The 1993 Detroit Tigers’ 20-Run Home Opener was a day to remember
It’s always an exciting day in the Motor City when a new baseball season begins. The 1993 Detroit Tigers’ powerful lineup made that year’s home opener especially memorable. Fans at the refurbished Tiger Stadium that afternoon saw one of the most explosive performances in franchise history.
The Detroit Tigers began the 1993 campaign with a 2-4 West Coast trip. They opened the home portion of the schedule on Tuesday, April 13 against the Oakland A’s. It was the 82nd Opening Day at the former Navin Field, and Tigers fans from all over the state converged to celebrate their favorite holiday. The paid attendance was listed as 49,674, but The Times Herald (Port Huron) and Battle Creek Enquirer each reported that that a total of 51,952 were on hand. Baseball season came to life in Detroit again under sunny skies on a 53-degree afternoon.
Tiger Stadium sported a fresh look inside and out for the first time since the renovations of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Change was noticeable immediately. Right at the famous corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues, in what used to be a players and employees parking lot, something called Tiger Plaza had sprung up. The plaza featured a food court with a wider array of tastes available than just standard ballpark fare. There was also a bar (the Home Run Tavern), souvenir shops, and a ticket office. A giant new sign with a computerized message board was installed.
Inside the ballpark, sections of seating in the lower deck between first base and third became known as the Tiger Den. Each of the den’s brand new padded chairs was decorated with an Olde English D that matched the one on the classic Tigers home jerseys. Fans in those sections were served by a wait staff. The scoreboard was replaced a with a new Sony Jumbotron, which included a 20 x 30 foot screen that was capable of showing full-color video replays. The sound system was also upgraded.
All in all, it was an $8 million investment by Mike Ilitch, who bought the Tigers the previous August to go along with his other two well-known business ventures, Little Caesar’s Pizza and the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings. If Ilitch, the former minor league second baseman, set out to make a major impression on his first Opening Day as the owner of a Major League Baseball franchise, he succeeded. Sparky Anderson was among those who was wowed. With a laugh at the end, the enthusiastic Tigers manager raved,
“Did you see that food plaza? Man, that’s some kind of thing. They got a bar there. I ain’t never seen a bar that big. There’s gonna be a few boys pretty well oiled when they leave the old ballpark.”
Right-handed pitcher Mike Moore, who signed a three-year contract with the Tigers in December, was making his home debut. It was already his third start in a Detroit uniform. The first one, the season opener in Oakland on April 5, was rough. Moore gave up four earned runs on six hits and three walks in 4 2/3 innings against his former team. (He spent four years with the A’s before joining the Tigers.) The second start, against the Angels in Anaheim on April 9, was awful. In just an inning and a third, Moore was rocked for five runs – four earned – on six hits and a walk before getting pulled.
Moore bounced back with a smooth first inning in Detroit. He got the great leadoff hitter, future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, to ground out to short. Travis Fryman was playing shortstop in place of Alan Trammell, who began the season on the disabled list with a pulled groin muscle. Trammell missed Opening Day for the first time since 1980. Meanwhile, his longtime double-play partner, second baseman Lou Whitaker, was playing in his 16th straight home opener. Jerry Browne grounded out to Whitaker for the second out of the inning Future Tiger Ruben Sierra worked the count full against Moore before flying out to center fielder Milt Cuyler.
The Tigers were getting another look at A’s right-hander Storm Davis. Five days earlier, he gave up two runs in seven innings but took the loss as Detroit edged Oakland 3-2. Left fielder Tony Phillips was Davis’ first challenge of the day. Phillips had gotten off to a nice small-sample-size start atop the Tigers lineup. In the first six games, he reached first base in the first inning in five of them (four singles and a walk). This time around, though, Phillips grounded out to short. Whitaker singled to right and stole second base. It was his third steal of the season, but it also turned out to be his last of the season. Fryman popped a single to center field to drive Whitaker in with the game’s first run. Cecil Fielder lined a single to shallow-left, and Fryman held at second.
