The strangest team in major league baseball this year may well be the Detroit Tigers, who are managed by Sparky Anderson; sometimes have two former football All-Americans in their starting lineup; and are extremely partial to Hot Sauce.
The latter, if you didn't know, is the nickname his teammates have given pitcher Kevin Saucier, whose 1.67 earned-run average working out of the bullpen has kept the Tigers solvent all season. When Saucier's sinker is at its best, about all opposing hitters can do with it is beat it into the ground for routine double plays.
The ex-football stars are outfielder Kirk Gibson and part-time first baseman Rick Leach.Gibson, a wide receiver who caught 112 passes for 2,347 yards and 24 touchdowns in four years at Michigan State, has the power to hit home runs one-handed. Leach, a starting quarterback at the University of Michigan for all four years, hasn't mastered the breaking ball. But given time, he too, has the potential to play every day. What Anderson brings to this collection of free spirits is the experience of two world championships, four pennants, and five division titles with the Cincinnati Reds. Few managers have Sparky's mental gift for playing the game two and three innings ahead, regularly anticipating situations before they happen.
If you believe in the theory that a team is no stronger than its catcher, double-play combination, and center fielder, it's no wonder the Tigers have been doing so well. Detroit has one of the best young catchers in the American League in Lance Parrish, an excellent shortstop-second baseman duo in Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, and of course the speedy Gibson in center.
While Detroit's pitching overall is rated no better than fifth in right-hander Jack Morris, who might have won 20 games if it hadn't been for the strike. And Milt Wilcox has benefited from the forkball taught to him in spring training by pitching coach Roger Craig, who also got Wilcox to throw an overhead curve in place of a slider that in the past had been only so-so.
While most experts figured that Detroit was still a year away. Anderson has obviously accepted no such timetable -- and so far he's been able to keep the team running on his own speeded-up schedule.
Pitcher Nolan Ryan of the Houston Astros, in the language of baseball's locker room, has always thrown heat, often embarrassing hitters by striking them out. And although most good hitters prefer fastball pitchers, Ryan is just naturally wild enough so that most don't really have the courage to dig in against him.
The fifth no-hitter of Ryan's career last Saturday against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Houston Astrodome was an eye-compelling performance, in which he struck out 11 and walked three. In fact, of the last 19 dodgers to face him, only four got the ball out of the infield.
Ryan's fifth no-hitter gives him one more than Sandy Koufax had with Los Angeles. But get this -- Nolan during his career has also thrown seven one-hitters, 13 two-hitters, and 20 three-hitters. The Astros signed Ryan as a free agent two years ago at $1 million per season.
It is nearly always a surprise when a team releases a shortstop still in his 20s, especially if he has had a couple of decent seasons as a starter in the big leagues.
But it happened last December when the New York Mets told shortstop Bill Almon that he was no longer needed and gave him his release. At first, when there were no takers, almon tried to generate some interest by calling the Boston Red Sox, who had just traded shortstop Rick Burleson to the California Angels.
Finally, the Chicago White Sox, after some lobbying by infield coach Bobby Winkles, gave Almond a chance to show what he could do in spring training. Bill not only made the team, he played his way into a starting role and turned into one of this season's big surprises -- especially at the plate, where he has kept his average at or above .300 most of the year.
"I remembered that Bill had played well at shortstop for the San Diego Padres the year before they got Ozzie Smith, and that he had often looked over good with the bat," Winkles said.
"Although Bill had never been more than what I call a robot player in the field, meaning that his hands weren't always what they should be, I felt that with work we could eliminate that problem," Bobby continued. "The point is, Almon has been one of the best shortstops in the American League this year and out leading hitter -- and he's still a young man."
Most baseball people laughed back on Sept. 7 when the Montreal Expos, only 1 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East, fired manager Dick williams and replaced him with Jim Fanning, the club's director of player personnel.
After all, Williams was an All-Star pilot who had led Boston to its 1967 "Impossible Dream" pennant and guided the Oakland A's to two World Series victories.
fanning, on the other hand, hadn't managed since 1962, when he handled a Class A farm team for the Milwaukee Brewers. But Jim's magic touch, which is much less abrasive than Williams's, has the expos playing close to .600 ball and threatening to finish in the NL East!