Free Press special writer Bill Dow continues his “where are they now” series about former Detroit Tigers players, coaches and managers.
Today’s profile is on Darrell Evans:
How we remember him
A leader of the 1984 world champions and the 1987 American League East champions, he played first and third and had 141 home runs with 405 RBIs in five seasons in Detroit (‘84-’88). Signed at age 36 as the Tigers’ first major free agent in December 1983, after the two-time All-Star (’73, ’83) had played 16 seasons with the Braves and Giants. In 1985, at 38, he led the majors with 40 homers, becoming the oldest player in AL history to win a home run title. He also was the first player to register 40 homers in both leagues.
In 1973, the Braves were the first team in history to have three players — Evans, Hank Aaron and Davey Johnson — to hit at least 40 homers in a season. The following year, Evans was on first base when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record with his 715th home run. An excellent fielder and disciplined hitter who led the National League in walks from 1973-74, he hit 414 home runs, batted .248 and had a .361 on-base percentage over 21 seasons. His 1,605 walks ranked eighth in history when he retired; he played in 2,687 games and was never on the injured list.
Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, wrote that while Evans “never won a gold glove because of Mike Schmidt, he is probably the most underrated player in baseball history.”
After the Tigers
Following his last season in Detroit in 1988, he signed as a free agent with Atlanta, where he finished his career in 1989. He became a minor league hitting instructor for the Tigers and later was the hitting coach for the Yankees in 1990, before managing several minor league teams until 2015.
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Now 73, Evans lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and provides specialized hitting instructions with his son, Derek, to young players.
His boyhood hero and mentor Eddie Mathews
“On the playground in Pasadena, I had to be Eddie Mathews, the left-handed power hitting third baseman who was also raised in California. He was the man. I had his baseball cards and I knew if I ever had a chance to meet a major leaguer, it would be him. When I went to spring training for the first time with the Braves in ‘69, he was the hitting coach and was later my manager. He came out of a coaches meeting and said to me, ‘hey kid, we’ve heard a lot of good things about you. I want you to be with me all the time.’ It was a dream come true. After practice, he would hit bullets to me at third and told me to learn to play where you think they will hit the ball. It was like getting a Ph.D. from one of the best third baseman ever. In the batting cage he told me, ‘you’re good but you need to be dangerous.’ He had me move my back foot 4 inches closer to the plate. I liked the ball in, and by getting me closer to the plate it gave me the freedom to pull the ball more. I then hit it harder and more consistently.”
On base when Hank Aaron broke the HR record
“It is still the biggest thrill I ever experienced in baseball because it was the greatest record to be broken in all of sports. When Hank got to 700 homers, I suddenly realized that, here I am batting third in front of him, and how cool would it be to be on base when he broke the record. I could be the first one to congratulate him. There had been such a buildup, then he received racist death threats. He told the press, ‘I’m not trying to replace Babe Ruth, I am trying to break the record.’ I got to first base on an error and I’m thinking, ‘C’mon Hank, let’s do it.’ There were two outs so I was running and when he hit it, I knew it had a chance. By the time I reached second base, I saw it go out. As I was rounding the bases I’m thinking, ‘When I get to home plate I’m pushing everyone out of the way to shake his hand,’ which is what I did. But I wasn’t the first. The Dodger infield congratulated him, as did our third base coach, and then me. It was surreal and such a thrill. I still think about how amazing it was that I ever got to be in that situation. Hank still doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It didn’t help that he played in Milwaukee and Atlanta. It would have been a lot different if he had played in New York.”
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Signing with the Tigers
“I was disappointed that the Giants didn’t make me a decent offer to re-sign because I liked playing there. The Dodgers, Yankees and Tigers were after me, but Detroit was the only team to offer me a three-year deal. Larry Herndon called me and said the Tigers were a great, young team and encouraged me to come. Then Sparky called. I told him that I would not come if he was looking to have me DH exclusively because I enjoyed playing the field. I wasn’t just a home run hitter. Being a DH feels like pinch-hitting four times. After I signed, Howard Cosell even called me and said I was crazy not to be playing in pinstripes. When I flew into Detroit, it was incredible what happened. All this media met me at the gate of the airport. After the press conference at the ballpark, I was asked what I wanted to do afterwards. I am a big sports fan and I said that I wanted to see the Red Wings play. A bunch of the fans recognized me and just before the game started, they put my picture up on the scoreboard, the fans gave me a standing ovation and starting chanting, ‘Darrell, Darrell.’ The players even tapped their sticks on the ice. It was awesome and I get chills just thinking about that again.”
