WillieHernandez.jpgIn case you’d forgotten, it was 24 years ago this week that the Tigers swung a deal with the Phillies that changed the 1984 season for the Tigers dramatically — and instantly.

On March 27, 1984, the Tigers acquired lefty reliever Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman from Philadelphia in exchange for OF Glenn Wilson (my favorite Tiger back then) and all-purpose guy John Wockenfuss.

With World Series expectations higher than perhaps ever in Tigers history and the team searching, as it was in 1984, for bullpen reinforcements, let’s look back on a trade for the ages.

Willie

There was no reason to expect the moon from Willie Hernandez as the Tigers’ new closer. After his trade to the Phillies from the Cubs on May 22, 1983, he went 8-4 with a 3.29 ERA and seven saves in 63 appearances, primarily as a setup man for closer Al Holland.

But, as if I need to remind you, in 1984 Hernandez put together the career year to end career years: 9-3, 32 saves, 1.92 ERA, 80 appearances, 140 IP, All Star, American League Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player.

Sparky had lots to say about Willie Hernandez in his book about the ’84 season, Bless You Boys. Here’s some of it:

I’ve been in baseball for 31 years, and there’s no way I can believe what I saw in Willie Hernandez this year.

-snip-

Don’t ask me to explain Willie. How do you explain a miracle? Every time Willie had a chance for a save, Willie got it. Every time we desperately had to have a win, Willie was there.

When I read that Hernandez didn’t pitch in 82 of the Tigers regular-season games in 1984, I find it hard to fathom. As a kid it seemed as if he pitched every day. And as Sparky said, when he did pitch, good things usually happened.

Thanks to his miracle season, Hernandez, who wore number 21, cashed-in on a big contract extension with the Tigers and, at age 29, appeared to be the closer for the long term.

In 1985, he turned in a decent year, though spoiled-rotten Tigers fans took to booing Hernandez regularly. He had an astonishing 18 decisions (8-10) even though he compiled stats that current Detroit fans would love to see from Todd Jones: 31 saves, 2.70 ERA.

From 1986 until his final year in Detroit in 1989, Hernandez’s save totals fell from 24 to 8 then bumped up to 10 and 15. Meanwhile his ERA headed north rapidly, topping out at 5.74 in ’89 — when the entire franchise bottomed out.

The Tigers released him on Dec. 20, 1989. He never appeared in another major-league game. All told, Willie Hernandez finished his Tigers career with a 36-31 record, 120 saves and a 3.44 ERA.

Bergie

DaveBergman.jpgDave Bergman was traded twice on March 24, 1984. The first deal sent him from the Giants to the Phillies for Alejandro Sanchez. (Interestingly, almost a year later, the Tigers sent Roger Mason to San Francisco for Sanchez) The Phillies quickly spun-off Bergman to Detroit. Most thought he would replace Wockenfuss as a part-time first baseman and outfielder. In reality, he became a workhorse defensive replacement for newly acquired Darrell Evans at first base.

In 1984, Bergman made a quick impact with his glove and, as the season wore on, with some clutch, late-inning heroics.

In the bottom half of the eighth inning at Comiskey Park on April 7, Sparky put Bergman in at first base as a defensive replacement for Barbaro Garbey. The White Sox’ Jerry Hairston ripped a groundball down the first-base line. Bergman, playing close to the line, slid to his left and snuffed the grounder for the first out of the inning but more importantly, protected Jack Morris‘s no-hitter.

(Nearly a year earlier, Hairston crushed Milt Wilcox‘s bid for a perfect game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. That’s what we call karma.)

On June 4 in Detroit against the Blue Jays, Bergman had what Sparky called the greatest at bat he’d seen in his life. Let’s allow Captain Hook describe it, again from the pages of Bless You Boys:

Here’s the scene: Two out in the last of the tenth, two men on, and the score tied at 3-3. Reliever Roy Lee Howell (sic) pitched to a full count. Then Bergie took over. Bergie fouled off seven pitches and then picked one practically off the ground and drilled it into the upper deck in right.What a battle! Bergie was up there a full seven minutes. It seemed like a whole season. The house went wild.

Actually, Bergman’s homer came off Roy Lee Jackson, which surprised me because I thought it was Luis Leal.

What made that game so much fun was that it was the season opener for ABC’s Monday Night Baseball, which was much bigger back then than ESPN’s Wednesday or Sunday night games are today. Also, school was almost out for summer and my friends and I were fired up for lots of excursions to Tiger Stadium’s bleachers.

During the 1984 season, Bergman appeared in 120 games, 114 at first base and one each in right and left field. He finished the year with a .273 average, seven home runs and 44 RBI. Defensively, Bergman made just eight errors in 732 chances, a .989 fielding percentage.

Wearing Wockenfuss’s number 14, Bergman became a mainstay with the Tigers. In nine seasons in Detroit he batted .252 with 39 home runs and 219 RBI. He retired after the 1992 season but remained in metro Detroit working in financial services.

Looking at the trade nearly a quarter century later, Detroit undoubtedly benefited the most. The Tigers got six seasons of work from Hernandez and nearly a decade from Bergman. Though the Phillies got barely a season and a half from Wockenfuss (whom we profiled here), Wilson had three respectable seasons in Philadelphia. In 1985, he batted .274 with 14 home runs and 102. The next season, he batted .271, 15 homers and 84 RBI.

Still, chances are only the most-diehard Phillies fan could point out any impression Wilson or Wockenfuss made on those mid-1980s Philadelphia teams. Tigers fans, however, remember vividly the contributions of Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman.