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Tigers Bring Back Another Icon, Willie Hernandez

Willie Hernandez

Tigers Bring Back Another Icon From The Glory Days, Willie Hernandez

By Alan Halberstadt

I am hopelessly nostalgic when it comes to baseball and the Detroit Tigers.

That is why I have loved covering Tiger home openers the last three years. On each occasion they have trotted out living legends to throw out the first ceremonial pitch.

Two years ago it was now 61-year-old Kirk Gibson who was asked to do the honours, and it was almost coincidental to him discovering that he had Parkinson’s disease. Gibson soldiers on. He was at Comerica Park again yesterday, as one of the telecast commentators, in a 5-4 win over Kansas City

Last year it was then 80-year old Mickey Lolich, who won three games in the 1964 World Series to topple the St. Louis Cardinals. In the maiden game of 2019 he was escorted to the mound in a wheel chair pushed by 1964 batterymate Jim Price.

Lolich leaned on a cane to get out of the chair to throw the first pitch. It turned out he was rehabbing from close together surgeries on his back and knee.

This year it was Willie (Call Me Guillermo) Hernandez, in his 65th year, who had a heath story to tell after bouncing the first pitch up to Tiger manager Ron Gardenhire.

Hernandez has fought many health issues in his later years, but was delighted when the Tigers called his Florida home with the first pitch invite. He believes he is living a charmed life.

In 2007, he swears he came back from the dead in a Boston hospital while undergoing surgery to attach a pacemaker in his heart.

The whole interview was sprinkled with references to the Almighty. He credited God with giving him the heart of Jesus to pull him through. “God’s got my heart,” he emoted. “No-one is going to touch my heart.”

It was no surprise that Hernandez identified 1984 as the zenith of his baseball career. The Tigers started that championship season with a 35-5 record, thanks in no small measure to a bullpen populated by Hernandez and Aurelio (Senor Smoke) Lopez.

“He would save one game and I would save the next game,” Hernandez said, recalling how Lopez then went on the injured list after hurting himself throwing one of his split finger pitches.

“After that I became the closer,” he reminisced, noting that the late manager Sparky Anderson bragged terribly that season that he was the best manager in the world.

“I asked Sparky why he was talking like that, and he said it was because ‘I have you in the bullpen.’” chortled Willie.

Hernandez became one of a select few pitchers to win the Cy Young Award for best pitcher, the Most Valuable Player and a World Series ring in the same year. The others were Sandy Koufax and Tiger Denny McLain.

Gibson was a teammate in 1984 and blasted a critical World Series home run off San Diego’s Goose Gossage in the fifth and final game at old Tiger Stadium. Willie collected a two-inning save in that game, and was on the mound when left fielder Larry Herndon hauled in a fly ball off the bat of hall of famer Tony Gyyn for the final out.

That set off a wild celebration on the pitcher’s mound, pounding Hernandez, who had also been on the hill when the Tigers clinched the division pennant plus and American League championship series.

I asked Hernandez what he thought about today’s baseball players getting contracts like the $330 million,13-year deal Bryce Harper recently signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. “God bless them . .. God bless them,” he retorted, before informing me that he received $19,000 a year when he started his career with the Chicago Cubs in 1977.

Willie, now in his 65th year, had a poor upbringing in Aguada , Puerto Rico, and was thankful for that amount of money. He reportedly went on to own a cattle ranch in his native country.

From Chicago Hernandez was was traded to the Phillies, and then to the Tigers in March of 1984. Dave Bergman was dealt with him for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss.

The lefthander with a baffling screwball blossomed in Detroit in 1984, saving 33 games in 34 opportunities, posting a 9-3 win-loss record and a 1.92 earned run average.

Hernandez pitched for the Tigers until 1989, although he was never able to parallel his 1984 heroics. Frustrated fans used to poke fun of him after it was reported that he wanted to be called Guillermo.

I remember my friends and I used to refer to him as Willie (Call Me Guillermo) Hernandez when he had a bad outing. So 30 years later I asked him Thursday at Comerico Park what name he prefers now.

“That was overrated,” he snapped. “I don’t care. You can call me the son of God. It’s better.”

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