Designated hitter Kirk Gibson stepped to the plate. In February, the 35-year-old signed a one-year deal to return to his original team. The prodigal Tiger got a standing ovation from the packed house during pre-game introductions, and he got another one in this two-on, one-out situation. It was Gibson’s first at-bat in the dazzling Detroit home whites since he singled in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5 of the 1987 American League Championship Series. In the interim, he played only two games at Tiger Stadium as a visitor, both with the Royals in May 1991. Davis got Gibson on a called third strike. Still, it was a big moment for the homegrown hero who had been warmly welcomed back. Gibby remarked,
“Sure, I hated to strike out. I wanted to do well. I was pumped. Driving to the park on the same expressway as before and looking at the same buildings, then getting back to stadium were all coming back to me. It was like the old days…
I realize this may be the last time around for me. All I want to do is help this team in any way I can to be a winner, and I’m grateful for the opportunity…I feel good to be back, and I’ll do whatever Sparky asks me to.”
Gibson, who got into 116 games that season, played for the Tigers until retiring in August 1995. The first inning continued for right fielder Rob Deer. In his third season with Detroit, Deer played for the Tigers until he was shipped to the Red Sox that August.
Deer had a rough season-opening road trip. He played in all six games and struck out 11 times. His only extra base hit was a double. After hitting eight home runs in spring training, it looked like Deer was ready to do some slugging in the regular season. Instead, he was struggling at the plate and struggling with insomnia. Following a near-sleepless night on the eve of the home opener, the stressed-out Tiger sought pre-game help from a trusted teammate. It turned out that his talk with Tony Phillips was exactly what Deer needed that day. Down 1-2 in the count, he crushed Davis’ sixth pitch of the at-bat. It was a three-run bomb that landed in the upper deck seats in left-center. The Tigers took a 4-0 lead on his first home run of the season. Crediting Phillips, Deer said,
“Tony told me to concentrate more on what I wanted to do at the plate, rather than what was going on around me or what happened to me last week. He told me that instead of pressing, I should think about getting a good swing. That made me slow down. Tony is a great friend of mine. Sometimes it feels good to talk to somebody.”
Catcher Mickey Tettleton struck out to end the top of the first. Moore pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the second. Davis was on his way to one in the bottom half. With two outs, he walked Phillips and then walked Whitaker. Fryman laced a single through the hole on the left side of the infield to score Phillips, who led the Tigers in runs (113) for the second straight season in 1993. Tony also finished sixth in the league. There were two men on for Fielder, who dribbled one down the third-base line. Davis fielded it, but his throw to first baseman Kevin Seitzer went wild. Whitaker and Fryman scored on the miscue. Fielder was credited with a single, and Davis was charged with an error. That put the Tigers up 7-0. Gibson walked, but Deer flew out to deep center to end the rally.
In the top of the third, Moore lost his sharpness from the first two innings. He walked leadoff hitter Dave Henderson. Back-to-back singles by Mike Bordick and Lance Blankenship loaded the bases for Rickey Henderson. Moore unintentionally walked Rickey on four pitches to force in a run. The Tigers’ righty got Browne to hit into a 5-4-3 double play, but the A’s scored another run in the process. Sierra grounded out to Whitaker for the third out. The Tigers led 7-2.
Tettleton drew a leadoff walk in the bottom half. After Davis walked Cuyler two batters later, Oakland manager Tony LaRussa made a call to the bullpen. Lefty Mike Mohler came in and walked Phillips to load the bases. The Tigers picked up a run when Whitaker hit into a fielder’s choice. Up 8-2 on the scoreboard, Moore got back into a groove in the fourth inning. He needed only 10 pitches to set the A’s down in order.
The Tigers were ready to feast some more in the fourth. Fielder, leading off, singled to right. Gibson struck out again. Deer singled to center. The switch-hitting Tettleton, batting right-handed against a lefty for the first time that day, ripped a pitch high and deep down the left-field line. It caromed off the foul pole for a three-run home run, his second of the year. Tettleton, who joined the Tigers in 1991, outhomered Fielder 32 to 30 in ’93. It was the only season in which Mickey led Detroit in dingers, and it ended Cecil’s three-year reign as the team’s leader. Tettleton, who finished eighth in the league, hit at least 30 home runs for the third straight season.
