Coming into this weekend, a pretty good number of people in their sixties (and older) were ruminating over the last time these two teams faced one another in the World Series, the storied 1968 matchup. It’s easy enough to understand why. Denny McLain losing Games One and Four in a head-to-head matchup against Bob Gibson, but being plugged in for Game Six against the much more vincible Ray Washburn and beating him. That happy accident, with McClain hitting the showers early and being available for Game Six, made room for unbeaten Birdslayer Mickey Lolich to face the similarly 2-0 Gibson in Game Seven. Unlike 1967, when Gibson won three starts against the Red Sox to give the Cardinal a championship, this time around he’d finally falter, and Lolich turned the trick of going 3-0 in a seven-game series.

There were other things that mattered too, most famously Tiger manager Mayo Smith‘s delightful decision to not dance with one of the ones who brung him, and instead benching punchless wonder Ray Oyler to start regular center fielder Mickey Stanley at short-and thereby get both Jim Northrup and Al Kaline into the lineup. Since Northrup and Kaline combined for four of the Tigers‘ eight Series homers, Smith may well deserve as much credit as the people who played the games, and as much as the convenient separation between McLain and Gibson. All of these things helped the Tigers come back from being down 3-1 in the Series. In contrast, some might wonder why the Cardinals started somebody like Washburn, who’s pretty anonymous these days, when they had Steve Carlton on their staff. Those Cards also started Nellie Briles ahead of Steve Carlton, but to be fair to Red Schoendienst, what’s important to remember is that Carlton was not net yet Steve Carlton, but was instead somebody who’d struggled down the stretch, allowing almost 4.5 runs per nine. In contrast, Washburn had been a horse down the stretch, throwing 94.1 innings in a dozen starts after August 1, and posting an ERA of 1.62 in the Year of the Pitcher. However, although a 19-game winner, Briles had also struggled down the stretch, allowing 4.6 runs per nine. Both Carlton and Briles had started in the 1967 World Series, and both had pitched well, so it wasn’t a matter of not trusting the youngest of the team’s four starters. Coulda, should, mighta, woulda, it’s the essence of fandom for some.

So, that’s all good fun, and while it’s not exactly a trip down memory lane for me-I’m told I was in Haight-Ashbury at the time, although my memories of it would be no more coherent than anyone else’s among those of us who were there. Instead, what I’m thinking about when I ponder this series is the coulda-shoulda matchups between these two teams that we could have gotten when I was in my twenties and immensely cool and all-knowing, that glorious time we know as the Eighties.

In many ways, the Eighties were good times for both the Cardinals and the Tigers. Both teams had Hall of Fame managers at their head, Whitey Herzog in St. Louis, and Sparky Anderson in Detroit. Both teams boasted some players we should remember well, guys I can still see in my mind’s eye, and whom some of you may also. The Tigers had their Hall of Fame-worthy keystone combo of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson at a time when he was famous for a World Series homer off of an all-time great closer-Goose Gossage, not that other guy-Jack Morris doing his angry man on the mound thing, Chet Lemon running everything down from alley to alley in the deepest center field in baseball, Lance Parrish as one of the great initimidators behind the plate, Darrell Evans belting homers, and journeyman Willie Hernandez blossoming briefly into one of the great relievers in his day.

If two players defined these Cardinals, it was probably Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith, but there’s also Tommy Herr and Terry Pendleton giving the club as slick a 4-5-6 as any I’ve seen, Vince Coleman at the races, and the constant questions about Jack Clark‘s health creating uncertainty that perhaps only Frank Thomas fans these days can really appreciate. On the mound, John Tudor was every bit as frightening to face as Morris, and Danny Cox had his day in the sun, but more frequently, the pitching staff represented a tribute to Herzog’s ability to handle them. I mean, c’mon, Steve Mura? Kurt Kepshire? Greg Mathews? Or, in support of those who argue against closing as a skill, Jeff Lahti?

