One by one, they took their last at-bats of summer. Darrell Evans said goodby with a fly to right field, and Alan Trammell signed off with a hard line drive to shortstop . . .

In a matter of moments, the Detroit baseball season would end the way it had begun six months earlier, on a cool Monday afternoon at Tiger Stadium. A loss then. A loss this day. But oh, what transpired in between! A magical regular season, full of twists and turns and rapid heartbeats; and a post-season that fell horribly flat, lost its sheen, and was finally packed away with a bouncer from rookie Matt Nokes to Minnesota pitcher Jeff Reardon, who threw to first for the out, the joyous leap, and the American League championship.

End of story. The Tigers went down badly in their final game, lost 9-5, suffered the indignity of an explosive ninth inning by the Minnesota Twins, a team nobody expected, few respected . . . but now has won the AL pennant.
“Nothing seemed to bother those guys,” Sparky Anderson would say, shrugging. And he was right. Twins were everywhere, this day, this series, whacking hits, dashing around the bases, playing the infield like God’s chessmen.

Did they make any wrong moves? Not that we remember. And when they jumped into that victory pile before a stunned Detroit crowd, no one could deny them their celebration. They had defeated, in four of five games, the team with the best record in baseball. “Outpitched us, outhit us, outfielded us and beat us,” Jack Morris would say.

That about covers it.

End of story.

Here were some last glimpses of this remarkable Tigers team: manager Sparky Anderson, sitting in the dugout, expressionless, yet shaking inside, chewing sunflower seeds as his team was skinned to its last out; Darrell Evans, 40, the team leader, staring out to the field and beyond, perhaps wondering if he’ll ever see another of these championships; Kirk Gibson, whiskered, intense, desperate to make up for a lousy series, standing on first base, ready to run, ready to explode, but stuck there, stranded in the bottom of the ninth.

Sad faces. Disappointed faces. Yes. That is the signature of defeat. But when this was all over, when the Minnesota players were popping champagne and dumping Gatorade on themselves, the Tigers returned to their clubhouse, sighed, and thanked each other for a year that was too good to be snubbed by any single series. Even a championship one. “This,” said rookie relief pitcher Mike Henneman, who won and lost huge ball games for the club all season, “was as exciting a year as I’ve ever had — in the minors, in high school, since I was a kid — ever!”

Once upon a time, we had a hell of a baseball team. . . . That will be how these ’87 Tigers are remembered long after the sting of Monday’s defeat is forgotten. How far had they come? How unlikely a journey? Oh my. Here was a group of third-place finishers in 1986, who had lost their catcher and leader, Lance Parrish, and done nothing to improve except age. Even the players didn’t predict a high finish. They suffered a dismal April and May. Yet there began, what shall we call it? A small rumble? A turnaround. Minor at first, a few wins here and there.

Bill Madlock joined the team — cost the Tigers just $40,000 — and his bat went happy-go-lucky. Alan Trammell clicked in his clean-up spot like no one had imagined. Chet Lemon, Larry Herndon, guys criticized for living on past laurels, began to create some new ones. Wins. More wins. Home runs. More home runs. And then Doyle Alexander, a quiet larceny, slipped on a Tigers uniform and won once, twice, three times, four times, and, look at this! First place was within reach. On Aug. 19th (against these same Twins in this same Tiger Stadium), the Tigers tasted that honey for the first time. From then on, it was a race for the hive.

And oh, how the lungs ached in this one! Remember? The Tigers won a game in Minnesota with a ninth-inning bases-loaded single by their rookie catcher, and another against Cleveland with just one hit. They lost a game to Milwaukee when Willie Hernandez walked in the winning run, and another to Toronto when Lou Whitaker threw wildly to home plate. And then, the finish. Humm-ba! The best final baseball chapter ever? Seven games against the Blue Jays? All one-run thrillers?

“It would have been a great story if we’d gone all the way, huh?” asked Trammell after Monday’s defeat.

Hey. It’s a great story anyhow.

And this is how it wound down Monday: A wild pitch by Eric King led to a Twins run. A throw to first baseman Evans grazed off his glove and rolled away, scoring another. Pat Sheridan, Evans, Trammell, all at the plate with men in scoring position; all walked back slowly to the dugout, snuffed out, dead.

“We just never played the way we could,” said Chet Lemon as he dressed for the last time this year in the Tiger clubhouse. “And they never let up. I think they won it by taking those first two games at the Metrodome. We had them down in that first game, 5-4, and we let them back. That was a big boost to them.”

A boost? It was the story of this series. The Twins, picked by many to go down easily, were like one of those computer quizzes in an electronic arcade. An answer for everything. Clutch hit. Clutch pitch. Almost spookily successful. This is a young team? The worst record of any division winner? Well. Yes. But if April through September is a safari, then October is a vine swing. Pick the right one and you get there first. The Twins got revved by their amazing crowd, and didn’t stop until the champagne popped.

How different might this have been had the series begun in Detroit? How different if Trammell had swung like the MVP he is, or if Gibson had clicked, or if Morris and Terrell had . . . ahh, why wonder? In the end, it was the Twins who won two on the road, a place where they’d won just nine games since the All Star break. And Detroit will remember names like Greg Gagne, shortstop; Gary Gaetti, the hurricane at third; Tom “Bruno” Brunansky and Dan Gladden and Dan Schatzeder. Not the biggest names. But, for today, the best.

End of story. During these final five games it was as if all the magic was gone, turned back to pumpkin. Alexander (who lost Games 1 and 5 of this series) was not the same Alexander as before. Madlock (only five at-bats all series) was gone, out of the lineup. Scott Lusader and Jim Walewander, the young spark plugs of that magical Tiger finish, were mere spectators. “We had the best record, but they won the series,” said Gibson. “Does that make them the best? Does that make us horsebleep?”

Neither. What it makes things is over, done for the year. The next Detroit baseball game is in Lakeland next spring. But no tears. Almost to a man, the Tigers each had their moment in the sun, a big game, a big win.

And in a way, so did we all.

We grew older with these guys, lost hair worrying about their bullpen, lost voices screaming at Hernandez, lost composure with the giddiness of their title. We had our nerves rattled like jangled car keys with every late home run, every deadly double play, every weird error, ball through the legs, strikeout, leap for joy, high-five celebration. How good was this season? Think about how many games left you emotionally drained. Wasted. Sweaty and exhausted. That’s how good it was. We grew older and, in a funny way, we grew younger, too. That is what baseball will do for you.

One by one, when the sun was gone, the Tiger players filed out of the clubhouse in their street clothes, slapping backs, promising dinners, looking forward to spring, even as autumn hit full-stride. Behind them were the bats and helmets. And before them, waiting at the gates, were fans, shivering, holding autograph pads.

“You know,” said Evans, who was greeted with a standing ovation in the first inning despite a terrible game Sunday night, “I woke up this morning, and someone had left a sign on my lawn. It said, ‘Thanks for the thrills all year. Go get ’em.’ No name. Nothing. Sometimes you forget that about these people, and then something like that. . .”

For something like this. End of story How, in days to come, will this crazy 1987 season be summed up? Who knows? Perhaps it will take a book, lots of chapters and pictures and quotes and stories. And perhaps it can be said this simply: Once upon a time, we had a hell of a baseball team. And once upon a baseball team, we had a hell of a time.

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