Tiger manager dodges playoff talk; sees division dogfight in '85

It is standard operating procedure among major league managers, even when their club has what is clearly an insurmountable mid-September lead, to avoid admitting publicly that they have first place wrapped up.

Nobody is better at this than Sparky Anderson, whose Detroit Tigers started the season by winning 35 of their first 40 games and haven't really been challenged since. Of course Anderson has had a lot of experience at this sort of dodge, having previously won five division titles in the 1970s as manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

Asked recently to talk about the playoffs, Sparky replied: "If you're a manager, you don't even think about the playoffs until you've got your division locked up. You can't afford to look ahead in this business, because once you stop focusing on the everyday things and get into something else -- well, that's when the problems begin."

"Let me tell you something: We'd better take advantage of the lead we've got and win our division this season because next year we might not get the chance. You saw what happened to Baltimore this year. They've got a terrific ball club and they were never in it. Hey, for a while Toronto was playing .600 baseball and they couldn't cut into our lead.

"And next year you're gonna have to put the Red Sox and the Yankees right in that group. I don't mean a step or two behind, I mean right with the rest of us. All those young Red Sox pitchers scare me to pieces. And look at the way the Yankees have been playing lately."

Would Anderson like to single out some names?

"The Red Sox bring up a kid pitcher in the middle of the year named Roger Clemens, and he's outstanding," Sparky said. "In fact, the last time he pitched against us he struck out 15 of my hitters. What do you think he's going to be like next year? Another kid I love on the Red Sox is Marty Barrett, their rookie second baseman. Outstanding. I mean this kid has a chance to be one of the best players in the American League.

"Remember this about the Yankees, they were never that far away talent-wise to begin with. They lose Goose Gossage out of the bullpen and they replace him with Dave Righetti, a pretty good move the way things have turned out.

"They're gotten some kids out of their farm system who can play this game, and two of their stars [outfielder Dave Winfield and first baseman Don Mattingly ] are fighting for the batting championship. A lot of managers in this business wouldn't mind changing places with Yogi Berra right now."

But baseball reporters aren't put off quite that easily, so eventually the questioning returned to the playoffs. If he wouldn't talk about them in terms of the Tigers, what about playoff managing in general?

"What you have to remember is that you've got five chances to win three games in the playoffs, so you'd better not make many mistakes," Anderson said.

"If you do get behind in a short series, it's not like the regular season, where there are 162 games to redeem yourself," he continued. "So you don't want your ball club to get into a position where it's pressing instead of playing its normal game.

"But basically you manage the same in the playoffs with maybe one exception: you don't stay with a pitcher too long if you sense that he's having trouble doing the things he generally handles with ease."

Perhaps the chief reason most veteran basball people think Detroit will race through the playoffs and into the World Series is the Tigers' strength up the middle. Even with Jack Morris (15-8) experiencing some brief arm problems, Anderson still has a solid starting rotation that includes Dan Petry (17-8) and Milt Wilcox (16-7). Meanwhile, Willie Hernandez has posted 28 saves working out of a bullpen that is four deep.

It is also possible that Detroit has the best double-play combination in baseball in shortstop Alan Trammell and second baseman Lou Whitaker. The team's strength up the middle is further enhanced by centerfielder Chet Lemon and catcher Lance Parrish, who also are big offensive contributors, with 44 home runs between them.

Although Anderson won't classify Darrell Evans as a disappointment, the Tigers obviously expected more long-ball and RBI power from their first baseman, who hit 30 home runs last year for the San Francisco Giants.

"As far as I'm concerned, Evans is just as dangerous a hitter as he's always been," explained batting coach Gates Brown. "His problem all year has been adjusting to the high strike zone that we have in the American League, where umpires consistently give the pitcher almost anything around the letters on the uniform. Darrell isn't used to having to deal with that, because that same kind of pitch is called a ball in the National League.

"Evans has been down 0-2 in the count so many times this year as a result of having the high strike called against him, that he has had to swing at a lot of garbage that he could ordinarily ignore," Brown continued. "But I've seen some evidence of a learning change in Darrell in recent weeks. He's picked his average up quite a bit and in the playoffs, who knows, he might turn out to be our secret weapon."

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