The Detroit Tigers’ quirkiest characters since 1975by David Wade
October 24, 2011
"We all have them, those players we reflect on and think, 'What on earth was he doing on that team?' Yet, we're not filled with anger upon this reflection—we are filled with fond memories of these players. While they didn't bring us wins or pennants or championships, they brought us memories and stories that will last us even longer." - THT's Chris Lund
This is not a list of the best Detroit Tigers players at each position. Rather, in the spirit of this article, it's a list of players that I remember for various reasons through my years of following the Motor City Kitties. This list has an arbitrary cutoff date of 1975 because that's about as far back as I can remember.
C- Mickey Tettleton, 1991-1994 Tettleton was the kind of player young fans love. First of all, he was good. But he had other things going for him, as well, such as a unique batting stance, lots of eye black, and a huge wad of chew in his mouth at all times.
The icing on the cake came during his breakout season in 1989 for the Baltimore Orioles, when he credited off-season weightlifting and more consistent at-bats for his All-Star nomination before his wife noted in passing that he'd brought a spring-training tradition of eating Froot Loops cereal for breakfast every morning back with him to Baltimore.
A fan-favorite was born as the sugary cereal enjoyed a brief run as one of the most benign performance enhancers in the world and inspiration for several variations of knicknames for Tettelton surrounding "Froot Loops."
Baltimore traded Tettelton to Detroit before the 1991 season, and he went on to average 107 BB per season in his four years with the Tigers, which contributed to a fine slash line of .249/.387/.480. He also hit at least 30 homers in three consecutive seasons, two of which went over the Tiger Stadium roof during a five-day stretch in June of '91.
1B- John Wockenfuss, 1974-1983 While we are on the subject of cool players with unique batting stances and huge wads of tobacco in their mouths, we'll cover Johnny. Wockenfuss was a utility player extraordinaire for Detroit for a decade. The most games he ever played during a season were the 126 he logged in 1980 when he hit .274/.390/.449.
He also serves as the titular player featured on the trophy given to the winner of The Harvey's Wallbangers Fantasy Baseball League, which is the self-described World's Greatest Rotisserie League. The trophy features a Wok on top of a maple base and is called "'The Johnny Wockenfuss Memorial Trophy."
It's not a memorial of someone who has passed away, it's a memorial in that the league members like to remember what a cool player Johnny was. Winners keep the trophy for a year, during which they adorn it with their own Wockenfuss baseball card as a memento before handing it over to the next champion at the preseason auction. Unfortunately, I have to give it back in March.
2B- Jim Walewander, 1987-1988 Fellow THT scribe and Tiger fan Brian Borawski told me I could take the reigns on this Tigers article if we put Walewander in the lineup. Deal. "Wales" only appeared in 162 games during his short MLB career, but he debuted during the Tigers' memorable 1987 season when they ran down Toronto in the last weekend of the regular season to win the American League East.
Walewander gained some notoriety that season when a reporter mentioned that he wore a t-shirt celebrating the punk rock band "The Dead Milkman" under his jersey. Shortly thereafter, the band came to a game as Walewander's guests, fans flew a "Walewander Fan Club" sign after his first and only career homer, and a local band wrote a song named after him.
Sparky Anderson once asked Walewander to accompany him to a children's hospital to visit some sick kids. The young part-time player asked Anderson why he'd been picked to go, presumably thinking one of the team's stars would have been more suitable. Anderson said it was because, "The kids love 'Wales.'"
3B- Aurelio Rodriguez, 1971-1979 I actually always felt bad for Rodriguez when I was a kid. He was an outstanding defender and may be best known as the first guy besides Brooks Robinson to win an AL Gold Glove Award at third base in 17 years.
Rodriguez had a .239/.274/.356 line as a Tiger, which was pretty close to his career line. His struggles at the plate made my mom cheer like crazy on the rare occasions Rodriguez would contribute with his bat instead of his glove, and this made me feel bad for him. She wasn't patronizing, but even as a young kid I could tell he was getting the attention because he normally stunk with the bat.
