The Tigers have experienced their share of deaths recently, few of which, since the shocking and unexpected death of Mark Fidrych, have been entirely unexpected. I mean, people get old. When I see that a player from the 50's has passed, I am respectfully saddened and accepting. People die.
But it seems just a little too soon for players from the 1968 Tigers to die. A little too soon, and wrong.
The '68 Tigers are Detroit's legacy. Kaline, Horton, Lolich, McLain, Freehan -- I can go on and on listing the great players (borderline Hall of Famers, many) on that team and their legendary status in Detroit.
Personally, I'm more of an '84 kind of guy, but when you think about it, it is that '68 team that has had a more lasting impact on the franchise. Kaline is in the Hall of Fame. The injustices of Trammell and Whitaker (and, to a lesser degree, Morris) aside, he may be the Tigers last HOFer for another 20 years. Kaline and Horton have statues in the outfield, and their numbers retired. They are special assistants to the front office. That '84 team? Tram was given the boot and is coaching with Gibby in Arizona. Morris is a radio announcer for the Twins. Whitaker is a recluse who no longer participates in the team's spring training for some reason. Lance Parrish had a whole career after Detroit, and was on Trammell's staff when he managed here.
The bottom line: none of them are here. None of them are part of the franchise. None of them are part of Detroit.*
Back to 1968. This was the team of my parents generation. I grew up hearing stories about the 1968 Tigers. Al Kaline was my dad's hero. My mom liked Rocky Colavito. When I met Don Wert somewhat randomly last year, I texted my dad and he responded with a few messages talking about his All Star season in '68 and how his hit clinched the pennant that year.
Seriously, who else knows who Don Wert is? These are the stories I heard growing up. These are the players that my parents knew the way that I can talk about Craig Monroe and Marcus Thames and Ramon Santiago and Nate Robertson and a whole collection of nobodies on the 2006 Tigers team.
These players are not supposed to die. It just feels too soon.
Jim Northrup was one of those players. I cannot tell you the number of old Tigers stories I heard that referenced Northrup one way or another. Whether it was about all the Grand Slams he hit, or about something minor he did that someone like Kaline or Willie or Gates or Rocky capitalized on or whatever, Northrup was, and remains, a familiar name to me.
This is in no small part because he was 1) good and 2) Won the World Series for the Tigers.
Game 7. Two on, two out in the 7th inning. Tigers have been held scoreless by Bob Gibson up to this point. Northrup rockets a triple well over the head of Curt Flood** to drive in the go-ahead runs. Freehan doubles to drive him in right after. Tigers win their first World Series in 23 years.
Northrup wrapped up that World Series having hit two home runs off Bob Gibson, with 7 hits and 8 RBIs overall. He slugged .536.
I'm ashamed to say that just last week I had stumbled upon a card set that I had never really paid attention to before. It was 2004 Upper Deck Legends "Timeless Teams." The purpose of the set is to highlight rosters of classic teams. For the Tigers this mean 1968, 1972, 1984 and 1987. In addition to the large team set (which I found and bought and am awaiting delivery on), every card in the set also has an autographed version which, although overwhelming, is really quite awesome when you consider that there are guys in this set that have never really received that type of cardboard recognition.
One of the cards (two actually, '68 and '72) that I found was of Jim Northrup.
It's a nice looking card and I thought to myself: "Cool, a card of Jim Northrup! I wonder what he's doing now?"
But I was doing other stuff and didn't really bother to look it up. I thought about bidding on the card, which was like $4 at the time, and vowed to check on it later and would pick it up if it was still cheap. Later came and went, I forgot to bid, the card sold for under $5 and three days later I read that Jim Northrup has died. I feel like an ass.
RIP Jim Northrup. I'll never forget about you again.
*This is, I believe, partly the fault of ownership and management. Trammell and his staff, including Gibson and Parrish, were given such a disrespectful heave-ho after the 2005 season that I don't blame them. Was it a mistake to fire them? No, not really. But just pushing them out the door made transparent the fact that they were only brought on in the first place as figureheads--known players that could help the fans ignore that there was an abysmal product on the field. Once the product started getting better, the team no longer needed to exploit the old players and off they went.
**No, he couldn't have gotten it even if he hadn't slipped.