Back then, both teams won Eastern Division titles in their respective leagues, the Cardinals three (’82, ’85, and ’87), and the Tigers two (’84 and ’87). Obviously, we had a pretty good shot at seeing these two teams get to the dance in 1987, but as we’ll get into in a bit, we just missed out on that. Instead, let’s take a quick look at what these two teams did from 1980 through to 1988, a nine-year run that encompasses the best possibilities for Whitey and Sparky to square off in the World Series since 1976, when Sparky’s Reds won while Whitey saw his Royals lose in the ALCS to the Yankees. Why those particular endpoints? Up front, the 1980 season is Anderson’s first full season managing the Tigers (he’d joined them a couple of months into the ’79 season), while Herzog joined the Cards in a year that saw four skippers in St. Louis. At the back end, after 1988, the Cardinals end up parked behind first the miracle ’89 Cubs and the Jim Leyland’s little run of success in Pittsburgh, while the Tigers start the slow meltdown that goes to full China-Syndrome magnitude on the watches of luminaries like Bo Schembechler and Randy Smith.

Let’s start off by looking at the won-loss records of the two teams, first their actual records, games back, and place in the standings, followed by their third-order adjusted record (rounded to the nearest whole number), games back and place in the adjusted standings. (For more on adjusted standings, you can get a brief overview of the concept at the bottom of this page.)

     Detroit                      St. Louis
Year  Actual GB  #  W3     GB  #   Actual GB  #  W3     GB  #
1980  84-78  19  4  88-74   9  4   74-88  17  4  84-78   6  3
1981  60-49   N  2  57-52   N  4   59-43   N  2  55-47   N  2
1982  83-79  12  4  86-76  11  3   92-70   -  1  89-73   T  1
1983  92-70   6  2  92-70   3  2   79-83  11  4  78-84   9  5
1984 104-58   -  1  99-63   -  1   84-78  12  3  82-80   9  4
1985  84-77  15  3  84-77  14  5  101-61   -  1  99-63   -  1
1986  87-75   8  3  89-73   1  2   79-82  29  3  80-81  21  3
1987  98-64   -  1  95-67   4  2   95-67   -  1  91-71   1  2
1988  88-74   1  2  85-77   7  4   76-86  14  5  76-86  11  5

GB: Games Back; #: place in the standings; N: Not applicable; T: Tie.

So there weren’t really that many missed opportunities for a World Series matchup of the Tigers and Cardinals, however fondly I might remember those teams. A big part of the problem was that on the one hand, the Tigers were in baseball’s strongest division, while the Cardinals were as reliably good as a supermarket tomato: sometimes very good, and sometimes flavorless mediocre mush. We’ll never know what might have been in 1981 had the season been played in full. In ’82, the Cardinals might have been fortunate to finish ahead of the Expos (they finished virtually tied in third-order wins), but the Tigers weren’t going to get by the Brewers. The Jungleers came up just short in ’83, ’86, and ’88, helping fuel arguments that Sparky and GM Bill Lajoie were doing less with more, but Whitey’s Mighties weren’t doing all that well in any of those seasons.

Both make for interesting research topics-how did the Tigers come up short, and why did the Cardinals provide such a wildly unpredictable ride? In both cases, I would suggest that a lot of it has to do with the clubs’ relative investments in pitching, and both team’s merely expedient solutions. In the Tigers’ rotation, after Morris, after seeing both Dave Rozema and Dan Petry get worn down to nubs, the Tigers settled for going out and getting guys like Walt Terrell and Frank Tanana before making their ill-fated pickup of Doyle Alexander. Alexander-for-John Smoltz is now infamous, but Terrell for Howard Johnson ended up not really looking so great in retrospect either, although Tanana for Duane James worked out quite nicely. Unfortunately, homegrown pitchers like Eric King and Jeff Robinson didn’t really pan out, leaving the club addicted to veteran temps in a cycle that would only get worse.

