When you think about the Detroit Tigers’ magical 1984 season, only one thing comes to mind: Hard-working, blue-collar team. The 1984 Tigers cruised to a franchise-record 104 victories, besting their previous record of 103 set in 1968. Starting off at a 35-5 pace, they easily won the division by a staggering 15 games over the Toronto Blue Jays. One player on that team was Dave Bergman. He played in the majors for 19 years, nine with Detroit. Bergman also had stints with the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and the San Francisco Giants before he was traded to Detroit along with pitcher Wille Hernandez.
I recently sat down with Bergman and talked about his playing days. Ten minutes into the interview, I decided this could not be the typical question and answer format that one usually reads. I wanted those reading this to share what I experienced from the 30 minutes I had with Bergman. This was a man who was passionate about the game and those he shared the field with.
Any Tiger fan will remember June 4, 1984. It was the Monday night game of the week where Bergman had the 13-pitch at-bat. He was at the plate for a full seven minutes fouling off seven pitches after a 3-2 count. It was the 11th inning, and Roy Lee Jackson was on the mound for the Blue Jays when Bergman sent one over the wall for a walk-off home run. That win started another crucial run for the Tigers in the month of June. Bergman commented that, “Toronto was only five games behind us at that point and was playing like the second-best team in the league.” The late, great Tiger manager Sparky Anderson would later say, “tonight I saw the greatest at-bat in my life.” I remember watching that game, and with every pitch, I was on the edge of my seat; as I was today listening to Bergman re-tell the event. I know he is always asked about that game. For the past few days, I could not wait to ask that same question to him. I was wondering when to ask it and was rotating that question throughout my top five.
I decided I would carefully wait to bring it up and throw in some general housekeeping questions first. I started with the ever so popular what was your greatest accomplishment as a player? He smiled and simply said,”playing 19 years in the league, doing my job and staying healthly” were all important. I followed up wanting to know who the toughest pitchers he faced during his 19 years. As I was waiting to hear the names of Nolan Ryan, Jack Morris or Roger Clemens, he threw me a curve ball and said, “yes.” I was sitting there like the house by the side of the road with a puzzled look and then he explained: “Every pitcher who throws that ball is tough. Some days are better and they have it, and some days they don’t.”
It was during that question that he went into the night he fouled off the seven pitches and his 13-pitch at-bat game. Before I could ask the question, it was out on the table. He told me that’s what Tiger fans remember Dave Bergman for. I did not want to say he was wrong because I had a notepad full of Bergman moments in a Tiger uniform. Key things that he had done in is career. Detroit fans knew every player on that 1984 team, as they do now with every player who wears the Olde English D.
I then asked him about the no-hitter he broke up in 1989 against Ryan. He remembered Gary Pettis had robbed him of two hard hit balls to center field. Bergman said,”I told Sparky that I was going to sit and wait on his curve ball on my next at bat.” True to his word, on Ryan’s second pitch to Bergman in the ninth, he broke up the no-hiter with two outs. It was here I asked what it was like to play for Sparky. I myself had the honor of meeting him twice and he always was polite and had a smile. I could see Bergman respected this man. He said, “what can you say about Sparky that has not been said? Sparky taught us how to be men.”
In the 1984 season, he was put in the game as a defensive replacement and made two not-so-routine plays to help Jack Morris maintain a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox. In his Bergman fashion, he smiled and tossed all the credit to Morris and the team. During this interview, I could see the passion he had for the game and a passion he still has.
The subject of instructing kids came up. Bergman sponsors numerous teams in the Detroit area where he spends many days helping them undersatnd the fundemental’s of the game. Every year, he attends the Tigers fantasy camps in Lakeland, Florida, along with other former Tigers players. Grown men who dust off their cleats to live a dream for one week a year. Grown men who get to wear the Olde English D and play along with some of the players they watched growing up. Grown men waiting for their chance to hit that walk-off home run or stretch a single into a double. These former players do this for the love of the game and the fans.
Another passion Bergman shared is the Joe Niekro Foundation. A long-time friend of Bergman, Niekro lost his life unexpectedly to a cerebral aneurysm in 2006. The foundation is committed to the awareness and funding for brain aneurysm research, treatment and education of this silent killer of many. Every September in Las Vegas, there is a fantasy camp with hall of fame coaches to help benefit the foundation. You can find Bergman there, too. This year, the camp will be held September 23-28. I urge all to visit the foundation site for some valuable information.
As I was wrapping up, I was truly impressed with the professionalism of this man. His true passion for the game. His passion for teaching others . His respect for the men and coaches he played with and for. I was captivated for 30 minutes hearing about the players I grew up watching. It is a great perk to cover sports and talk to players who play them. Every chance I get, I ask the older media guys about the former players who they got to cover. I see the players of today. I get to hang out at batting practice with my shoes on the same field they play on. I get to watch the game from the press box and then go in the locker room and ask questions about a win or a loss. I then get to write about it and talk about it on the radio. Not to shabby for a Tigers fan. I have interviewed other former Tigers, and this was one of my favorites.
In a sense, the game is no different than when Bergman player. The game still has nine innings. A pitcher still throws some wicked stuff. A hitter still drive’s a baseball deep over the outfield wall, and fielders still make difficult plays look routine. The stadium is still filled with fans of all ages, and the smell of fresh, green grass lingers in the air. It’s basball.
Nineteen years in the majors and this town was lucky to have him for nine seasons. He helped Detroit win the World Series in 1984 and a divison title in 1987. Dave Bergman is still here in Detroit giving back.
My last question was how has the game changed since his playing days? With another smile, he simply said,”the game is the same, just the faces change.”