The inning continued for third baseman Scott Livingstone, who battled Mohler to an eight-pitch walk. Cuyler only needed one pitch. He lined the first offering from Mohler into center for a single. Phillips walked to load the bases for Whitaker, who drove in a run by hitting into another fielder’s choice. The Tigers’ lead was up to 12-2.
That brought Fryman up. He’d already driven in two runs and scored a pair to make it a productive day. The Tigers’ former first round pick needed it. Neck spasms, sustained when he rolled over after diving for a ball, knocked Fryman out of action for a week in March. He caught the flu after he returned, and that developed into bronchitis. The 24-year-old lost nine pounds while he was sick and hadn’t put all the weight back on yet. As a result, Fryman had slogged through the Tigers’ six games out west, collecting only five hits to go with nine strikeouts. At Tiger Stadium, he broke out in a big way with his three-run, fourth-inning homer off Mohler. It was his first of the season. Fryman, describing his mindset, stated,
“I’m the kind of guy who needs to play all the time. Even after the neck injury, I just tried to get through a few innings. Until we got to Vancouver (for the Tigers’ final two exhibition games), I’d only played nine innings once in a game. That’s no excuse for what happened last week. You have bad and good games all…year. When I’m not going well, I pull off the ball and strike out a lot.”
Fryman went on to lead the Tigers in hits (182) for the second straight season. His blast gave him the second five-RBI game of his career, and it put Detroit ahead 15-2. Oddly enough, Mohler was still in there. He gave up Fielder’s second single of the inning, and then Gibson delivered a knockout punch with an RBI double to center. It was Gibby’s first two-bagger at “The Corner” since he tagged future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven for one in Game 5 of the ’87 ALCS. Gary Thurman, who pinch-ran for Fielder, scored the Tigers’ eighth run of the fourth inning and sweet 16th of the afternoon. Former Tiger Edwin Nuñez came in and got that elusive third out for the A’s. It wasn’t easy. The righty struck Deer out in a seven-pitch duel that included a balk, which sent Gibson to third.
Fielder had put together his first four-hit game since August 16, 1990, and he only needed four innings to do it. Fans who only caught the final score were probably surprised to learn that all four hits were singles, including an infield squibber. He was deprived of a pair of runs batted in because of the throwing error that was part of that particular second-inning play, but that didn’t stop Fielder from leading the Tigers in RBI that season. With a total of 117, it was his fourth straight year atop the team leaderboard in that category, a streak that eventually reached six seasons. He finished fifth in the league in 1993. About his quirky and quick performance in the home opener, Fielder said,
“That’s a first for me. It was just one of those games. I just got to the plate a lot. Everybody was hitting the ball good…Any time we get people out there in scoring position, we usually, with our offense, get them home. It was just a situation today where we had a lot of men on base, and guys came through. If I don’t hit a homer and we keep winning, that’s fine with me.”
For the top of the fifth, Tettleton moved from behind the plate to replace Fielder at first base. Chad Krueter donned his catcher’s gear and entered the game. Tettleton didn’t spend much time as the Tigers’ backstop that season. He dropped from 113 appearances as a catcher in 1992 to 56 in ’93. He made 59 appearances at first base that season and played in the outfield 55 times (39 games in right field and 18 in left). Whitaker was given the rest of the day off after reaching base safely in all four of his plate appearances. In 1993, “Sweet Lou” set a career high in on-base percentage (.412). The ever-versatile Phillips moved from left field to second base. Phillips appeared most in left field that season (70 appearances), followed by second base (51), right field (34), center field (9), and third base (1). Pinch-runner Thurman stayed in the game as the Tigers’ new left fielder.
