(Check out our other player card posts here.)

There are moments in every life that change the course of history — on at least some scale. If that sounds dramatic, then consider the joint case of Rick Leach and the Detroit Tigers, and the day they had on March 24, 1984.

It was a day that not only upheaved Leach’s world but also rendered his newly-minted 1984 Topps card obsolete before we could even toss it in the commons bin.

 

1984 topps rick leach

 

In case you don’t have your calendar handy, that day was a Saturday, just 10 days before the Tigers opened their season with an 8-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins in the Metrodome.

And in case you don’t have your baseball history book handy, that win was the first of nine in a row that set up Detroit for a historic 35-5 start.

But on the morning of March 24, the Tigers weren’t yet a juggernaut.

Sure, they had finished with a strong 92-70 record in 1983, good enough for second place in the AL East. Problem was, the first-placers were the Baltimore Orioles, who went 98-64 and waltzed all the way to the World Series title over the “Wheeze Kids” Philadelphia Phillies.

And, yes, the Tigers had a strong young nucleus that included Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Dan Petry, and Jack Morris, with others like Kirk Gibson and Barbaro Garbey threatening to break out. And a complement of veteran players like Chet Lemon and Darrell Evans steadied the ship as the youngsters got situated at the helm.

Detroit was building momentum — in that glacial, season-to-season baseball sense that keeps baseball fans holding on all through the long winter — but there were no guarantees what 1984 would bring.

For his part, Rick Leach was no stranger to glory. Although the Philadelphia Phillies had selected him in the 11th round of the 1975 draft, Leach instead enrolled at the University of Michigan. He became the Wolverines starting quarterback in the second game of his freshman season and was key in their win over bitter rival Ohio State that fall.

Leach continued his diamond escapades at Michigan, too, and the Phillies took another shot at him after his junior season, this time in the 24th round of the 1978 draft. But by that point, Leach was the three-year starting quarterback for a national powerhouse. He shunned MLB again and led the Wolverines to a #5 overall finish while himself landing in third place in the Heisman Trophy voting after the season.

 

1984 topps rick leach (back)

 

With his stellar college football career finally in the books, Leach turned his attention one more time to the diamond. After hitting .404 as a junior and .315 but with newfound power and good speed as a senior, Leach set himself up for a tough decision.

In April, the Montreal Alouettes offered Leach a five-year contract to play in the Canadian Football League (CFL).

In May, the Denver Broncos picked Leach in the fifth round (132nd overall) of the NFL draft.

In June, his hometown Tigers drafted him in the first-round with the 13th overall pick.

Although he had become identified so strongly with football, Leach told MLive in 2017 that the choice to pursue baseball as a career was pretty easy and one he never second-guesses.

And, so, Rick Leach began his professional baseball journey in that summer of 1979 as a member of the Single-A Lakeland Tigers. The next spring, he headed to the Triple-A Evansville Triplets, spending all season and the first 13 games of 1981 in southeastern Indiana.

But as April waned and baseball moved toward the horrendous players’ strike that would fracture the 1981 season, Detroit wanted to get a first-hand look at their young outfielder. The big break came on April 30, when the Tigers traveled to the Kingdome to take on the Seattle Mariners.

With the Tigers leading 2-0  in the bottom of the ninth inning, Leach relieved Rich Hebner at first base and recorded all three putouts as Dave Rozema induced groundouts from Bruce Bochte, Julio Cruz, and Lenny Randle to finish off his masterful two-hit shutout.

Leach was a late defensive replacement again the next day and then, on May 2, he lined out in his first Big League plate appearance while pinch-hitting for Lynn Jones. Finally, on May 6, Leach started at first base against the Oakland A’s and coaxed three walks from Billy Martin’s staff. Leach started again on May 7 and recorded his first two hits while also driving in a run.

All told, Leach made 54 appearances in that 1981 season, batting just .193 and swatting a single home run. That bought him some more time at Evansville, but he made it back to Detroit for 82 games in 1982, hitting .239.

Leach spent all of 1983 in the Major Leagues and pulled his average up to .248 in 262 plate appearances over 99 games. That included 51 starts at first and 10 more in the outfield. He was the primary backup at first base, and it might have been reasonable to think that Leach’s fortunes were about to spike when Detroit let incumbent Enos Cabell walk in free agency that November.

Indeed, the Tigers entered Spring Training with Leach, at age 26, as their most ostensibly viable first-base candidate.

