Twenty-eight years ago today, Tigers GM Jim Campbell broke my heart.
The Hollywood native joined the Tigers full time in 1976 and played 123 games that year, hitting .218, with 17 home runs and 54 RBI. Two of the homers cleared the rightfield roof at Tiger Stadium. It was in 1977, though, that he made his mark: .270, 31 homers and 105 RBI — and earned an All Star Game selection.
The 1977 Tigers yearbook noted:
Jason led the Tigers with 31 home runs and 105 RBI — the first Tiger since Norm Cash (32) in 1971 to top 30 homers and the first since Willie Horton (100) in 1966 to attain the century mark in RBI.
At that point, the Tigers had to like their team of the future: Thompson, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Lance Parrish, Steve Kemp, Ron LeFlore, Jack Morris, et al, with a third baseman to be named later.
Thompson had another solid year in ’78, hitting .287 with 26 homers and 96 RBI.
The Beginning of the End in Detroit … Already?!
In 1979 he continued to hit homers and drive in runs — 20 and 79, respectively — but his average dropped 40 points to .246. That was also the year that Sparky Anderson arrived and, so the story goes, Thompson and Sparky didn’t mesh.
In 1980, Thompson got off to a slow start: .214/4/20 in 36 games, and Sparky invoked his My Way or the Highway clause and sent his first baseman to Orange County.
As I’ve said before, Thompson’s replacement, Richie Hebner, was a favorite of mine too. But, who were the Tigers kidding? Hebner over Jason Thompson?
From Anaheim to Pittsburgh to Montreal
Back home in southern California, Thompson thrived. In 102 games he batted .317 with 17 homers and 70 RBI. (Hebner hit .290/12/82.) On the eve of the 1981 season the Angels traded the three-time All Star to the Pirates for Ed Ott and Mickey Mahler.
In his five seasons in Pittsburgh, Thompson hit 93 home runs and averaged 93 RBI (not counting the 42 in the shortened ’81 season).
On April 4, 1986, the Pirates traded him to the Montreal Expos for players to be named later. Thompson played only 30 games for the Expos, hitting .196 with no home runs and just four RBI. On June 30, at the age of 31 and with balky knees, Jason Thompson was out of baseball for good.
The Jason Thompson Curse
If you remove the years that Darrell Evans and Cecil Fielder manned first base, the Tigers have had a revolving door at the position since they traded Jason Thompson. I call it The Curse of Jason Thompson: Hebner, Enos Cabell, Dave Engle, Keith Moreland, Tony Clark, Eric Munson, Carlos Pena, Chris Shelton, Sean Casey and Carlos Guillen. (And now, of course, Miguel Cabrera. Though I’m not convinced he’s long for first base.)
When looking back on the 1984 World Series team, I often think about how that team, or three-quarters of the starting nine, could’ve been homegrown talent — if Thompson were still in Detroit then.
With the exception of Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon, the Tigers could’ve had six of eight starters developed from Lakeland on up. (Or seven of nine if Morris or Dan Petry were on the hill.) Quite a different scenario from the 2008 Tigers when only two full-time, homegrown position players — Curtis Granderson and Matt Joyce — roam the field.
Today Thompson runs “Jason Thompson Baseball” in Auburn Hills, where kids can get hitting and fielding instruction from old #30 himself. He’s also an executive with Wachovia Securities.
If you can’t tell, even 28 years later I’ve still not gotten over the trade involving my favorite childhood player. I quickly hitched my wagon onto Hebner as a way to ease the pain. But that didn’t last long either, come to think of it.
So I threw my allegiance behind Kirk Gibson and five years later, when Gibson signed with the Dodgers, had to deal with the anguish all over again.