By Bill Dow
During the Detroit Tigers’ exciting 1987 campaign that saw them steal the division title from Toronto on the last game of the season, a colorful and free spirited utility infielder named Jim Walewander became a household name in the Motor City.
On the day he was called up to the majors on May 31, 1987, Walewander doubled in his first at bat. But soon he drew even more attention for his carefree personality, and his affinity for the punk band “The Dead Milkmen.” On the back of his rookie Score baseball card it reads in part:
“But it was Jim’s off-beat approach to life that endeared him to his teammates. He became an instant legend in Detroit for his devotion to an obscure punk-rock band called “The Dead Milkmen” and for his unusual wardrobe. ‘I’ve got by whole thrift-shop outfit on,” he said one day. “Three quarters of my clothing are obsolete and one-quarter is in working order.’
“If you sit next to him on the bench long enough,” said veteran Darrell Evans, “he’ll come up with something you wouldn’t think about.”
“Let’s just say he’s different,” added manager Sparky Anderson.”
On July 26th the 26 year old saw his heroes play a gig in Hamtramck and met the Capitol Records artist backstage. “Wales” reciprocated and invited the band to come to Tiger Stadium the next day to meet Sparky Anderson whose taste in music let’s just say did not actually align with Philadelphia based punk rockers.
Sparky met the boys in the band and even posed for a picture on the dug out steps. He later said: “One of them had on combat boots, a camouflage army shirt, and an earring. I told him, ‘Son, don’t take no prisoners.’
Unfortunately The Dead Milkmen did not stay for the game that Sunday afternoon, because they missed the heroics of their biggest fan.
In the bottom of the 6th inning with a man on and the Tigers clinging to a 2-1 lead, Walewander slammed his first (of only 3) major league home runs as the ball slammed off the right centerfield upper deck, a shot that turned out to be the game winning hit in a 6-2 victory. Walewander was given the baseball after the game.
Reporters had a field day with Walewander.
“Did the Dead Milkmen give you inspiration?”
“No, they gave me a T-shirt.”
“What did you do with the home run ball?”
“I put it in my glove compartment with the one from my first hit. When I get enough balls to fill the glove compartment, I’ll buy a new car.”
“What are your goals?”
“I want to be on the Bozo the Clown Show in Chicago again. I was on it as a kid but I never got the bean bag in the third hole.”
Walewander’s real value to the ’87 Tigers, (besides the levity he brought to the ball club) was as a pinch runner in the late innings.
In the top of the 11th inning in a crucial series in Toronto the last week of the season, the speedy Walewander ignored third base coach Alex Grammas and raced all the way home from second on Kirk Gibson’s single sliding head first with what turned out to be the winning run. Instead of losing and being 4 ½ games behind Toronto, the Tigers closed the gap to 2 1/2 games. The following weekend, on the second to the last game of the season, Walewander did it again as a pinch runner when he raced home with the winning run on Alan Trammell’s single in the 12th inning. The next day the Tigers beat Toronto 1-0 to win the division.
Jim Walewander appeared in 53 games for the Tigers in ’87, 88 games the following season, and then briefly appeared with the Yankees in 1990 and the Angels in 1993 before ending his baseball career in 1994 in the minor leagues.
But as long as that exciting 1987 Tiger team is remembered, Jim Walewander will always be fondly recalled.