Fred Lynn on His Time as a Tiger, Part One

Most fans are familiar with Fred Lynn’s career. A superstar in six-plus seasons with the Red Sox — good for a 142 wRC+ and 30.7 WAR — Lynn subsequently fell short of those lofty standards after being dealt to the Angels following the 1980 season. Even so, he continued to be a solid player despite myriad injuries. Three of Lynn’s nine All-Star nods came with the Halos, and by the time he hung up his spikes at age 38, he’d accumulated 1,960 hits and 306 home runs. A four-time Gold Glove winner as a center fielder — and an AL MVP to boot — Lynn finished with 49.2 WAR.

The later of Lynn’s seasons aren’t nearly as well-chronicled as his earlier ones. Especially overlooked is his time in Detroit. Acquired by the Tigers at the 1988 trade deadline, Lynn joined a team in a pennant race, then returned the following year for what was to be his penultimate big-league season. What was Lynn’s Motown experience like? That’s the focus of this two-part interview, which was conducted over the phone earlier this month.

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David Laurila: You went from the Orioles to the Tigers in a trade-deadline deal. What are your memories of that?

Fred Lynn: “It wasn’t unexpected. We’d gone through that 0-21 start to the 1988 season, and during the All-Star break the A’s wanted to get me. The deal just wasn’t good enough for [the Orioles] to make the move. My wife and I both liked Baltimore. The fans were great, and while we weren’t playing well, it was a good bunch of guys, so I enjoyed playing there. And it was baseball-only. The Colts had exited, so baseball was the only game in town.

“So the Oakland thing hadn’t panned out during the break, and now the trade deadline comes around. We’re playing the Angels, I’m at my hotel room, and my agent calls and says the Tigers are interested in making a deal. This is probably around 4:00 o’clock, and I’m going to the park at 5:00. I have no-trade clause, and it doesn’t work out. I call my wife and tell her, ‘The deal is off, don’t worry about it.’

“I hang up the phone, and my agent calls back. The Tigers have sweetened the pot. I said, ‘Okay, deal.’ Then I had to call the ballpark. I called my manager and said, ‘Hey, Frank [Robinson], am I in the lineup tonight?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, you’re hitting third.’ ‘I said, ‘Well, you might want to change that lineup, because I’ve just been traded to Detroit.’”

Laurila: What happened next?

Lynn: “Well, I had to have my gear sent over from the ballpark. I had a rental car and had to go to Ontario airport — this is at five o’clock with Southern California traffic — to catch a private jet that was going to take me to Chicago, where the Tigers were playing the White Sox. I haven’t eaten, I haven’t done anything. My hair is on fire. I finally make it to the airport and get in this little Lear jet. Zoom! We take off.

“Now, I had to be in Chicago by midnight. There was some crazy rule at the time. We literally got there at 10 minutes past 12, so we missed the deadline by 10 minutes. Had we won the pennant, I wouldn’t have been eligible for the playoffs. That was a crazy thing. The New York Times actually ran a story about how that was the craziest thing ever. They did change that rule.

“Anyway, the game is long since over and the Tigers are sitting on their charter, waiting to fly to Detroit. They’re waiting for me. Can you imagine that? So I get off this little jet and race onto the charter. Sparky Anderson is up front, along with Trixie [Dick Tracewski], Alex Grammas… all of the coaches. It’s like, ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ I’ve got my bag over my shoulder. And the guys in back are hooting and hollering at me: ‘Christ, you took long enough to get here.’ I caught hell from the guys.

“I didn’t get to the hotel until probably three in the morning. My wife still didn’t know that I had been traded. Her brother had called her and said he was watching the game, and on a crawl down below it said Fred Lynn had been traded to Detroit. She said, ‘No he didn’t, because he just told me.’ So once I’d gotten everything situated at the hotel — this was about four in the morning — I called her and told her what had happened. It was crazy. And then we had to play that night.”

Laurila: You were joining a team with some pretty notable players.

Lynn: “I knew a bunch of them. I’d obviously played against a lot of the guys. [Alan] Trammell and [Lou] Whitaker were staples there for a long time. Darrell Evans was the senior statesman on the club. They had [Jack] Morris and Doyle Alexander; they had some pretty good pitchers. I’d faced these guys, and seen them in All-Star games, but when you’re teammates it’s a whole different scenario. But the atmosphere there was really good. They welcomed me with open arms. They knew I could help them out, and it was definitely nice going from last to almost first in a blink of an eye. I was in a pennant race, and that’s where you want to be as a player.”

Laurila: You mentioned Darrell Evans. He was one of the most underrated players of his era.

