farmer. The reliever walked Lance Parrish and allowed a run-scoring double to John Wockenfuss before being pulled from the game.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Farmer said later about being greeted by Cowens after his grounder. “Man, I turned and just tried to get some blows in.”
Cowens was fined and suspended for seven games, but that was just baseball justice. Chicago Police issued a warrant for his arrest after filing a complaint against his “assault” on Farmer. To his credit, Farmer agreed to not press charges as long as Cowens would shake his hands.
The two did just that the next time the Tigers were back in Chicago. It put an “all’s well that ends well” ending to one of the more bizarre fights in Tiger history.
Cowens played one more season for Detroit, never solidifying right field the way it was hoped. He spent five more seasons with Seattle, enjoying a few comeback seasons before retiring in 1986. Sadly, in 2002, at the age of 50, Cowens died of a heart attack.