It was a Sunday afternoon in late June of 1987. Just one game out of a scheduled 162, and it matched a third-place team against a sixth-place team. There was no reason for it to me a memorable game, but it turned out to be a classic. That’s the way baseball works, and more than 31,000 fans at Tiger Stadium were in for a treat.
The pitching matchup was rookie right-hander Jeff Robinson of the Tigers against rookie left-hander Eric Bell of the Baltimore Orioles. Detroit, which had lost three of its past four games, fell behind 3-0 in the top of the first inning on a three-run homer by Fred Lynn, who would be traded to Detroit the following year. The Tigers bounced Bell from the game with two runs in the bottom of first inning as veteran Bill Madlock hit a two-run home run.
Madlock, a 36-year-old veteran in his 15th and final season, had signed with the Tigers three weeks earlier after he was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers. In his prime, Madlock was one of the best hitters in baseball. He was a four-time batting champion, winning two with the Chicago Cubs and two with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the first of those two came in the 1970s, and the last two came in the early 1980s. This was 1987, and Madlock had not hit above .280 since 1983.
Actually, Madlock came into the game in an 0-for-21 slump, so the home run had to make him feel a lot better. There was no score until the fourth inning, when the Orioles added three more runs to drive Robinson from the game. Another run in the top of the fifth made it 7-2 and a bleak outlook for Detroit.
With one out in the bottom of the fifth, Madlock hit a home run off right-hander John Habyan. It was the ninth and final game with two home runs or more for Madlock, who finished his career with 163. It was a nice way to break out of a slump.
Eric King was pitching for the Tigers, and he did his job keeping the Orioles off the scoreboard, but Detroit failed to score in the sixth and seventh. A single run in the eighth inning on a run-scoring single by Chet Lemon offered little hope as the Tigers trailed 7-4 going into the bottom of the ninth inning.
If anybody left, and surely some did, they are probably still telling the story of what they missed.
Johnny Grubb led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a home run to cut the deficit to 7-5. Matt Nokes followed with a home run to make it 7-6, and the veteran Madlock came to the plate. He had never hit three home runs in a major-league game, and he was in the final summer of his career.
The Baltimore pitcher was Tom Niedenfuer, who had been teammates with Madlock on the Dodgers earlier in the season. Niedenfuer fell behind 2-0 in the count, and Orioles manager Cal Ripken Sr. visited the mound. Madlock drilled the next pitch into the upper deck in left field for his third home run, and the score was tied 7-7.
“All during that slump, I was behind in the count every time,” Madlock said in the Detroit Free Press. “I was 0-2 17 times, I know that.”
Three home runs in three consecutive at-bats against the same pitcher. It doesn’t happen every day.
“I’ve seen three straight homers before, but I’ve never seen them all come off the same pitcher,” Madlock said in the Free Press. “Usually the pitcher is gone before the third guy comes to bat.”
Tigers manager Sparky Anderson was equally amazed.
“I’ve seen three straight, too, but never in the ninth inning, not like that,” he said in the Detroit Free Press.
The Tigers could not get any more runs, but they had done their job, and the game was headed to extra innings.
Neither team scored in the 10th inning, and Willie Hernandez blanked the Orioles in the top of the 11th. The Tigers were facing Orioles reliever Doug Corbett in the bottom of the inning with a chance to win it. Nokes led off with a single between first and second base, and Madlock strolled to the plate. Could he make it four home runs in one game? It had never been done in Tigers history.
We’ll never know. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson gave Madlock the bunt sign. Who orders a batter who already has hit three home runs in a game to bunt? Sparky did, and it worked.
“I’d let him know before Nokes got on that I wanted him to bunt when Nokes got on,” Anderson said in the Free Press. “A sacrifice is the only way to play.”
Madlock got the bunt down and successfully and moved Nokes to second base. After Kirk Gibson was walked intentionally, Alan Trammell singled to center to score Nokes with the winning run.
After the game, Madlock said had no issues with Anderson’s decision to have him bunt.
“You’ve got Kirk Gibson coming up after me, then Alan Trammell,” he said in the Free Press. “I’m not a home-run hitter. That’s the first time in my life I’ve hit three in a game. My game is just hitting. That’s my strength and what I try to do.”
The Tigers went 59-32 the rest of the way and won the American League East Division title by one game over the Toronto Blue Jays. One game. And they had the best record in baseball, although their season ended in the ALCS against the Minnesota Twins.
Madlock hit eight more home runs in his final season, and the last one came against Bell, the pitcher who gave up the first of his three on that Sunday afternoon in June.
Madlock is one of 14 players with at least four batting championships in baseball history. The other 13 – Ty Cobb (12), Tony Gwynn (8), Honus Wagner (8), Rod Carew (7), Rogers Hornsby (7), Stan Musial (7), Ted Williams (6), Wade Boggs (5), Dan Brouthers (5), Cap Anson (4), Miguel Cabrera (4), Roberto Clemente (4) and Harry Heilmann (4), all are in the Hall of Fame or, as in Cabrera’s case, are headed for the Hall of Fame.