Ex-Tiger Herndon enjoying life in Lakeland

Ex-Tiger Herndon enjoying life in Lakeland

Published Aug. 20, 2012 11:37 a.m. ET

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Larry Herndon wasn’t the World Series MVP for the Tigers in 1984. That title went to Alan Trammell.

But it was Herndon who set the tone for the five-game series triumph over the Padres, and then ended it by clutching the final out of Game 5 in left field at Tiger Stadium as the old ballpark erupted with joy.

Herndon’s two-run homer off Mark Thurmond in Game 1 put Detroit ahead, 3-2, in the fifth inning and Jack Morris shut the door as the Tigers won by that score. San Diego won Game 2, and it’s quite possible the Series could have had a different outcome without that blast.

Yet, Herndon, who did not like being on stage, had his clothes taken out of his locker and into a back room so he could dress quickly and escape the media horde.

It was his biggest moment, and he left the bows to the rest of his teammates.

That is why Herndon, while being one of the most beloved members of the’84 Tigers inside the clubhouse, was not that widely known outside the team’s inner circle.

Everybody liked him well enough. He was polite. But fans really missed out by not getting to see what made him tick.

It’s better late than never, though.

Let me share with you a conversation I had with him recently in the dugout at Bright House Field. Batting practice for the Lakeland Flying Tigers, who employ him as the hitting coach and first base coach, had just ended and the game with the Clearwater Threshers was 90 minutes away.

I shook hands with Herndon, and the years seemed to melt away.

“I’ve never been happier in my life,” Herndon said with a downright giddy smile.

“Why?” he said, repeating my question. “Well, it’s baseball. It’s being in Florida. It’s the spirit of athletics. It’s being part of the Tigers -- a very special organization. A family is a beautiful thing, and that’s what the Tigers are.”

He held a big cigar in one hand. That’s what a guy who celebrates every day does.

“I split time between my home in Mississippi and here,” Herndon said. “You can’t beat it.”

Just like nobody could beat the ’84 Tigers.

They were 35-5 out of the box, and played so dominantly that Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson always called it one of his hardest seasons. The fact that anything short of winning it all would be a huge disappointment haunted him, but didn’t claim him.

The Tigers won a club-record 104 games that year; finished 15 games in front of the pack; swept the Royals in the playoffs; and limited the Padres to one win in the Series.

“We had the most fun you can have in baseball that year,” Herndon said. “You can’t have more fun! That was a world championship team -- a team that never stopped loving one another.

“It’s a brotherhood. It is a group of brothers. We talk all the time still.”

Who is his best friend among all those brothers?

“Dan Petry,” he said without hesitation. “What a great guy Dan is.”

Herndon played left field next to All-Star centerfielder Chet Lemon.

Now, he coaches a Lakeland left fielder named Marcus Lemon, Chet’s 24-year-old son.

“To coach Chet’s son,” Herndon said, “man, what a treat. He laughs like his dad, moves like his dad. It’s just crazy. I look over at him and say, ‘That’s a young Chester!’ ”

Herndon looked down and chuckled at the thought.

He said he feels blessed to enjoy the game and life this much.

“That brotherhood we have started with Sparky,” Herndon said. “We all loved the man. We all miss the man.”

He misses Tiger Stadium, too.

“Do you remember the smells of that place?” Herndon asked.

I nodded.

“You’d walk in and smell the fresh-cut grass and hot dogs on the grill,” Herndon continued. “I’d talk to the people preparing the hot dogs all the time. They were great.

“I love that place -- still do. I could not bring myself to drive by it when it was getting torn down. That last game there, when we all ran onto the field one last time, I can still remember standing next to Willie Horton. The man was just sobbing.”

Horton, the left fielder on the 1968 World Series winners, also continues working in the Tigers front office.

Herndon played for Detroit, 1982-88, and was in the starting lineup on opening day every one of those years except the final one. The only other Tigers who started every one of those games were Lou Whitaker, Trammell and Morris.

Herndon hit .333 in both the ’84 Series and ’87 ALCS loss to the Twins. And he led the ’82 Tigers with a .292 average, 92 runs, 179 hits and 13 triples.

Herndon also hit a monstrous homer in the April 6, 1987, season opener off New York Yankees starter Dennis Rasmussen. It exploded off of the facing of the upper deck in dead center, well above the 440-foot sign at field level.

It was one of the two hardest-hit balls I’ve seen -- matching Reggie Jackson’s 1971 All-Star Game launch off the light tower at Tiger Stadium.

On Oct. 4, 1987, Herndon hit a solo homer off Blue Jays starter Jimmy Key to give Frank Tanana all he needed for a 1-0 win that clinched the division on the final day of the season in a showdown game.

He hit his share of very big home runs.

He provides his share of very big smiles.

Larry Herndon could win you games and warm your heart.

Still does.