Lynn: “Darrell, when he was with Atlanta, was sitting 30 to 40 home runs a year. He’s a big solid guy, and he had a short stroke. His swing was tailor-made for [Tiger Stadium]. With that overhang in right, if you were a fly-ball pull hitter, you could do some damage there. That’s why Lou Whitaker pulled everything; he knew that if you got it in the air you had a shot. If you hit it to center you were out, but if you hit it to right you were golden. That’s why most of the guys who played there were pull hitters.”

Laurila: Evans also drew his fair share of walks.

Lynn: “Yes, he was a very patient hitter. He looked middle, and if they didn’t throw it there he wouldn’t swing. That was to his credit. I was different. If you started throwing me away, I’d just go the other way. That’s how I hit. Of course, when you go to a different ballpark and now that’s your home, sometimes you have to make an adjustment to the way you hit.”

Laurila: You had arguably the best game of your career in Tiger Stadium, but overall, your numbers there were nothing special.

Lynn: “No, and that’s because it wasn’t my style of hitting. And when I came to play in Detroit, speed wasn’t our thing. We didn’t have a lot of fast fast guys. The infield grass… literally, if the ball was in the infield grass somewhere, you could only see half of the ball. That’s how long it was. You had to hit bullets to get through that infield.

“The makeup of the team was hit-the-ball-in-the-air. Groundball hitters would get eaten up there. They wanted to turn double plays with Lou and Tram, so they had that grass as long as possible. So it was a fly-ball hitters park, and that wasn’t my game most of the time. I hit some home runs to left field there, but not as many as I did in other places.

“The weather was also a big factor in that old stadium. In April and September, it was colder than all get out — probably the coldest place I ever played; even colder than Boston. It was like an ice cube. The ballpark was enclosed, and the cold hung on the field. The ball really didn’t carry then, not unless you absolutely creamed one.”

Laurila: Warm days with the wind blowing out were obviously a different story. I was at a game there in the late ‘80s when George Brett hit one over the right-field roof.

Lynn: “Yeah, I hit one off the light tower in that three-homer game, to right center. I thought I hit it okay, but when I saw it go out it was, ‘Whoa! That ball went a lot further than I thought.’

“In BP, we’d try to hit one up there, but you had to really drop your shoulder to get the ball high enough. A lot of times, those balls in the cage would hit the top of the cage. So you really had to hit one high to get it over that structure, which wasn’t my thing either. Georgie Brett didn’t hit the ball high much either, so that must have been an unusual clout for him.”

Laurila: What was it like playing center field at Tiger Stadium? It was 440 [feet] to center, and the flagpole was on the field.

Lynn: “It was huge. And along with the grass being long, it was soft — it was not a firm surface. That was good on your knees, but you really needed to be able to run to play center there, because there was so much ground to cover. And you’re right, that flagpole in left-center was in play. I tell people that, and they go, ‘What?’ Then they’ll ask, ‘Was it padded?’ I say, ‘No.’ And the fence wasn’t padded either. In fact, I cracked three ribs when I was playing with the Angels. I took a home run away from somebody in right-center, and as I was extended I hit the railing, which was inch-thick lead. That fence had absolutely no give.”

Laurila: You hit a two-run, walk-off home run (in an 8-7 win) against the Orioles that September.

Lynn: “I did… and there was a game in Baltimore, too. I’d obviously played against Sparky Anderson — The Big Red Machine and all — and remember, I went to Southern Cal. [Legendary USC head coach] Rod Dedeaux used to call Sparky ‘Little Georgie,’ because he’d been the bat boy for the Trojans way back when. He’d say, ‘Oh, that little Georgie; he’s having a good time in Cincinnati.’ I would never call Sparky ‘Little Georgie,’ that’s for sure.

“Anyway, we were playing in Baltimore and it was my first time back. We had a rally going in the ninth, and Sparky had me pinch hit. They walked somebody to load the bases, and I came up against Tom Niedenfuer, their closer. I hit the first pitch, a slider, for a grand slam. So I hurt my old team, both in Baltimore and at Tiger Stadium. Maybe I liked that Oriole pitching? I don’t know.”

Laurila: As it turned out, the Tigers fell one game short of the playoffs that year.

Lynn: “Yes. It was tough to get that close. I felt badly for the team, and the city. There were a lot of those in my career, where it was one game here and one game there. It could have been a lot different, but that’s just the way it is. You do the best you can, and hopefully things work out. Sometimes they don’t.”

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Part Two of the interview will run tomorrow.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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This is great! I remember that trade from my childhood. Those mid-80s Tigers teams were underrated. The 87 playoffs and the stupid homer hankies still pain me.