1987 Revisited: Twins Upset Tigers
Across the board, pundits anticipated a Detroit Tiger filled World Series. Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell picked the Tigers in five saying that “this series isn’t going to be worth watching unless the Twins can get a game ahead somehow.” In Detroit, Tom Gage of the Detroit News summarized the baseball world’s opinion on the Twins by saying “the Twins really aren’t a good team.” Tim Kurkjian with the Baltimore Sun wrote Tigers in five because “they’re simply the better team.”
So when closer Jeff Reardon speared the Matt Nokes comebacker and ran it toward the imposing Kent Hrbek before flipping him the ball and following his throw into his first baseman’s arms (before their teammates joined them in the infield, creating a mess of grey pinstriped jumping jubilation at the corner of Trumball and Michigan), the Twins had done the near impossible.
They had outscored Detroit 34-23 and manhandled the Tigers’ vaunted pitching staff including trade deadline acquisition Doyle Alexander, who went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 regular season starts including two wins against the Twins. “The Twins did everything better than we did this series,” Alexander said after going 0-2 with a 10.00 ERA against them in the postseason. The Twins also roughed up Jack Morris at the Metrodome after he had gone 2-0 in his two regular season starts against Minnesota. While the Tigers bullpen pitched well, rookie stopper Mike Henneman got touched for six runs in five innings while issuing six walks.
On the pitching front, Minnesota kept Detroit’s big bats quiet throughout the series. Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson were held silent, to Michigan’s dismay. “It’s obvious that I’ve stunk in this series,” said Gibson who finished 6-for-21 (.277) with 8 strikeouts. “I didn’t try to strike out, contrary to some people’s beliefs.”
“I wished we would have showed what kind of offensive team we were,” Trammell said. The Tigers averaged the most runs per game, hit the most home runs and held the highest slugging percentage of all American League teams -- it just wouldn’t show in the five-game series. "We were prepared for the series," said Tigers centerfielder Chet Lemon, "mentally and physically. We sent our guys out there. The Twins just outplayed us.’
“They were overwhelming underdogs,” NBC’s Tony Kubek said in analyzing the Twins’ victory over the heavily favored Tigers, “but they put together a championship series, taking advantage of every mistake the Tigers made.”
No, fortunately for Minnesota fans, the overwhelming underdog was celebrating on the field that afternoon.
Moments later, the Twins were ushered into the creaky and leaky bowels of Tiger Stadium, where cameras and reporters followed the team’s alcohol-soaked celebration.
The questions from the media revolved around the team’s ability to prove doubters wrong. With each inquiry, a Twins player or coach responded that while outsiders may have not respected their capabilities, the team had every ounce of faith that they were good enough to play with the best.
Gary Gaetti, who was announced as the series’ MVP, was inundated with post-game interview requests. He was not entirely thrilled by the process.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” the Twins’ award-winning third baseman shared with the Star Tribune’s Dennis Brackin, “Winning this award spoils a lot of the fun that I wanted to have after the game. I got led around like a dog on a leash: ‘Go do this, go do that.’ I really wanted to be with my teammates. Even now, I can’t be with my team, doing what I want to do, because I have to answer the questions.”
It took almost an hour after the game for Gaetti to pull himself away from the throngs of the media horde and join his teammates in the jubilation. In tow, Gaetti had the ALCS MVP award trophy, a bronze bowl that he used as a large chalice to consume the bubbly. When he finally spotted outfielder Tom Brunansky, Gaetti sidled up next to him and demanded his teammate pour some of the champagne into the trophy. Gaetti took a swig and then shared it with Brunansky.
“I thought it was still up in the air. I didn’t know a final decision had been made,” Gaetti said after finding out he was chosen by the writers for the honor. “I thought maybe they were going to grab Bruno, too. I felt pretty sad afterward because I really felt like he deserved it. Maybe they saw something that I didn’t.”
