Reliving Lou Whitaker’s greatest games with the Detroit Tigers before number retirement

Detroit Free Press

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On Saturday, the Detroit Tigers will finally retire the No. 1 jersey of longtime second baseman Lou Whitaker, 27 years after his retirement following the 1995 season. (Don’t worry, Joey Wentz: The No. 43 “Sweet Lou” wore during his rookie season of 1977 is still available.)

It’s an honor long overdue for Whitaker, considering where the 19-year veteran ranks among the franchise’s leaders in numerous categories. A sampling:

WAR: Fourth, at 75.1, behind only Charlie Gehringer (84.8), Al Kaline (92.9) and Ty Cobb (144.9), and just ahead of double-play partner Alan Trammell (70.7).

Games: Third, at 2,390, behind only Cobb (2,806) and Kaline (2.834). Whitaker is even ahead of Trammell (2,293) despite retiring a season ahead of him.

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Runs scored: Fourth, at 1,386, behind, yep, Kaline (1,622 ), Gehringer (1,775) and Cobb (2.087).

RBIs: Ninth, at 1,084, despite never driving in more than 85 in a single season. Then again, he had at least 42 RBIs in 17 of his 18 full seasons with the Tigers.

Walks: Second, at 1,197, behind only Kaline (1,277), including at least 40 in 17 straight seasons (1978-94), matching Kaline’s franchise-record streak.

But career totals don’t tell Whitaker’s entire story, nor do his career awards: the 1978 American League Rookie of the Year, three Gold Gloves, four Silver Sluggers and five AL All-Star nods. As for why he received just 2.9% of the Hall of Fame vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2001, his only year on the ballot? Well, that’s equally mystifying — but perhaps it’s an oversight that will finally be rectified in December when the Hall’s “Contemporary Baseball Era” Players Committee meets to vote on candidates for the class of 2023.

But that’s a while to wait, and Whitaker’s number retirement is Saturday, so let’s look back at his greatest games wearing the Old English “D”:

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Aug. 10/13, 1982: Powering up

Tigers 10, Yankees 1/Tigers 10, Royals 1: After debuting at 20 in 1977, and winning Rookie of the Year in 1978, Whitaker settled in as the Tigers’ best-kept secret for the next four seasons. Still, four months into his fifth season, Whitaker wasn’t hitting for power, with his slugging percentage sitting at .393 entering August.

That month, however, was a whole other story, as Whitaker put together a 14-game stretch in which he slashed .492/.522/.885, with hits in 13 games and multiple hits in 11 of them. The high points? Two two-homer games three days apart at Tiger Stadium to power 10-1 routs of the Yankees and Royals, starting with a 3-for-5, five-RBI performance on Aug. 10. Whitaker sent the first pitch from future Tiger Doyle Alexander into the right-field seats to get the rout started. After a flyout in the second, Whitaker came back with a single to right in the fourth off reliever Rudy May to drive in two more runs. May struck out Whitaker in the sixth, but the second baseman avenged himself vs. reliever Dave LaRoche in the eighth with a blast to right again for the Tigers’ final two runs. The secret to Whitaker’s power surge, which left him with nine homers, four more than his previous season high?

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“It took me three years to learn how to pull the ball,” Whitaker told reporters after the game. “Now I know how to pull, and I know how to stay back (and hit to left), too. Sometimes when I’m facing good pitchers, they try to pitch me (outside), but it’s dumb for me to try to pull the ball then. That’s what got me going.”

He kept going on Aug. 13 with the Royals visit to The Corner, stinging the AL West contenders for two more homers en route to a 3-for-5 day. Again, Whitaker led off with a homer, though this time, it went to the left-field seats. “”When I was younger in the minor leagues, I’d hit one, two or maybe three homers, some of them to left field. I was just very surprised that it did go out.” Whitaker then continued his opposite-field power in the fourth inning, ending starter Dave Frost’s summer night with a blast to deep left and drawing some kidding from K.C.’s Amos Otis on whether his earlier homers against the Yanks had also gone to left.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I hit them to left. But I pulled them (to right field),’ ” Whitaker said.

Of Whitaker’s 244 homers — good for seventh on the Tigers’ all-time list — 183 (75%) went to right or right-center, and just 11 (4.5%) went to dead left.

June 8, 1983: Fun at Fenway

Tigers 6, Red Sox 3: Finally, in 1983, Whitaker broke through with his first All-Star berth, an .837 OPS and an eighth-place finish in the AL MVP vote. Performances such as this one in Boston went a long way toward that.

Whitaker went 4-for-5 with two doubles, a triple and a home run — falling just a single short of the Tigers’ first cycle since 1950. The then-26-year-old led off at Fenway Park with a double off Oil Can Boyd, then stood watching at the end of the second as Trammell was caught stealing. That brought Whitaker up to open the third, and open it he did, with a home run to tie the game at 2-2. In the fifth, Whitaker doubled again off Boyd, then came around to score his third run of the game. When he came up again in the seventh, Boyd was long gone, but Whitaker kept slugging, delivering a triple to score Trammell and set up a shot at the cycle.

But leading off the ninth, Whitaker struck out against left-hander John Henry Johnson, brought in by ex-Tigers manager Ralph Houk specifically to face Whitaker. Missing out on the cycle didn’t bother Whitaker, though.