The 1984 World Series team
“Before coming to Detroit, I didn’t know much about the Tigers since I had never played in the American League but I soon found out how great we were, especially with that unbelievable 35-5 start. We had the best catcher in baseball, a Hall of Fame middle infield, Hondo (Herndon) in left, Chet (Lemon) in center and a young Gibby, who was so fast and hit in the clutch. His enthusiasm was awesome. And then we had that great staff led by Jack Morris and Dan Petry and the bullpen with Aurelio Lopez and Willie Hernandez. I’ll never forget when we won our 17th consecutive road game the fans in Anaheim gave us a standing ovation. It seemed like every day a different guy won a game.”
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His big home runs in ’84
“When I hit that three-run homer in the season opener in Minnesota, don’t think that didn’t solidify me with my teammates. They knew they had a veteran and another bullet in their gun. Hitting another three-run homer in the home opener in my first at-bat was like a dream come true. When I ran the bases, I don’t think my feet touched the ground. Just to play on that diamond where Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth had played was a thrill. It felt like the ghosts of all the great players who had played there were still at that special place.”
His hitting philosophy
“When a player is asked about his game-winning hit, they always respond, ‘I got a good pitch to hit.’ I learned through Ted Williams’ hitting book and from Eddie Mathews to look for the ball in your hitting zone. By moving closer to the plate, I made my hitting zone and strike zone smaller. There’s a little box that the pitcher has to throw in if you let him. Most players who don’t make it said they couldn’t hit the curveball. No, it’s because you couldn’t hit the fastball. The percentage of fastballs thrown is much higher than curve balls and it’s harder to throw a curve over the plate. I looked for the fastball in my hitting zone. To me, the most important hitting stats are runs scored and runs batted in. If you get 100 of each in a year, you are one of the best players in the game.”
On being picked off in Game 4 of the ALCS in 1987
“I was on third with one out, and Juan Berenguer pitching for the Twins. I knew he could be wild with his forkball. So, when he threw it, I took a couple of more steps off the bag than usual, especially since there was a short distance between home and the backstop. The ball was thrown low and wide and almost a wild pitch. If it had been a better pitch, I probably would not have taken that extra step. It was a clear pick off play and (catcher Tim) Laudner made a great throw. It was like, ‘what in the hell just happened here?’ As I walked away, the dugout parted like the sea. On the second pitch to the next hitter, Juan throws a wild pitch and Tommy Brookens sitting next to me said, ‘go D go.’ Of course, I felt horrible. I also made two errors and it was the worst game of my career. No one said anything to me in the locker room but a couple of guys gave me a pat. I got home and my kids said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Dad.’ I couldn’t believe it when I came up to bat in the first inning the next day. The fans stood and cheered for me. I looked over to the Tiger dugout and there’s a sign taped to it that read, ‘Evans, a Tiger forever.’ It really surprised me. I would have booed me. I understood that the fans appreciated how I played the game. It was amazing. In less than 24 hours I went from having my worst moment in baseball to oddly one of my best moments.”
His time in Detroit
“I absolutely loved Detroit, the ballpark, my teammates and the fans. I was thrilled to become a world champion. That Old English D is famous all over the world. Although I only played five years in Detroit, I still identify myself with the Tigers. The sports traditions and the fan base in Michigan are awesome. Even when the teams are bad, the fans support them. For four years we were one of the best teams and we had to play some of the best teams in baseball in our own division. It was frustrating that we didn’t make it to the World Series in ’87, but give credit to Minnesota. They had a great young team and were better than people thought. But those games against Toronto in the last two weeks of the season were the most exciting baseball in my career. Looking back, I can’t take credit for picking the Tigers, but I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t change it for anything.”