The decision to give the award to Gaetti had not been made easy by Brunansky. After all, Bruno matched The Rat’s home run total (2) but had driven in nine to Gaetti’s five and gone 7-for-17 (.412). Voters pointed to Gaetti’s intangibles that separated him from Brunansky which included starting the scoring off in Game 1 with a big blast off Alexander and -- the play that Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson considered the most crushing of the series -- the pickoff of Darrell Evans in Game 4.
When you review why most writers favored Gaetti's candidacy over Brunansky, it was the pivotal Game 4 pickoff of Evans at third base that most consider as the difference-maker.
In the sixth inning of Game 4, the Twins were up 4-3 but the Tigers had just tacked on a run and had sacrificed the 40-year-old Evans to third base with one out and the top of the lineup due up. In that scenario, Baseball Prospectus’ Run Expectancy Chart said the Tigers were likely to score 0.94 runs -- almost a guaranteed tie game.
Tom Kelly had brought in his strikeout pitcher Juan Berenguer -- Senor Smoke, El Gasolino -- to dispatch Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell. With Berenguer on the mound facing the left-handed Whitaker, inspiration struck Gaetti.
He gave Tim Laudner a signal that alerted his catcher to throw the ball down to third. Gaetti then turned to third base umpire Joe Brinkman to be ready for a play. There was an inherent risk that ran with trying to throw the ball down the line with ninety feet separating the Twins from a tied ballgame, a lot could go wrong including throwing the ball away that could result in Evans trotting home uncontested. But that’s the attitude the 1987 Twins brought with them: To hell with it, it’s just a game.
''Gary and I have a predetermined signal, and he put it on,'' Laudner said later. ''If he puts it on, I'm going to throw it down there.”
Gaetti added that he was having a “nice little conversation” with Evans right before putting the play on, lulling him into a false sense of security. “I gave Laudner the sign because I’ve seen Darrell off there a long way before. You’ve got to know your runners. He was about 20 feet off.”
The play started innocently enough. Evans was no further off the base than Gaetti as runners are directed and as Berenguer delivered his pitch, he shuffled closer towards home for his secondary lead. Evans, however, was still moving in that direction when Laudner sprung up from his crouch, rescuing a fastball from a date with the dirt just past home plate. It was only when Laudner cocked his arm that Evans’ weight slammed down hard on his right leg and he tried in vain to scramble back to the safety of the base.
Laudner’s throw was head-high and Gaetti, Evans and the ball reached the base at the same time. Gaetti snared the ball and in one motion slammed it on Evans’ back as he stretched for the bag. Brinkman raced in from his position on the third base line closer to the cut of the outfield grass. As he reached the scene, Brinkman gave an emphatic "out" signal. From his vantage point, you could certainly question whether Brinkman had the best angle to see the play. From his knees, the veteran Tiger pleaded his case and kept his hands on his hips to display his frustration. Without any replay, the argument fell on deaf ears but any argument was moot: NBC cameras situated along the third base line captured the play which showed Gaetti applying the tag with several inches to spare between Evans and third base.
After the game, Evans told reporters that he was completely caught off-guard by the play.
''I wanted to get a good jump on a ground ball or have a chance to score if the ball's in the dirt,'' Evans said in the Tigers clubhouse, trying to justify why he was so far off of third base. ''I kind of hesitated because the ball was almost in the dirt. I was trying to read it. That's why I didn't get back right away. I would have liked to have been back another foot. Then I would've gotten back. He had a little trouble catching the ball, but when he did, he came up throwing.''
Gaetti, no doubt a fierce competitor, had mixed emotions about the play considering Evans had been one of his heroes.
“[Evans] is a guy I have looked up to for a long time, so you hate to embarrass him,” Gaetti said. “But because I like him, I have watched him a lot in the past. He has a habit of wandering off the base. So we tipped off umpire Joe Brinkman so he would be ready and knew the play was coming. There is no doubt we got him and that play might have won the game for us.”
