The Detroit Tigers will give the baseball to Milt Wilcox here Friday. They will ask him to go the mound and pitch them past the San Diego Padres and into the lead in the World Series.
This request is rich with irony. A little more than a year ago, the Tigers' request of Milt Wilcox was radically different:
Please, they said, pack your bags and find a job somewhere else.
On the last day of the 1983 season, Detroit General Manager Bill Lajoie called Wilcox into his office. "Milt," Wilcox remembers Lajoie saying, "I'm really sorry, but I have to do this." He might as well have added, "This is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts me."
Wilcox remembers sitting across from Lajoie, stunned, while Lajoie read him a letter thanking him for seven years of service to the Tigers but informing him that the team would not be offering him a new contract. At 33, Wilcox was being told to go start over.
"It really caught me off guard," Wilcox said. "When he called me in, I thought it was going to be to make me an offer because my attorney had been talking to him about a new contract. I had always figured I would finish my career in Detroit and I really wanted to finish it here.
"But now, he was saying, 'Good luck in the free agent draft,' and I was sitting there saying, 'It's over, I can't believe this is happening.' I finally had to tell myself that baseball's still a business; that no matter how much fun you have playing the game, once you leave that field it's a business and if it was time to move on, it was time to move on."
Even today, when he talks of being pragmatic about baseball, Wilcox admits the memory is painful. Lajoie's letter and speech were the nadir in a downward cycle that had begun that summer. After starting the season brilliantly, coming within one out of a perfect game against Chicago in April, Wilcox had hurt his shoulder. In an injury-filled career, this pain was the worst he could remember.
He was out for most of six weeks. At the same time, his marriage was falling apart. Then came Lajoie's speech and letter.
Wilcox might have been angry with Lajoie, but says he wasn't. He might have been angry at Manager Sparky Anderson for not coming to his rescue. "I stay away from those decisions," Anderson said recently. Anderson is a part owner of the team. "Well, maybe I have a little tiny bit of input," he conceded.
What the Tigers saw when they decided to let Wilcox go was an aging pitcher with a 101-94 career record whose shoulder might not heal. Wilcox, trying not to be hurt by the decision, went to Hawaii -- he is half Hawaiian and was born there -- to relax and think about his future. When he came back, he picked up a Chicago paper and saw a headline: "Tigers to reopen negotiations with Wilcox."
"It was news to me," Wilcox said. "I called my lawyer and he didn't know anything about it. But they wanted me. People can change their minds."
The Tigers had changed their mind for two reasons. First, they couldn't come up with a quality starting pitcher through trade or free agency. Second, the pitching coach, Roger Craig, urged them to re-sign Wilcox.
"I told them you can never have enough pitching and here's a guy, injuries or not, who has won 10 games or more six straight years," Craig said. "I always figured if Milt pitched a whole year, he could win 17 or 18 games."
The Tigers offered Wilcox a two-year contract. The Oakland A's, one of eight teams to draft him, also offered him a two-year deal, for more money. Wilcox stayed in Detroit. "It's home," he said.
Wilcox stayed home and the Tigers stayed happy. He proved Craig right, pitching the entire season, finishing 17-8. He added to that with a two-hit, eight-inning performace a week ago in the pennant-clinching game against the Kansas City Royals. All this while taking cortisone shots and the drug DMSO throughout the season to ease the pain in his now-arthritic shoulder.
"I told him in spring training that I was going to push him a little harder," said Craig, who three years ago taught Wilcox the split-fingered fast ball he uses so well. "I made him run a little more, stay a little longer, work a little more. I think it's helped him stay stronger."
"There's not much but good things to say about Miltie," said a repentant Anderson. "He's pitched good for us all year. He's a smart pitcher; he knows the game as well as any pitcher we have. And, he's the kind of guy you like having in your clubhouse."
Wilcox lives in the Detroit suburb of Fraser. He runs a baseball school there, owns seven horses and feels at home.
"A lot of people think Michigan is the armpit of the world, but I really love it," he said. "Detroit's been through some hard times, but the people don't ever change there. When we were bad, people weren't that hard on us because they understood that even when you're trying your hardest, you don't necessarily succeed.
"I've got a lot of friends there outside of baseball. A lot of them have been out of work but they've never resented me for making good money. They know I'm an entertainer, and whether you're working or not you want to be entertained. That's why entertainers get paid well.
"But Detroit's making a comeback this year, not just in baseball but in life."
No one is a better example of that than Wilcox. Like his city, he has been through some bad times. He has pitched professionaly since 1968, first making it to the big leagues with the Cincinnati Reds in 1970 at 20. He pitched for Anderson in the playoffs (getting the victory in the pennant-clinching game) and the World Series.
A year later, he was back in the minors and then, as a result of arm and shoulder miseries, pitched in Cleveland, Wichita, Chicago (Cubs) and Evansville before making it back to the Tigers in 1977.
"I've been through a bad elbow, a bad shoulder and some bad teams," he said when asked about going 14 years without postseason action after making it as a rookie. "Sparky and I were talking about the '70 Series the other day and it was just a blur to both of us. It was a long time ago. But he's been in a bunch of them since then. I haven't been close. That's why all this is so special to me."