I have been a fan of the Detroit Tigers since the Summer of 1984. That means I am lucky enough to vividly remember my baseball team winning a World Series title, and waiting for them to win another. Since every year the team itself asks me who my Tiger is I decided to write about my favorite 25 Tigers since I became a fan…at eight years old…This has less to do with performance as it does with whatever intangible qualities Tigers’ players have…I mean this is the town that loved Brandon Inge and Don Kelly…and no neither one of those players will make my list…With all of that being said…
#9 Relief Pitcher Willie Hernandez
I will admit that maybe Willie should be a little higher on the list. However, this is a series about being a longtime fan of a team. Little things stick with you…it was 1988…
My Godmother gave me Tigers tickets when I became an Altar Boy. We went to the game on a warm summer day and sat down the first baseline behind the visitor’s bullpen. Were we of course had our fun with the Minnesota Twins pen and taunted Kent Hrbeck for most of the afternoon (so much so that he growled at us which of course for us was just part of the show). Willie did not have a good day. Back in the day at Old Tiger Stadium the players would have to come up on to the main concourse to get to the Players parking lot. That is where Willie came into contact with 12 year old me. I waited for my chance to meet him and asked very nicely ‘Mr. Hernandez, could you please sign my ball?’ He looked at me grumbled something under his breath and walked on down the concourse. I get it, bad day at the office and the Tigers lost…and if memory serves it was a weekend sweep at home to the Twins (backed up my Baseball Reference), but dude if you don’t have time for your fans go sell insurance or something and you won’t have any. That one incident will always sour my recollection of Willie the player who accomplished great things. So he will always be Willie to me…
Willie Hernandez was the second of three Tigers hurlers to win both the Cy Young and the MVP in the same year (Denny McClain in 1968 and Justin Verlander in 2011 being the other two). He is also important to the team history not only for that but because he came to the team very late in Spring Training of 1984. The Tigers completed fleeced the Philadelphia Phillies as they got not only Hernandez but Dave Bergman (RIP Dave, thank you for your years of service wearing the Old English D). They were the final pices of a tam that would start the season 35-5, lead the standings wire to wire, and win a World Series Title. The Tigers gave up Johnny Wockenfuss and Glenn Wilson…not to bad for two key components of the 1980’s Tigers dynasty.
Let us also dispel one of the biggest myths of the 1984 team…Willie Hernandez was not the closer…and least not as we think of that role today. Sparky Anderson had bullpen arms and he used those arms in a lots of different ways. Willie was always a late inning guy but Sparky used him in many different situations and late in Willie’s career he would come to rely on Mike Henneman more in the ninth. By the end of the ’84 season and in the playoffs it was clear Willie was Sparky’s preference but to say he was the closer is something of a misnomer.
Another thing I want to point out here is Willie pitched 140 innings in 1984 as a reliever. That is incredible and I do not know how many two inning saves he had but it was a lot and he pitched multiple innings in Game Five of the 1984 World Series clincher. He was a work horse and a fan favorite up until that season when he decided to change his name.
Maybe that is a little harsh, and had he played in today’s MLB he would simply go by Guillermo…and we would all know how to pronounce it and spell it but after a career of playing as Willie his sudden name change was confusing and made him look like a clown.
Now I prefer to remember Willie in his prime the 1984-1986 Willie when the talented southpaw was the workhorse of the Tigers pen.