Moore, with the reconfigured defense behind him, cruised through his second straight 1-2-3 inning. In the bottom half, Nuñez held Detroit scoreless for the first time all day. He yielded only a single to Livingston. Moore fired off a clean, 10-pitch inning in the sixth. Nuñez got all three of his outs in the sixth via strikeouts, but a leadoff double from Krueter and a single from pinch-hitter Skeeter Barnes made it look like the Tigers offense was going to strike again. Barnes, who hit for Gibson, was the team’s leading pinch-hitter (6-for-17) in 1993.
The first man up in the top of the seventh, Troy Neel, flew out to center. He was the 12th straight Oakland hitter that Moore retired, but the Detroit starter was about to run out of gas. Terry Steinbach singled and advanced to third on Seitzer’s double. Eric Fox’s groundout knocked Steinbach in, and Bordick singled Seitzer home. The runs trimmed the Tigers’ lead to 16-4. With the count even at 2-2 on Blankenship, Moore uncorked a wild pitch and then threw ball four. Sparky had seen enough. Bob MacDonald, a lefty who the Tigers purchased from the Blue Jays in late March, took over and got the third out.
Moore gave up four runs on five hits in his 6 2/3 innings of work. He walked three and struck out one. He was able to drop his ERA from a grotesque 12.00 to an ugly 8.53. (Moore finished at a miserable 5.22, which would be his lowest ERA in three seasons with the Tigers.) It wasn’t a quality start, but it was good enough, considering the run support that he got. Critiquing his own performance, Moore said,
“The funny thing is, I felt I pitched better in those (first) two starts than I did today. I had good stuff in Anaheim and only lasted 1 1/3 innings. Today, I felt I only had mediocre stuff, but…it was working. The toughest thing today was sitting in the dugout and waiting through long innings. It made every inning seem like the first inning for me.”
Tettleton agreed with Moore’s assessments. During those long stretches when the Tigers were up raking, unless he was at the plate or on base, the Detroit catcher worked on keeping his hurler focused. He commented,
“I thought Mike had better stuff on our West Coast trip. It’s strange. That’s why this is a great game. You never know. I kept telling him between innings, ‘Don’t back off. Keep going after them.’ I think that’s what a pitcher has to do.”
The Tigers faced a new A’s reliever in the seventh. Righty Joe Boever took over. Tettleton drew a leadoff walk, but that was the extent of the offense that inning. MacDonald stuck around and pitched a scoreless eighth for Detroit. The throng of fans on hand earlier had dwindled quite a bit by the time the bottom of the inning rolled around, but the Tigers weren’t done with their assault.
Krueter singled off Boever to get things started, and Fryman walked. Thurman struck out. Barnes, who assumed the DH role after pinch-hitting earlier, grounded to second baseman Blankenship. The A’s defender booted the ball, and Barnes was safe. The bases were loaded for Deer. He got to a full count but struck out. Thanks to the Oakland error, that was only the second out. Boever walked Tettleton to force in a run. It was the Mick’s third walk and fourth RBI of the game. The sacks were still full for Livingston, who lined a two-run single to left. Fryman and Barnes scored the Tigers’ 18th and 19th runs. Boever lost Cuyler when he hit him with a two-strike pitch.
That reloaded the bases for Phillips, who was making his seventh plate appearance of the day. Fittingly, he led the Tigers with 707 PA that season (third-most in the American League). Phillips, who led the league with 132 walks in 1993, walked for the fourth time in the game. That was also fitting. “Tony the Tiger” was quite a sparkplug in that Motor City Bengals engine. He led Detroit in on-base percentage for the second season in a row in ’93. His .443 OBP was also third-best in the majors and second-best in the AL.
Phillips trotted down to first base, and Tettleton trotted home to score the Tigers’ 20th run. It was a good day at the ballpark for Phillips. He was a catalyst in the Detroit lineup, he lent a helpful ear to a teammate in need, and he really dug some of the changes that Tiger Stadium had undergone. Speaking with John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press, he gushed,
“This is a big league ballpark now. I didn’t know this place. I was telling the guys on the bench, ‘We got instant replay now. This is awesome. We can even hear what they’re saying on the stinkin’ loudspeaker. We’re in the big leagues again’.”