I felt bad for Rodriguez once again in September of 2000 when sadly he died in an accident when a motorist hit him as he walked down a sidewalk in Detroit. I just hope Rodriguez knew that, as a professional ballplayer, he brought so many memories in his time.
SS- Shane Halter, 2000-2003 Halter gets the nod a shortstop, but he could have fit anywhere in this lineup. He also brings us back to more lighthearted memories, as his claim to fame involves a game in October of 2000 in which he played all nine positions in the field. In a matchup against Minnesota, Halter started the game at first base before moving to third base, right field, center field, left field, shortstop, catcher, pitcher, and finally second base.
Oh, by the way, he went 4-5 and scored the game-winning run in the ninth inning of a back-and-forth battle. Matt LeCroy was the only batter Halter faced while pitching, and Shane walked him. The 2001 season was the closest Halter ever came to being a full-time player, and he did well, hitting .284/.344/.467 while mostly playing third base and shortstop.
LF- Steve Kemp, 1977-1981 Kemp hit .284/.376/.450 as a Tiger, beginning with a full season as a 22 year old in 1977. I remember that Kemp would always erase the front of the batter's box by brushing away the chalk with his foot in his first at-bat of the game. Announcers would say he didn't want the white line in front of him as a distraction.
I have a bittersweet memory of Kemp surrounding a doubleheader against Kansas City on August 3, 1979, in Detroit. I was nine years old and Thurman Munson had died the day before, and they held a moment of silence for him at Tiger Stadium. I went with my brother Keith, who passed away shortly thereafter. It’s one of the last things I specifically remember doing with him.
I have also always specifically remembered that one of my favorite players at the time, Steve Kemp, had a big game. Thanks to Retrosheet, I can go back and revisit Kemp's first game, in which he hit two home runs. How I wish there was an application that made other memories easier to recall as well.
CF- Ron LeFlore, 1974-1979 The Tigers manager at the time, Billy Martin, discovered LeFlore in prison. LeFlore was serving a sentence for armed robbery and never played organized baseball until he joined a team in jail. He was outstanding, and Martin decided he could play professional ball.
Tiger fans embraced LeFlore, a Detroit native, when he unbelievably made the team after his parole. LeFlore played for Detroit from '74-'79 and channeled his thievery to the basepaths, where he totaled almost 300 steals while a Tiger. His story made the small screen in 1978, and CBS must have killed it in the Detroit market.
RF- Bobby Higginson, 1995-2005 Higginson may best be remembered for a god-awful contract he had while playing for a terrible team. Of course, when I look up the deal and see that it was $34.4 million over four years starting in 2001, I am caught thinking that would be great deal now for a guy who had a career line of .281/.367/.489 up to that point and was coming off a year when he hit 30 home runs.
The problem was, Higginson's power disappeared after he signed his extension, and he played for some of the worst teams in Tigers history.
But Higgy makes my list for his actions after a brutal fight between the White Sox and Tigers in an April, 2000 game. Higginson had rushed the field after the Sox retaliated for an earlier Jeff Weaver pitch that hit Carlos Lee. Higginson came in with a flying forearm, but did not earn the longest suspension of the 16 players MLB disciplined for the brawl.
However, in the days that followed, former pitcher (and at-the-time co-host of the Dan Patrick radio show) Rob Dibble made a point of ripping Higginson for blindsiding a White Sox pitcher during the fight. Higginson made me laugh when he actually called into the show and called out Dibble.
Higgy reminded listeners that during Dibs' career, he had fired a baseball into the stands and injured an old lady, purposely hit a baserunner in the back after a bunt, and often threw at batters' heads, and that those in glass radio booths should not throw stones.
DH- Rusty Staub, 1976-1979 The red hair. The black batting gloves. The fact is, Staub may be the best ginger hitter in the history of the game.
Some of my selections surprised me, not so much because of who I selected, but because some were not as silly and fun to write about. But fans have players who they remember for reasons good and bad, and these were mine. Feel free to list any of yours in the comments.
David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.