But then came March 24.

On that day, with teams set to come north and begin the cold early season schedule, general manager Jim Campbell hooked up with his Philadelphia Phillies counterpart, Bill Giles. By the time they were done wheeling and dealing, the Tigers had shipped slugger Glenn Wilson and catcher/DH john Wockenfuss to the Phils in exchange for reliever Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman.

Bergman, it should be noted, was only a Phillie in name and only briefly — Giles had acquired the infielder from the San Francisco Giants in exchange for Alejandro Sanchez earlier in the day.

And the Tigers weren’t done, either, because Bergman created a logjam at first base. How many part-time first-base types does one team need, even a  team with hopes of contending?

As it turned out, the answer was one less than the Tigers had, so they released Rick Leach.

Of course, it was no easy feat to keep up with rapid-fire transactions back in those days. There was no internet (that we knew of), and most fans got their baseball news in spurts from the nightly sportscast, the daily Sunday local paper, and the talking heads on the game of the week. It might have been months before fans in, say, St. Louis, realized that the Leach deal had gone down.

 

1984 topps traded rick leach

 

Even then … would they have cared?

Maybe not, but baseball cards collectors have always been a bit fussier than our non-hobbyists counterparts. We want our cards to be accurate, and we want them to be accurate now.

And as the 1984 season unfolded, Detroit Tigers cards garnered a lot of attention. So did their box scores.

As we hunkered down on those early-season Sunday mornings to try and figure out how the Tigers were winning everything, our new cards were close at hand. It didn’t take long to figure out that Willie Hernandez was in the wrong uniform, and we knew we’d have to wait until November for Topps to get it right in their Traded set.

And Barbaro Garbey (?!) was leading the world in hitting, but he was nowhere to be found on our checklists. Something else to look forward to that fall.

If we were paying really close attention, we might have also noticed the disconnect between Bergman’s Giants cardboard and his Detroit stats.

Then, finally, there were the missing men. When you lined up your 1984 Tigers cards — Topps or Fleer or Donruss — these were the guys that seemed to have disappeared in the new season.

Where was John Wockenfuss in the Tiger stat lines? Had he retired? He certainly looked old enough on his latest cards.

But what about Rick Leach? Where was he?

He certainly didn’t look old on his cards, and looked ready for baseball battle on his 1984 Topps pasteboard in particular.

As it turns out, Leach had just moved his show up the road.

On April 3, the eve of the regular season, the Toronto Blue Jays signed Leach as a free agent. He played much the same role north of the border as he had in Detroit, picking up a smattering of appearances at first and at the plate.

His playing time dropped to 16 games in 1985 — when the Jays won their first division title — before ballooning to a career-high 110 in 1986, when he added a healthy portion of DH at-bats to his diet. Leach stayed with the Blue Jays through 1988 before one-year stints with the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants to close out his Big League run.

 

1990 topps rick leach

 

For collectors working through the uncertain waters of the 1984 baseball and hobby landscape, though, the answers weren’t easy to come by, and gratification was far from instant.

By the time we finally got our Willie Hernandez Tigers cards and Barbaro Garbey rookie cards, the world had changed.

The Tigers were World Series champions, for one thing.

Hernandez was a Cy Young and MVP winner.

And Garbey wasn’t the sensation we thought he might be, having been eclipsed by Don Mattingly’s assault on the AL batting title and Alvin Davis’s rookie-of-the-year campaign in Seattle and Dwight Gooden’s sizzling fastball with the New York Mets.

All of those guys lit up our Topps Traded and Fleer Update sets that November, among about 100 cards of filler that showcased lesser lights in their new uniforms — some of which were already old news by that point.

It was there, among the background noise that most of us finally learned of Rick Leach’s fate, if we bothered to notice.

By the swift stroke of a pen at the very end of Spring Training, Leach had missed out on a historic run that most of us assumed he had witnessed firsthand.

After all, that’s what our baseball cards told us all summer long.

(Check out our other player card posts here.)

Rick Leach 1989 Donruss #638 ~ Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Card

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1978 Michigan Wolverines College Football Pocket Schedule Rick Leach

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BO SCHEMBECHLER & Rick Leach Michigan Football pp SIGNED 8"x10" Photo

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LOU WHITAKER/RICK LEACH/LANCE PARRISH/FRANK TANANA Tigers Signed Cards

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1984 Fleer Update #71 Rick Leach PSA 10 (BB01)

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