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

“I’ve still got a long way to go in this game, and there’ll be other chances (to hit for the cycle). At least, I think there will be.”

Whitaker was somewhat right about that; he missed a cycle by one hit 18 times in his career — three times without a home run, 12 times without a triple, once without a double and twice without a single. (The other single-less near-cycle? May 17, 1988, against the White Sox, when he went 3-for-4 with a walk and a groundout.)

June 10, 1984: Bashing in Birdland

Tigers 10, Orioles 4: After putting the majors on notice with a 35-5 start, the Tigers stumbled a bit over the next two weeks, going 6-8 and dropping an early June series in Detroit to the defending World Series champion Baltimore Orioles. When the weekend rematch came in Charm City, the Tigers and O’s split the first two games before a doubleheader on Sunday

Game 1 was Whitaker’s time to shine, as he singlehandedly topped the Orioles with five runs in five plate appearances, going 3-for-4 with two singles, a walk and a double. Whitaker led off with a fly ball to right that Jim Dwyer flat-out dropped for an error; Whitaker reached second, then scored on a Kirk Gibson single two batters later. In the third, Whitaker reached cleanly on a single off starter Mike Boddicker, a 1984 All-Star, and came around on a sac fly by Darrell Evans three batters later. Whitaker picked up his second single in the fifth with a runner on, then motored to second on the throw to third; he scored on a single from Gibson two batters later. Whitaker got himself into scoring position with one out in the seventh, doubling off reliever Tom Underwood, then scored on a single by Evans. The Tigers opened the gates in the eighth when, with two on and two outs, Whitaker worked a walk to load the bases, and Trammell doubled to drive in three more runs.

The Tigers added an 8-0 thrashing of the Birds in Game 2 (with Whitaker scoring another run despite going 0-for-3) to make their statement, as Trammell put it: “Hey, Baltimore’s not afraid of us. But they’ve got a little more to think about.” The Tigers’ 11-game lead on the Orioles made a statement as well.

May 4, 1994: Texas toast at The Corner

Tigers 14, Rangers 7: After 11 straight seasons with double-digit home runs, Whitaker’s power dropped off a bit in 1993, with nine homers in 119 games. It returned in 1994, however, as he powered 12 shots over the fences in 92 games before the season was shut down by the players’ strike in mid-August.

In all, Whitaker had nine two-homer games over his career, with the final one coming against the Rangers at Tiger Stadium in a career effort eight days before his 37th birthday: 2-for-5, with two homers and seven RBIs, two more than his previous career best.

Whitaker opened his day with a groundout in the first, then brought out the fireworks on a 57-degree day at The Corner, launching an 0-2 pitch from Rick Reed off the façade on the third deck in right field to drive in three runs. After a flyout to left in the fourth, a groundout to second in the fifth and a walk in the seventh, Whitaker returned to the plate in the eighth with two outs and the bases loaded. On the second pitch, he launched another shot to deep right to clear the bases and match the Rangers’ runs all by himself.

How surprising was Whitaker’s run production? The second baseman seemed shocked afterward, telling reporters, “I’ve never had seven RBIs at any level,” Whitaker said. “I’m mostly a guy who gets on base.”

Whitaker was able to put the big day into perspective right away: “I had more RBIs today than all season.” Indeed: Entering the day, he had just six RBIs in 61 at-bats before picking up seven in five ABs.

June 21, 1994: Crushing a comeback vs. Cleveland

Tigers 7, Cleveland 5: After just two grand slams over the first 17 seasons of his career, Whitaker hit two within a six-week span in his next-to-last campaign. But the first three couldn’t match this one for drama.

Whitaker opened an 89-degree night at Tiger Stadium by going 0-for-4 with three groundouts and a foul pop to third, matching a punchless Tigers offense that mustered just four hits over eight innings off right-hander Jason Grimsley while falling behind 5-1. But Grimsley had thrown 117 pitches and Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove turned to reliever Paul Shuey, his first mistake. The right-hander looked every bit the rookie he was in walking two, striking out one and allowing a single to Trammell to end his night. His replacement, Derek Lilliquist, didn’t fare much better, with a walk and a single to make it 5-3 with Whitaker coming to the plate.

Hargrove stuck with Lilliquist for the left-on-left matchup and, for one pitch, it seemed to work, as Whitaker barely fouled off a slider on the far side of the plate. “He missed the first one, so I threw him another,” Lilliquist said afterward. “That wasn’t a good outing.”

That’s one way to put it. Whitaker launched the second slider deep into the Detroit sky, reaching the first row of the seats in the second deck in right-center and bouncing off the hands of a fan and back onto the field: Grand slam!

Whitaker was matter-of-fact about the hit, telling reporters afterward: “The tying run was on second and the winning run on first, so I didn’t want to hit into a double play. I was looking for a fastball. I’m sure they thought they had us beat, but that’s baseball. Things like that happen. The table was set and the stage was set.”

Manager Sparky Anderson, whose tenure with the Tigers would end after the 1995 season, saw a bit more magic in the homer: “Trammell, Gibson and Whitaker; I don’t know who has done it the most, but those are the three,” Anderson said.

And on Saturday, Whitaker’s No. 1 will finally join the Trammell’s No. 3 and Gibson’s No. 23 (which was actually retired for Willie Horton) on the wall at Comerica Park.

Contact Ryan Ford at Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.  

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