The Cardinals were held hostage to the different frailties of Tudor, Joaquin Andujar, and finally Joe Magrane, and although they would later resuscitate the careers of Bob Tewksbury and Jose De Leon, it wouldn’t be in time to add them (or their like) to Tudor in his prime or Andujar at his most manageable. Add in the performance problems that went with relying too heavily on Coleman’s ability to get on base, Terry Pendleton’s mostly mediocre pre-Braves days hitting, and the failure to find anybody as dangerous as Clark to put in the middle of the skittering water-bug offense, and you can respect the concept, if not the results. There was a reason why the more sturdily designed Mets and the Pirates ended up eclipsing this hothouse flower.

So what we’re really left with was their almost meeting up in 1987. Even then, you could argue that the 1987 season wasn’t that likely a matchup, in that while the Tigers were upset by the Twins in the ALCS, that year’s Cardinals managed to upset the Giants in the NLCS. Jack Clark was hurt (again), leading Herzog to plug in Dan Driessen and Jim Lindeman at first base on top of already being short a reliably good idea for right field. Conveniently, the Cards had Rick Reuschel‘s number after facing him four times earlier in the season, and Giants manager Roger Craig had problems finding enough pitchers after Kelly Downs‘ second-half collapse. Between Reuschel’s matchup issues and having to start Atlee Hammaker twice-including in Game Seven of the NLCS-the Cardinals caught a few breaks, and Herzog’s veteran crew exploited them.

As for the Tigers, the shock of their upset at the hands of the immortal ’87 Twins is still something I remember vividly. Their Game One loss, with Alexander losing his first game as a Tiger because he was left on the mound to hold a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the eighth, was particularly shocking. The top of the Twins’ order was up, and I suppose somebody else would have brought in Mike Henneman right there, but the inning turned into a four-run disaster, and Jeff Reardon managed to strike out the side in the top of the ninth. Bert Blyleven handily outpitched Jack Morris in Game Two, at which point the series went back to Detroit. The Tigers managed an eighth inning rally off of Reardon to win Game Three (the lone start by a Twin besides Blyleven or Frank Viola, by the immortal Les Straker), but the Twins answered with a pair of road wins in Tiger Stadium. Game Four involved Tim Laudner‘s brilliant snap throw to Gary Gaetti at third to pick off Darrell Evans with runners on second and third and one out in the sixth, helping protect a one-run lead; the Tigers would not get a runner further than first base for the rest of the game. Game Five saw the Sparkmen try to rally back from a quick hole dug from them by Alexander after four runs allowed in the second-Eric King did yeoman work in long relief, but Henneman went to pieces in the top of the ninth, making a two-run deficit into a 9-4 trailer going into the bottom of the ninth. Tacking on a dignity run didn’t alter the fact that these oft-derided Twins had won a pair on the road to close out the ALCS and earn their shot at the equally odd NL pennant winners.

The Tigers were never really in the ’87 series, so while it’s tempting to speculate what might have happened in a Cardinals-Tigers World Series, it’s also probably pointless. If the Tigers had managed to pull out Game Four or Five, they would have had a Morris versus Straker matchup in Game Six, and then perhaps Viola against… Walt Terrell? Terrell didn’t pitch well in Game Three. We also don’t know if Alexander would have got his mojo back pitching against the Cardinals, although he would have been queued up for Game One of the World Series, followed by Morris. There’d still be the question of whether or not Herzog would have to start Danny Cox on short rest in Game Two-it didn’t work out so well against the Twins. Would Herzog’s staff have withstood a quality Tiger lineup any better than it did against the Twins? Probably not, but the Cardinals hitters might have preferred stepping in against Terrell and Frank Tanana.

This is probably where somebody should get busy with a bit of Strat-O-Matic (or Pursue the Pennant), but basically, I guess I’m not invested in the exercise because of the number of things that would had to have changed in the ALCS to get the Tigers to the World Series in the first place. The ’87 Twins, a team of destiny… still strange, but no less true. Those Twins cheated us of a Cardinals-Tigers matchup only a couple of decades after ’68, but it shouldn’t make us remember them any less fondly, or relish the rest of this Series any less.