Krueter came up for his second at-bat of the eighth inning, but flew out to end it. All four runs against Boever that inning were unearned. The Tigers took their 20-4 lead into the bottom of the ninth. There was only one defensive change. Barnes played second base in place of Phillips. Closer Mike Henneman made his fourth appearance of the season. He hadn’t pitched in the prior two games, and Sparky didn’t want to make it three days off in a row for his longtime relief ace. Henneman gave up a harmless single but otherwise shut the A’s down to wrap up a very successful home opener. Detroit scored its 20 runs on 18 hits, an astounding 12 walks, and two errors. Moore picked up the first of his 13 wins.
The 20 runs were the most that a Tigers team had scored in a home opener since 1922’s squad put up 15 against the Indians. It was also the first 20-run barrage the franchise had seen since the 1937 Tigers pounded the St. Louis Browns 20-7 in the nightcap of an August doubleheader at home. Alas, that 1993 Tigers lineup fell one short of tying the club record for most runs in a game, which was set in September 1901 (and tied in July 1908, July 1920, and July 1936). Fryman led the Tigers’ parade around the bases with four runs that day. He noted,
“We can score a lot of runs. That’s one of the great things about playing for the Tigers. As an individual, you don’t feel the pressure to perform every day. A lot of guys can drive in runs and hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
The explosive victory was the beginning of a five-game winning streak and part of a 15-7 April for the Tigers. It was also the 1,999th win of Sparky Anderson’s managerial career. He didn’t make a big deal of the final score but with an audience of reporters ready for quotes and quips, the silver-tongued orator proclaimed,
“This ballpark always gives up a lot of runs. That’s not a secret. We’re going to score a lot of runs. We’ll be in the top three of all the 28 teams at the end of year. If we hold teams to four runs, we’ve got a chance to win a lot of games. Moore and people who have won aren’t just going to all of a sudden not win. Track records don’t lie.”
Sparky knew how potent his offense would be. The Tigers led the majors with 899 runs scored in 1993. Detroit hitters also combined to lead the majors in OBP (.362), OPS+ (115), and walks (765). In slugging percentage, the Tigers (.434) were narrowly beaten out by the Yankees (.435) and Blue Jays (.436). Only the Rangers hit more home runs (181) than Sparky’s wrecking crew (178). Five Tigers finished the season with an OPS+ over 100: Fryman (133), Whitaker (133), Phillips (130), Fielder (124), and Gibson (107).
The Tigers were able to take over first place in the AL East by the end of April. They held the lead until late June, when they fell into a season-dooming 10-game losing streak. Detroit finished in third place, 10 games out, with a record of 85-77. Unfortunately, the team that soared on the power of its lineup was sunk by its pitching.
Tigers pitchers gave up 837 runs (resulting in a collective ERA of 4.65) in 1993. That was the second-most in the AL (the A’s gave up 846) and third-most in the majors (the NL’s expansion Colorado Rockies gave up 967). The Tigers ended up so starved for pitching later in the season that they signed both Storm Davis and Joe Boever after the A’s eventually cast them aside. That’s the same Oakland duo that combined to cough up 12 runs on eight hits and nine walks in 4 1/3 innings in Detroit’s home opener.
Nobody disliked the 20-4 final score more than A’s manager Tony LaRussa. He groused,
“To me, it’s an embarrassment, because people paid a lot of money to see the home team win and to see a baseball game. And they didn’t see a competitive game. So I’m embarrassed the A’s didn’t fulfill our part of the deal.”
Your humble narrator, who watched the entire game that day from the center-field bleachers, thought it was a pretty entertaining show. It was a such a good show, actually, that a sequel was put into production almost immediately. Four days later, on a colder Saturday afternoon at Tiger Stadium with far fewer fans in attendance, the Tigers’ bats exploded again. They destroyed the Mariners 20-3. That one remains the most recent 20-run game in franchise history.