Want to feel old? Try this on for size:
It was a quarter-century ago — March 24, 1984 — that the Tigers acquired relief pitcher Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman from the Philadelphia Phillies for catcher John Wockenfuss and outfielder Glenn Wilson.
And the insanity that was the Summer of ’84 began.
In case you’ve forgotten, Hernandez won the American League MVP and Cy Young awards after saving 32 games with an 1.92 ERA and 140.1 innings in 80 pitching appearances.
In 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.
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.
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.
Dave 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.
The first time my brother imitated the finger-waving batting stance of a Tigers player by the name of “Wockenfuss” I was convinced he made it up.
Not only did the name sound like a cartoon character, the flapping of the right hand on the bat was too much for my nine-year-old brain to process as a viable approach at the plate.
I soon learned that Johnny Bilton Wockenfuss was – and is – a real-life person.
Never a superstar, he was a Super Sub before the phrase existed. He played key roles for the Tigers and helped the club bridge the gap between emerging contender and World Series Champion.
‘Fuss was drafted by the Washington Senators in the 42nd round of the 1967 amateur draft. His road to Detroit wound through Arlington, Texas, after the Senators relocated following the 1971 season.
On June 6, 1973 he was traded by the Rangers with Mike Nagy to the Cardinals for Jim Bibby. Less than six months later – on Dec. 3 – St. Louis sent him to the Tigers for minor-leaguer Larry Elliott.
Ironically, Wockenfuss made his major league debut on Aug. 11, 1974 against the Rangers at Arlington Stadium – and faced the pitcher he was traded for a year earlier, Bibby.
He started at catcher, as he would 12 more times that season, and, batting ninth, went 0 for 2 with a walk. In his first big-league at bat (leading off the Tigers third) he popped out to shortstop Toby Harrah.
Wockenfuss’s first major league hit would come three days later at Tiger Stadium off Royals starter Steve Busby — an RBI single with two outs in the ninth (Jim Nettles, brother of Graig scored).
During the lean years of the mid-1970s, Johnny B. – wearing first #45 and then, from 1976 on, #14 – steadily gained playing time, primarily behind the plate for manager Ralph Houk. When Sparky Anderson was hired in 1979, ‘Fuss became more of a first baseman/outfielder/DH hybrid.
For the next four seasons, Wockenfuss had a .265 average. His best year at the plate for Detroit was in 1982 when hit batted .301 in 79 games.
In the spring of 1984, the buzz around Lakeland was of a team poised to make the leap to the postseason. Wockenfuss had been so valuable to the Tigers over his 10 seasons that no one suspected he wouldn’t be with Detroit on Opening Day.
We know how that played out.
In Philadelphia that year, Wockenfuss played in 86 games, mostly at first base, batting .289. In 1985, he appeared in just 32 games, collecting six hits. When the Phillies released him on Aug. 19, 1985 – almost 11 years to the day of his debut – his career was over.
Two years later, though, he was back in the Tigers organization as the manager of Lakeland in the Florida State League. He appeared to be on a meteoric rise in the organization. In 1988 he led the Glens Falls Tigers of the Eastern League two a first-place finish. The next season he was promoted to manager of Toledo where the Mud Hens finished in sixth place. He lasted only 24 games of the 1990 season before he was fired on April 29.
And that was all she wrote for Johnny B. Wockenfuss as a member of the Tigers family.
I remember feeling bad in 1984 that Johnny B. wasn’t around to enjoy the Tigers World Series championship. Years later when the Pistons won their first NBA Title they had some of the old guard on hand for the celebration. Too bad Wockenfuss couldn’t have participated in a similar sort of revelry in October ’84.
Raise a glass today for Johnny B. Wockenfuss. He’s 59.