The AL East was a monster for most of the 1980s. This was the era before a baseball wild card, when the East and the West would play in the League Championship Series.
The decade started with the Yankees winning the East at 103-59 and Baltimore finishing second at 100-62.
Over the next six seasons, six of the seven teams in the AL East would win the division: 1981, New York (in the split strike season); 1982, Milwaukee; 1983, Baltimore; 1984, Detroit; 1985, Toronto; and 1986, Boston.
And the best of those teams when the East was at its mightiest was Detroit in 1984: 104-58, the most wins in a Tigers history dating to 1901, and the franchise’s best record by winning percentage since 1934.
The Tigers had been in pursuit of the Yankees, the Orioles, the Brewers — potent veteran teams — for several years and finally figured out the formula for winning the East.
“We buried them,” Jack Morris said. “We started that season saying, ‘We can play with these guys,’ and we then we just came out of the chute in unbelievable fashion. We had a lot of stars, but we also had guys like Barbaro Garbey, Rusty Kuntz and Marty Castillo rising up to win games for us.
“The ’84 Tigers were a ‘team.’ ”
This was a time when if you wanted to follow an out-of-market baseball team on a regular basis, the best bet was to find a station with a clear channel radio signal at night. WJR, 760 AM in Detroit, was one of those.
As the ’84 Tigers started to challenge for the best start in major league history, I listened to quite a few innings of their games in May. By doing so, you would get the extra benefit of listening to Ernie Harwell, the grand gentleman of the Tigers broadcast booth.
This sticks in my mind: Listening late on a May night, with the Tigers in Anaheim and Morris securing another victory, Ernie gave the final score, “5-1 Tigers,” and followed with this concise tribute: “What a ballclub.”
I could add an exclamation mark there, but there wasn’t one in Ernie’s delivery. He was stating a fact, since on that night — May 24 — the 1984 Tigers achieved the greatest 40-game start (35-5) in major league history.
Morris was 9-1 with a 1.97 ERA after those nine innings. The fastball was robust and the split-finger was impossible … as long as the iron catcher, Lance Parrish, could keep it in front of him.
“Lance was my man,” Morris said. “He meant so much to our team, and he meant even more to me personally. I came up as a young guy with a temper. Lance helped me tremendously with maturity.
“He was irreplaceable for us. He would be bruised and battered, a big reason being all those split-fingers that I bounced, but he was back there, catching his 1,100 innings.”
The Tigers were already 8½ games ahead in the East after 40 games. A mediocre song in their honor, “Bless You Boys,” was being played incessantly on Michigan radio stations.
It was such a historic blitz that the Tigers could get by with 69-53 the rest of the way and still win the division by 15 games. They swept Kansas City in three games in the ALCS and then pushed aside San Diego in five games in a dominant World Series — a blessed event in Detroit, even with the post-Game 5 mischief on the streets near Tiger Stadium.
OK, it was a riot, but the Tigers haven’t won a World Series since, so maybe the mischievous types had reason to make it unforgettable.
This was the first of four World Series rings for Morris. He was the ace for the Tigers, the ace and Game 7 legend for the Twins in 1991, a 21-game winner for Toronto in 1992, and then along for the ride with an inflamed rotator cuff when the Blue Jays won it again in 1993.
Minnesotans are encouraged to celebrate Morris’ induction in the Hall of Fame both for his 1991 heroics for the hometown and as the player completing St. Paul’s trio of stars — with Paul Molitor (a 1993 teammate in Toronto) and Dave Winfield (a 1992 teammate in Toronto) — having reached Cooperstown.
Yet, Jack Morris is a Tiger, with a dozen (plus) seasons and 198 victories with Detroit. More than that, he’s an ’84 Tiger, a baseball machine being rewarded with both the ace pitcher and the great shortstop, Alan Trammell, entering Cooperstown this weekend.
What a ballclub.