Ten memorable moments from Tigers great Lou Whitaker

Finally, Lou Whitaker is about to get his flowers.

The former Detroit Tigers second baseman also known as “Sweet Lou” will have his number retired Saturday at Comerica Park ahead of the Tigers playing against the Tampa Bay Rays.

One half of the “Tram and Lou” middle infield pairing alongside shortstop Alan Trammell, Whitaker won a World Series with the Tigers and put together a 19-year career that’s as close to Hall-of-Fame worthy without actually getting into the Hall of fame

More: A Hall snub, Whitaker will be deservedly honored among Tigers greats

More: How does Whitaker stack up against contemporaries?

Ahead of Whitaker’s number retirement, let’s take a look at 10 of his most memorable moments in a Tigers uniform.

1. MLB debut with Trammell

Sept 9, 1977

The year is 1977. It’s been nine years since the Tigers last won a World Series and five years since Detroit’s last playoff appearance. The Tigers are 67-74 heading into Game 142 at Boston’s Fenway Park with nothing to lose.

Enter: A middle infield duo that would lead two decades of Tigers baseball. Whitaker and Trammell — or, as they became known, “Tram and Lou” — both made their debut on Sept. 9, 1977, and while the Tigers would fall to the Red Sox, 8-6, a three-hit, one- RBI showing (including his first-career hit off Reggie Cleveland) from Whitaker would be a sign of things to come.

2. First career walk off hit

April 17, 1978

After eight games of action in that 1977 season, Whitaker would become the starter at second base the following year. He struggled through his first few games of the season, picking up three hits through 18 plate appearances.

But with the Tigers trailing 9-6 in the eighth inning against the White Sox — a game that Chicago led, 6-0, after the top of the fifth — Whitaker was called on to pinch hit for Steve Dillard. He singled to center and got another at-bat in the bottom of the ninth after a double from Ron LeFlore cut the deficit to 9-8. With two runners in scoring position, “Sweet Lou” brought home LeFlore and Phil Mankowski with a single to right for his first walk-off hit.

3. First career homer

July 28, 1978

It would take a few years before Whitaker’s bat developed extra-base power, but his first-career homer — 98 games into his MLB career — was an absolute whale of a moment.

The Seattle Mariners entered the ninth inning of a game at Tiger Stadium with a 3-2 lead. LeFlore hit a two-out single to keep Detroit alive, and with Whitaker coming to bat next, the hope was presumably that Whitaker would knock another single or draw a walk to move LeFlore into scoring position; but he didn’t.

Whitaker instead launched the pitch from Seattle’s Enrique Romo into the right-field stands, creating one of the first iconic moments of his career as the Tigers won, 4-3.

5. Inside the park home run

Aug 13, 1978

After Whitaker finally got his first career homer out of the way, he apparently had a taste for more. How do you follow up hitting a walk-off for your first home run with a play that’s equally exciting? You hit a home run that doesn’t leave the park, of course.

Whitaker smoked a ball into the right-center gap off Pablo Torrealba, and with his sub-160-pound frame chugging along, made it all the way around the bases for his second career homer — and first inside the parker. While it may not have been the most important moment of Whitaker’s career, it does demonstrate the excitement with which he exploded onto the scene in his rookie season.

4th Rookie of the Year

This may not be an on-field moment, per se, but rather validation that the Tigers were building a strong foundation following the triumphs of the 60s and lows of the mid-70s.

At age 20, Whitaker slashed .285/.361/.357 during the 1978 season en route to a sizable victory in Rookie of the Year voting over Brewers infielder Paul Molitor, Angels third baseman Carney Lansford, Royals pitcher Rich Gale and Trammell.

And, not for nothing, the Tigers’ young infield duo propelled the team to an 86-76 record that season, starting a streak of 11 straight years with a record above .500.

6. 1984 World Series

Even though Whitaker, as the Tigers’ leadoff man, didn’t pick up an RBI during the 1984 World Series — therefore depriving him of a true “World Series moment” akin to that of teammate Kirk Gibson — he contributed to the series win by collecting five hits, four walks and a team-high six runs scored.

With Detroit holding a 2-1 series lead heading into a pivotal Game 4 against the San Diego Padres, Whitaker got on base twice ahead of Trammell — once on an error — who turned both of those opportunities into two-run homers that accounted for every run in a 4-2 victory for the Tigers that would put a strangehold on the series.

Detroit won it all — and Whitaker’s second daughter was born — the following day.

7. Home run over the roof at Tiger Stadium

May 13, 1985

Who said this man’s bat doesn’t have enough pop?

Whitaker found his power stroke in 1985, hitting 21 home runs (his first of four seasons of 20-plus homers) to set the single-season franchise record for a Tigers second baseman — a mark that he would top with 28 in 1989.

All things considered, his fourth home run of that season, off Burt Hooton of the Texas Rangers, might be the most impressive of his career: He belted a leadoff home run in the first inning over the roof at Tiger Stadium, just the 20th time that it had been done to that point.

“That home run was just another hit to me. I knew I hit the ball good. Where it went… doesn’t really matter to me,” Whitaker told reporters after the game.

8. Homering off Gooden in All Star Game

July 15, 1986

Technically, Whitaker didn’t account for the winning RBI in the 1986 All-Star Game, but his two-run home run off Dwight “Doc” Gooden in the second inning did make the difference in what’d turn out a 3-2 win for the American League.

But to really understand why this is one of the most iconic moments of his career, you have to 1.) remember that Whitaker was one of the more under-appreciated players league-wide and 2.) understand that Gooden was an absolute menace in the first two seasons of his career, boasting a home run per nine of 0.4 between 1985-86.

9. Walk-off grand slam vs. Cleveland

June 21, 1994

By 1994, the second-to-last year of Whitaker and Trammell’s careers, the Tigers as a franchise were reeling. They’d missed the playoffs six straight seasons and the careers of the two holdover stars from the “Bless You Boys” were winding down.

But near the halfway point of the season, as they welcomed in the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians, they were still in the playoff race.

After entering the ninth inning with a 5-1 deficit, Detroit plated two runners to bring up Whitaker with the bases loaded and one out in a 5-3 game. Whitaker brought Tiger Stadium to its feet with a home run into the upper deck in right field that brought Detroit within six games of first place in the AL East.

10. Out with a bang

Sept 13, 1995

The Tigers finished the 1995 season, Whitaker’s last in baseball, 26 games out of first place. The season was over early and Whitaker played just 84 games due to injury. It probably wasn’t realized at the time, but his final hit would wind up on Sept. 13 against the Milwaukee Brewers.

He stepped to the plate against Mike Fetters with two runners on and a one-run deficit. Much like his first home run, it’s probably safe to assume he was just trying to keep the line going. And also like his first home run, he stroked a home run to deep right field to give the Tigers a walk-off victory.

Whitaker would get 12 more plate appearances over six games to close the season, but it appears he was satisfied with his work. His last hit would stand as a three-run, walk-off home run in front of the Detroit crowd.

nbianchi@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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