In spite of the baserunning blunder, Evans’ 1987 season was special and he was one of the reasons the Tigers had won the AL East. During the regular season, Evans became the first 40-year-old to hit 30 home runs in a year. But with the combination of the baserunning gaffe and a muffed ground ball at third that led to a Twins run, Detroit fans turned on Evans and booed him. That emotion would be short-lived, however, as fans gave Evans a standing ovation when he came the plate for his first at-bat in the deciding Game 5.
"I think it was well-deserved," Kirk Gibson said later. "Let's put it this way. A select few fans booed him last night. I don't expect it to happen to me when I swing at a bad pitch. I didn't expect it to happen to Darrell. It was a nice gesture."
The in-series decision-making by the Twins’ skipper would turn out to be critical, too.
Tom Kelly’s juggling of his rotation was met with at least some bit of resistance. For Game 5, Kelly opted to go with veteran Bert Blyleven on three days rest rather than Joe Niekro. Had it backfired and the Tigers come away with a win, Kelly would have been forced to use either Niekro or Les Straker in Game 6 and have Frank Viola as the insurance policy in the event of Game 7, rather than just set his rotation for a more conventional Blyleven/Viola combination for the series’ last two games. The moral of the story? Tom Kelly has balls.
Following the game, NBC’s Marv Albert pointed out that Kelly had been aggressive throughout the series. Kelly, in his always low-key manner with the media, agreed. “We try to be aggressive, we try to entertain the people, that’s one of our philosophies coming into spring training. We’re gonna try to take the game to them.”
They certainly took the game to the Tigers. The veterans from the Motor City were outgunned by the young offensive upstarts from the Twin Cities. While the Tigers beat their opponents into submission by scoring 5.53 runs per game (roughly 13 percentage higher than the league’s average), the Twins scored 6.8 runs per game in the series.
Kelly’s 1987 squad was no slouch when it came to the long ball either -- they mashed 196 home runs, fifth in the league but 29 fewer than the AL East-winning Detroit club. Opponents pitched around many in the heart of the order but no one more than Hrbek. That year, teams put Hrbek on first 12 times rather than tangling with him. Only Wade Boggs, George Brett and Don Mattingly garnered more respect that season. Still, Kelly knew what type of club he had, one that was built for power not for speed and had some weaknesses past the meat of the order. He would have the likes of Gagne, Lombardozzi and Newman sacrifice runners along to set up Puckett, Hrbek, Gaetti and Brunansky to drive them in.
In Game 2, Kelly put the steal sign on for designated hitter Randy Bush not once but twice. After nabbing second base, the Twins doubled-down and sent the 28-year-old to third hoping to catch the Tigers sleeping. With one out in the fourth and the Twins up 3-2, Bush took second and then third on the Jack Morris-Mike Heath battery. A few batters later, Gladden singled to left scoring Bush and Brunansky, giving them an insurmountable 5-2 lead.
"Tom Kelly is a manager who worked hard in the minor leagues and came forward and taught these players to go out and have fun and play," Tigers manager Sparky Anderson remarked about his managerial compatriot in the opposing dugout.
Following the game, Anderson complimented the Twins on their series, noting that they were the superior team over the course of those five games. Anderson also paused and gave a word of advice for the Twins’ next challenger: “And those Minnesota fans? Good luck to those two National League teams that have to go listen to that noise.”
Fans had been at the forefront for the entire season, helping in the team’s 56-25 home record. The fans were front and center during the ALCS, making racket, waving the white Homer Hankies and adding to the Tigers’ on-field confusion.
In addition to the noise, the white roof and lighting added to the lethal combination for visiting players. Don Baylor, whom the Twins acquired at the waiver deadline in August had plenty of experience playing in the stadium as a guest before calling it home. "The lighting here is something you never get accustomed to if you're a visiting player. You can always see a fluctuation of lighting. By the time you get over that feeling, you're down by two runs."
As the post-game celebration continued -- with the Twins’ roster and coaching staff dripping in champagne and cheap beer -- KARE11, the local NBC affiliate broadcasting the game, notified viewers that the team would host a welcoming party that night at the Metrodome. The gates would be opening at 9 PM.
It would be a homecoming that a generation of Minnesota Twins fans would never forget.