DETROIT — The 1987 Detroit Tigers, a team of overachievers, went further than anyone had a right to expect.
Only Manager Sparky Anderson thought they had the stuff of champions, and it turned out he was almost right.
The Tigers overcame great odds to win the American League East. Perhaps they overcame too much, however, because they obviously had nothing left in the playoffs.
As a result, the Minnesota Twins, not the Tigers, will represent the American League in the World Series against the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals.
"This was not like 1984," said shortstop Alan Trammell, whose in contention for the AL Most Valuable Player award. "That year, I thought we were invincible. We were.
"This year was a struggle. We got over a hump when we had to. Toronto. We had a good year. But we were finished. In the playoffs, we were always one hit away from getting back into it."
The Tigers were picked to finish no better than third and many experts had them penciled in for fifth before the season started.
And not without reason. The team went through a rancorous winter.
Pitcher Jack Morris paraded himself around the country, offering himself to the highest bidder before settling for an arbitrator's settlement of $1.85 million for one year. That means he'll be at it again this winter.
Catcher Lance Parrish defected, signing with the Philadelphia Phillies for less money than the Tigers offered. Darrell Evans and Larry Herndon both were forced to take pay cuts.
It was an unhappy group that gathered at Lakeland, Fla., for spring training. They proved it by going 9-20 in exhibition play.
Then slugger Kirk Gibson was injured during the final week of camp and missed the first four weeks of the season. The Tigers got off to a 11-19 start and were 9 1/2 games out.
Third baseman Darnell Coles who, to that point, had already made nine errors, threw a ball over the roof. He later was traded to Pittsburgh for Jim Morrison.
A bigger front office move, however, came the first week of June, when the Tigers signed National League discard Bill Madlock. "Mad Dog," as he is known to the players, was an instant success and the other players -- most of them veterans like Madlock -- caught the spirit.
"We had to work hard for it," said Evans, who became the first 40-year-old to hit more than 30 homers in the big leagues. "And we're proud of it. Even though we didn't win, I got a lot more satisfaction than in '84. This is the closest bunch we've had.
"Because we've been together a long time, we cherish this."
They finally caught the dreaded Blue Jays in late August and fought Toronto tooth and nail the rest of the way.
Detroit and Toronto played one another seven times in the final 11 days of the season and they were brutal, draining games. The Blue Jays were without All-Star shortstop Tony Fernandez and catcher Ernie Whitt for the final three games and the Tigers won all three to clinch the divisional title on the final day, the 162nd game.
They had to win 98 games just to get to the playoffs. It took a great toll.
"We're not shellshocked," said rookie catcher Matt Nokes, who proved more than an adequate replacement for Parrish. "We're not little kids. Nobody thought we were dead. We were in there battling.
"We had a great season. Everybody wrote us off at the start of the year. We proved them wrong. We had the best record in baseball."
But is wasn't good enough. And it certainly won't be good enough for next year. Changes are inevitable. This is the team, remember, that had Coles, Terry Harper and Orlando Mercado in the opening day lineup.
The Tigers will have another active winter. Many players, including Morris, Madlock, Evans, Herndon, Dan Petry and Frank Tanana can declare themselves free agents.
Pitcher Doyle Alexander, without whom there would have been no divisional title, is in the option year of his contract and also could be a re-signing problem.
"There is no such thing as standing still in baseball," Anderson said. "For a club to stay healthy, it's important to turn over about three or four players every year."
That can be the tricky part. Following the 1984 World Series championship, the Tigers let utility outfielder Ruppert Jones get away. Many feel it's a mistake they are paying for to this very day.
The Tigers didn't get the kind of production they would have liked from their outfield this season.
Gibson, now settled in left, hit .277 with 24 home runs and 79 RBI. But he struck out 117 times, far too much for the No. 3 hitter in a lineup. Lemon, still a better than average center fielder, also hit .277 with 20 home runs and 75 RBI. He struck out 82 times.
Herndon and Pat Sheridan platooned in right. Together, they combined for 15 home runs and 96 RBI, but also had a combined 125 strikeouts, including 90 by Sheridan.
The runs-batted-in totals for the outfield is much lower than a championship club woud like. All the strikeouts have to be a factor.