10 moments that defined Whitaker’s career

Detroit Tigers

The wait continues for Lou Whitaker to get into the Hall of Fame, now hinging on a selection from the Modern Baseball Committee, which is scheduled to vote next in December 2023. He won’t have to wait as long to see his number retired at Comerica Park, an honor bestowed on only Willie Horton among Tigers greats not in the Hall. Only the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed Whitaker’s ceremony, which was originally slated for 2020.

Whitaker’s 75.1 bWAR ranks 80th on MLB’s all-time AL/NL list, according to Baseball Reference, and 52nd among position players. Among hitters currently eligible for the Hall of Fame, only Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Bill Dahlen have a higher WAR without having been inducted. Whitaker’s case has been argued by figures ranging from longtime teammate Alan Trammell to baseball historian Bill James. Whitaker was one of the greatest second basemen of his era, earning five All-Star selections, four Silver Slugger Awards and three Gold Gloves. At his peak, he was one of the most recognizable faces in the game; he even made a cameo appearance on the popular TV show “Magnum P.I.” with Trammell and noted Tigers fan Tom Selleck in 1983.

Selleck’s character didn’t recognize Whitaker or Trammell, which was the gag. Hopefully, Whitaker will be recognized alongside Trammell in the Hall of Fame soon. In the meantime, here are 10 of the greatest moments from Whitaker’s 19-year career:

Two hits, two runs in Game 4 of World Series, Oct. 13, 1984
Whitaker’s career will forever be intertwined with Trammell’s Hall of Fame tenure, so it’s fitting to lead off with the game during which they teamed up to push Detroit to within one game of winning it all. While Trammell’s two home runs stole the show, Whitaker was on base for both — once on an error, the other on a single. Whitaker reached base safely nine times and scored six runs in 23 plate appearances during the series, serving as a catalyst for the Tigers’ offense.

Three hits in MLB debut at Boston
Sept. 9, 1977
Whitaker and Trammell made their Major League debuts in the same game, put in the same starting lineup by manager Ralph Houk for the nightcap of a Friday twin bill at Fenway Park. Whitaker, batting second, singled off Reggie Cleveland in his first MLB at-bat, drove in Trammell with a double his next time up, then moved Trammell from first to third with a single up the middle in the sixth inning. Trammell and Whitaker combined for five of Detroit’s 16 hits in an 8-6 loss. The Tigers were swept in the doubleheader, but they had their double-play duo for the next 18 years.

Home run off Gooden in All-Star Game
July 15, 1986
Whitaker started in three consecutive All-Star Games from 1984-86, but until this one, his most memorable moment was donning a makeshift jersey in 1985 because he’d forgotten his uniform at the airport. Homering off the great Dr. K changed that. Whitaker pounced when Gooden hung an 0-2 curveball and blasted it to the depths beyond right field at the Astrodome as the All-Star crowd chanted his name.

Walk-off grand slam
June 21, 1994
The Tigers entered the bottom of the ninth with a 5-1 deficit to Cleveland, but three walks and two singles brought up Whitaker with one out and the bases loaded, including the tying run on second. Derek Lilliquist threw Whitaker back-to-back sliders, but after missing the first one, Whitaker pounced on the next. It wasn’t an ultimate grand slam, since the Tigers were down by two runs at the time instead of three, but it ended Cleveland’s 10-game win streak.

Single shy of the cycle
June 8, 1983
Just five Tigers since 1927 have fallen a single shy of the cycle in a four-hit game. Whitaker was trying to record the first Tigers’ cycle in 33 years but instead ended up with four extra-base hits on a Wednesday night at Fenway Park as part of an 11-for-18 series. He led off the game with a double off Oil Can Boyd, homered to lead off the third inning, doubled again to lead off the fifth, then tripled in the seventh. With history in line, he struck out against lefty reliever John Henry Johnson in the ninth.

“I wanted to get a hit, but I wasn’t all that aggressive about it,” Whitaker told the Detroit Free Press. “I never even thought about bunting.”

Two homers, seven RBIs to beat Rangers
May 4, 1994
Whitaker’s career-best RBI effort came from a three-run homer off Rick Reed in the third inning and a grand slam off Jay Howell in the eighth. The outburst comprised half of Detroit’s offense during a 14-7 win that included a Cecil Fielder homer off the roof beyond right field at Tiger Stadium.

First career walk-off hit
April 17, 1978
Whitaker was playing in just his 18th career Major League game, and he didn’t even start. He was a pinch-hitter as the Tigers tried to rally from what was once a 6-0 deficit. After singling to lead off the eighth inning, he stayed in the game and came back up in the ninth with the tying run on third base and the winning run on second. He plated both of them with a single to right field.

“I felt confident going up there,” Whitaker told the Detroit Free Press after the game. “Maybe I was shaking a little bit.”

First home run is a walk-off
July 28, 1978
Whitaker had three walk-off hits in his first full Major League season, one reason he won AL Rookie of the Year honors, but this was the biggest. Not only was Whitaker homerless midway through his first full season, he had just five home runs over 2 1/2 Minor League seasons. But after Ron LeFlore extended the game with a two-out single in the ninth to put the tying run on base, Whitaker connected with a fastball from Mariners closer Enrique Romo and sent it into the right-field upper deck for a 4-3 win.

The fans chanted Whitaker’s (first) name; Whitaker initially thought they were booing.

Two homers, including walk-off
May 15, 1987
Though Whitaker had a slew of game-winning hits, he went nearly a decade without a walk-off homer after his first. Then came this game against Cleveland, which took a 3-0 lead into the fifth inning before Whitaker hit a two-run homer off Greg Swindell to whittle Detroit’s deficit. A Darnell Coles solo homer tied it in the sixth before Whitaker homered off Mark Huismann to lead off the bottom of the ninth.

Walk-off homer for final MLB hit
Sept. 13, 1995

Not only was this the last of Whitaker’s walk-off hits, this was Whitaker’s last hit of any sort. He played sparingly down the stretch in 1995 due to injuries but started this Wednesday matinee alongside Trammell at shortstop to break the AL record for games played as teammates, previously held by Kansas City’s George Brett and Frank White. After a fifth-inning single, Whitaker came up in the ninth against Brewers closer Mike Fetters with two on, one out and the Tigers down a run. Whitaker jumped on the first pitch and sent it to the right-field upper deck.

“I was just hoping I remembered what to do out there,” Whitaker told the Detroit Free Press.

The paper’s headline on the sports page was simple: SWEET!

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