What was the turning point in building the juggernaut 1984 Detroit Tigers?

Well, as with many teams, it’s tough to pick a single moment as the one that turned the tide, but there were certainly some developments that led the Tigers from a ho-hum showing in the 1970s to a World Series title and perennial contention through most of the 80s.

Chief among those was the nearly simultaneous (in baseball terms, at least) maturation of homegrown talent like Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris, and Kirk Gibson.

It didn’t hurt things when Detroit signed “aging” free agent slugger Darrell Evans to DH prior to the 1984 season, either. Though his numbers were meager at the plate that Olympic summer, he’d go on to lead the American League with 40 home runs in 1985.

Howdy Doody played a key role as Detroit stayed in the hunt each year through 1988, too.

And, of course, there was the ballyhooed traded that brought Willie Hernandez to the Motor City at the end of Spring Training in 1984. All the reliever did that year was win both the Cy Young and MVP awards as Detroit streaked to a title.

But one guy who sort of fell in between all of that, and who pretty much goes uncelebrated these days, is centerfielder Chet Lemon.

After spending the first seven seasons of his career with the Chicago White Sox (and picking up two All-Star nods along the way), Lemon found himself in Detroit for the 1982 season, traded in exchange for Steve Kemp.

The move came too late for Topps to catch it in their base set, sparing us a Lemon-y airbrush job in the process.

But the new Tiger was there waiting for us in his Detroit duds the next fall, in the 1982 Topps Traded set (#62T):

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And, while the slugging Kemp lasted just one season on the South Side, Lemon settled in with the Tigers.

In 1982, he hit .266 with 19 home runs and 52 RBI.

The next summer, he bumped those totals up to 24 homers and 69 ribbies, and, though his average fell to .255, his OPS was nearly identical — .815 in ‘82 against .814 in ‘83.

What’s more, Lemon was on the field a lot more in 1983, playing in 145 games after making into just 125 the season before.

Chester Earl also enjoyed a defensive turnaround in 1983, helping lift his overall WAR from 3.0 to 6.2 (via Baseball Reference).

And then, in 1984, when the Tigers sprinted out to an 8-0 record, and then to a 35-5 mark, Lemon settled in to do what he always did — produce consistently good-to-great results.

By the end of the season, with the Tigers having won the AL East by 15 games, Lemon’s totals stood at .287/20 HR/76 RBI in 141 games played.

Coupled with another good-to-great season on the grass, Lemon again finished with 6.2 WAR, second on the team behind Trammell.

Now, Lemon tanked the ALCS, failing to get on base even one time in 13 plate appearances as Detroit swept the Royals in three games.

He righted his ship a bit in time for the World Series, hitting .294, though scoring and driving in just one run each.

And after the Tigers took home the title by downing the Padres in five?

Well, it was more of the same for The Jet, as Lemon remained with Detroit through the rest of his career before hanging up his spikes in 1990 at age 35.

Now, to be fair, those final six years did feature a steady decline in his numbers, but he still ended up as something like the 21st best centerfielder in baseball history, by measure of JAWS.

Not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Lemon, huh?

Maybe it should be.

And then there’s this — Lemon’s last year as Detroit’s regular centerfielder came in 1987.

They won another division title that summer (thanks to some help from John Smoltz and Doyle Alexander) but would then have to wait until 2006 before tasting October baseball again, even with the advent of realignment and the Wild Card.

Coincidence?

Maybe.

But there’s no doubt the Tigers of the 1980s — and the 1982 Topps Traded set — wouldn’t have been the same without Chet Lemon.

1982 Topps #434 Lawrence Taylor ROOKIE RC NEW YORK GIANTS

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1982 Topps Baseball Singles-You Pick Your Cards

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1982 TOPPS BASEBALL TRADED YOU PICK FROM SCANS

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