Until tonight, the nicest compliment the Tigers could pay Larry Herndon in their season-in-review notes was that "he reduced his errors from 15 to 3." On a team of, well, tigers, Herndon was special enough to decide this first game of the World Series and also create a new specialist: the designated talker.
In a slump much of the season, Herndon was in a snit after the Tigers beat the Padres, 3-2, on his two-run homer with two out in the fifth. What he did was let his bat talk for him during the game and let Gates Brown do it immediately after.
"I told him not too long before the game," the Tigers' hitting coach said, " 'This is gonna be your Series. You're gonna save the best for last.' "
"So far," the burly man said, "so good."
Herndon is known as a tinkerer at the plate, a hitter rarely in the same stance two at-bats in a row. Also, despite being 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, he had been a pitty-pat spray hitter who also never reached .260 in four seasons with the Giants.
His entire major-league career before being traded to the Tigers three years ago, Herndon stroked a grand total of 24 home runs; in two seasons with Detroit, he smacked 43 and also batted .297 in 310 games.
Brown said this was fine, until Herndon began believing he actually was put on earth to beat baseballs over fences. A fellow trying for home runs, Brown said, ain't gonna get it done.
When the home runs failed to come early, Herndon tried to force them; that only complicated matters. To the point where Manager Sparky Anderson began platooning him in left.
"I have a baseball team to run, not individuals," Anderson said of the decision to give June acquisition Ruppert Jones increasingly more time.
"I doubt if he got that first homer for two or three months," Brown said. "Hey, all of a sudden you can't find your stroke. You sure go through some mind-boggling things."
By August, Herndon was into a familiar groove, batting .355 in August and .325 in September. Sure enough, the home runs he coveted also followed. Seven in all, with a .280 average.
The first two at-bats tonight, Brown was not especially pleased with Herndon, even with that scratch hit to third in the first.
"When his stroke is going good," Brown said, "he'll be moving the ball to right a lot. The second half of the season, he was driving it to right."
On Mark Thurmond's 112th pitch of the game, Herndon brought a smile to Brown, himself, the Tigers and their faithful. There was that 3-1 pitch sailing toward right.
Herndon was being groovy again. Also gorgeous, for that splendid stroke sailed the ball over some bunting and gave Jack Morris all the lead he needed.
It was one of the few times Padres fans stopped waving. They will do a wave cheer at the drop of a sacrifice bunt. Two or three times tonight, they did it at moments that may well have distracted their own pitchers.
Wonderful as Morris was, gritty as Thurmond was, neither was quite so appropriate as the pitcher who tossed out the first ball.
The man who brought you the Olympics, Peter Ueberroth, found a lovely representative of baseball's backbone, 83-year-old C.E. (Pat) Olsen.
Olsen has been attending the Series since 1938, and before his 237th game, whipped a high, hard one to Terry Kennedy.
The Padres catcher saluted Olsen, then smacked a double down the line in right with two out in the first that scored two runs. The 57,908 customers -- and Olsen -- celebrated by making the stadium resemble Malibu at high tide.
The fans here had been full of themselves long before Olsen's first pitch. Still defensive about being pummeled by some smarties east of La Jolla, they paraded about the parking lots waving signs and strangling paper tigers.
"Hey, Chicago," one of the most imaginative signs read, "Surf's up, the quiche is great and we're still playin' baseball."
And very well, thank you very much.
The Padres hit just well enough, fielded quite nicely and also were bright and lucky in getting Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson picked off first.
Funny thing about the Tigers. They mostly manage to emerge on top no matter how well the other guys execute early. For the fourth straight time in the playoffs -- and the 108th time in all this year -- they left the park laughing.
"That's one," Darrell Evans yelled.
"Now you can loosen up," Trammell joked to Anderson.
Brown also was relaxed; his project and his forecast were looking mighty fine.
"I call him (Herndon) a 'charger,' " Brown said. "He goes after a pitch. I want him to wait more. He hits 'em 420 to right center, so it's obvious he's got power. It's a matter of how to use it.
"I think the platooning gave him a chance to relax a bit. He'd been pressing and pressing. That was most of the problem."
For Thurmond, the problem was not recognizing what he thought he saw at the plate -- and adjusting.
"He reminds me of a guy in our league, Jeff Leonard, who also has an inside-outside swing. I should have come in on him."
Or thrown something other than a fast ball. Herndon lives to hit fast balls. But with the count 3-1, Thurmond may have had no other choice.
The silent Herndon eventually emerged from hiding, for the simple reason that he had to change clothes. And to the horde of reporters around his locker, he said:
"The fact that we won the game is more important than the home run. This was Jack's game and the night belongs to him." It was a gracious gesture, not done graciously.