For many Detroit Tigers fans who remember 1984, the image that pops into mind when they conjure up that magical baseball season is of Willie Hernandez on the mound.
Hernandez, with his trademark wad of chewing tobacco-mixed-with-gum in his cheek, and his immaculate uniform, was the unexpected darling of Tigers fans in 1984. That was the last time the Tigers won the World Series, and without Willie, and a fantastic pitch that made him nearly unhittable, Detroit probably wouldn’t have won it all.
Hernandez was born in Aguada, Puerto Rico. Willie’s journey from a humble beginning to becoming one of baseball's most dominant relief pitchers is truly inspiring. And it couldn’t have happened without the assistance of a special teammate years before he wore the Old English D.
Hernandez's baseball journey started at a young age when he fell in love with the sport. Like many kids in Puerto Rico, he grew up playing baseball on the streets and in local sandlots. His talent and passion for the game were evident from an early age, catching the attention of local coaches and scouts.
After refining his skills in the local leagues, Hernandez was signed as an amateur free agent by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1973. He quickly climbed through the minor league ranks, showcasing his impressive fastball. But he was like many pitchers in pro ball at the time: a one-trick pony. Then he met Bill Campbell.
The screwball is a pitch that moves in the opposite direction of a traditional curveball, breaking away from a same-handed batter. It's a challenging pitch to master but can be incredibly effective when thrown correctly. It’s rarely thrown today, and it’s never been taught that often in the history of baseball because it’s difficult to master.
In 1977, Hernandez made his major league debut with the Philadelphia Phillies, but it wasn't until he joined the Chicago Cubs in 1983 that his career took off when he was introduced to the screwball.
Under the guidance of Cubs teammate Bill Campbell, Hernandez learned the screwball, making it one of the most feared pitches in baseball. Campbell was a veteran reliever who had once been considered the finest bullpen stopper in the game. Campbell spent hours showing Willie how to grip the screwball, and how to master the pitch. In short order, Willie was using his new weapon deftly.
Armed with the screwball (often called “the scroogie”) the lefthanded Hernandez became nearly unhittable. In the ‘83 season he was dealt to the Phillies for the stretch drive, but it was his trade to the Tigers only a few days before the 1984 season that changed history.
In 1984, Willie was nearly untouchable. His screwball mesmerized hitters, and he ended the season with 32 saves in 33 opportunities. In the playoffs and World Series, Willie was on the mound to record the clinching outs, sending Tigers fans into celebration.
In 1984, Hernandez became the second relief pitcher to win the American League Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award in the same season. His masterful command of the screwball, combined with his competitive spirit, made him a fan favorite and earned him the respect of his peers.
The key to Hernandez's success was not just his screwball's movement but also his exceptional control and deceptive delivery, which he learned from Camobell. He could throw the pitch with pinpoint accuracy, making it appear as though it would miss the strike zone before snapping back and catching hitters off guard. His ability to induce ground balls and strikeouts when needed made him a reliable closer in high-pressure situations. He was an All-Star three times for the Tigers in the 1980s.
Hernandez's influence on the game extended beyond his playing days. Many pitchers sought his advice on perfecting the screwball, but few could replicate his level of mastery. The pitch requires a considerable toll on the pitcher's arm, and with the advent of advanced metrics and pitch counts, fewer pitchers today throw the screwball.
In 1990, Hernandez retired from professional baseball after an illustrious career spanning 13 years. He finished his career with 147 saves, 3.38 ERA, and an impressive 744 games pitched.
Hernandez's patented screwball remains an iconic pitch in baseball history, and he will forever be remembered as one of the game's greatest relief pitchers. His journey from a sandlot in Puerto Rico to MLB stardom is a testament to hard work, dedication, and the love of the game. As long as there are fans alive who remember 1984, Willie will be remembered for his place in team history.
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