This article was written by Don Peterson
Dan Petry was never a showman. He never sought attention. He never won 20 games. But he won between 10 and 19 games the Detroit Tigers for six consecutive seasons, and there is no denying that he was a solid player — or that he was critical to the 1984 Detroit Tigers. He was more than the No. 2 pitcher with 18 wins. His dogged work ethic and persistence epitomized the 1984 Tigers. While others were getting press and magazine articles and huge contracts, Petry simply did his job.
Much has been published about players like Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, and Alan Trammell, but there’s relatively little about Daniel Joseph Petry. Perhaps when one considers his career, personality, and demeanor in comparison with those of the others, it’s not surprising.
He was serious about his craft and worked hard, and he continued doing his job until his arm gave out, at which time he went back and devoted himself to raising a family, including a son who captained the hockey team at Michigan State University and was a second-round draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers.
Petry’s demeanor was consistent with how he viewed what it took to be a big-league pitcher. In his opinion, that required more than simply having an outstanding, durable arm. Sure, that was important, but it was just as important for a pitcher to know how to pitch and to prepare for each batter. He thought that becoming a successful major-league baseball pitcher was 50 percent arm and 50 percent brain. He felt that a pitcher couldn’t be successful without thoughtful consideration of his craft.
Given his emphasis on the mental aspects of pitching, as opposed to merely throwing fastballs, it is not surprising to learn that Petry was born in the academic mecca of Palo Alto, California, at Stanford Hospital, which is a part of Stanford University. Born on November 13, 1958, he was the eldest child of Ron and Aleene Petry.
It was not until his family left Palo Alto when Petry was young and moved to the Anaheim area in Southern California that he began playing various sports in earnest. His athleticism immediately emerged, and he became proficient at all sports. Indeed, he loved playing virtually any sport, including baseball. He would pick up anything he could fit in his hand and throw it at make-believe targets, trees, or his garage door. This would drive his parents, Ron, a chemist with BASF, and Aleene, a phone operator, crazy.
Petry’s earliest memory of playing baseball was of walking to his elementary school and playing baseball all day long. He and his friends would play almost every day. Dan was not a pitcher at this time. He played every position in the field as needed. As is often the case, the kids didn’t always have complete teams on each side, but they would improvise the rules so they could continue playing. They would stop playing only when it got too dark to see the ball.
Petry’s “official” baseball career began when he was 8 years old. For the first time he had a coach, and he played in a “coach-pitch” league. This meant that he got to hit against his own coach. The next year, at the age of 9, he graduated to a league in which the opposing team supplied the pitcher. This, of course, was quite a bit different from batting against his own coach. But he thrived nonetheless.
Though Petry showed outstanding all-around skills at this young age, he didn’t really display any evidence that his future would include winning 125 games as a major-league pitcher for 13 years with four different teams. As a 9-year-old he pitched only once. At 10, he pitched twice. But by the time he reached the age of 11, his coaches began to notice his outstanding arm, and he began pitching more frequently.
Before he began high school, Petry continued playing several positions, including shortstop and center field, as well as pitching. Throughout his youth, he had always dreamed of playing big-league baseball, but he didn’t really care what position he played as long as he was playing it in the major leagues. Nearly every week, he would watch NBC’s Game of the Week on TV, and then he and his friends would go outside and play baseball, pretending to be one of the teams. Though he lived just 10 miles from the California Angels’ home stadium, Petry developed a fondness for the Detroit Tigers. He had watched the Tigers win the 1968 World Series and had learned all their batting stances and pitching motions.
Petry continued playing baseball at El Dorado High School, where he graduated in a class of 200 students. El Dorado subsequently became much larger and its graduates include major leaguers Bret Boone, Phil Nevin, and Brett Tomko. But Petry was the first of the many El Dorado graduates who went on to fame as professional athletes, Olympic athletes, or actors.
El Dorado baseball coach Tim Terrell had Petry focus more on pitching; instead of playing a variety of positions, he only pitched and played shortstop. And he began to notice that he was better than most other players, and certainly most other pitchers. He could throw harder and had better control, and he became more and more dedicated to pitching.
Petry’s dedication led to outstanding results, and he made his mark as a high-school pitcher. In what may seem surprising to many who saw him as a calm, collected big-league pitcher, Petry was known for his bad temper while he was a high-school pitcher. Interestingly enough, Tigers scout Dick Wiencek, who was following his high-school career and rated him more highly than other scouts did, thought that his temper was a good thing and was evidence that he was a fiery competitor.
While he was a senior in high school, Petry’s athletic future was pretty much determined; Wiencek advised him to concentrate on pitching. The scout had an outstanding eye for spotting major-league talent, and was responsible for signing 72 players who reached the major leagues, including Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Mark McGwire, Jim Kaat, Bert Blyleven, Frank Tanana, Steve Kemp, and Jason Thompson. And Wiencek proved to be spot-on about Petry. Dan pitched his high-school team to the state championship, and he was selected to the all-state team.
Based on the advice of Wiencek, the Tigers’ scouting coordinator in California, Detroit selected Petry in the fourth round of the June 1976 draft, the one that many have argued led to their 1984 World Series championship. In the first round the Tigers drafted Pat Underwood, who was gone from the team before 1984, but in subsequent rounds they took Trammell, Petry, and Morris.
Petry was not yet 18 years old, and he had a big decision to make. He had been offered a full scholarship by California State University, and his father, the BASF chemist, was not entirely supportive of Petry’s desire to forgo college and pursue a future in professional baseball. This was a problem, at least at the outset. Petry was not old enough to sign a contract, and he could not sign the Detroit contract without his father’s permission.
His father eventually decided it was best for Petry to follow his dreams, and gave him permission to sign. Petry inked the contract and began his professional baseball career by playing, along with Alan Trammell, for manager Joe Lewis with the Tigers’ affiliate in Bristol, Virginia, in the Rookie-level Appalachian League. Petry, who was still just 17 years old, went 2-3 in 14 starts.
After receiving his professional indoctrination with the Bristol Tigers, Petry began the fast track to Detroit. Over the next three years, before arriving at Detroit, he played at each level in the Tigers’ minor-league system, and he was able to play for managers whom he subsequently viewed as outstanding. In an interview in 2008, Petry looked back on these days with much appreciation. He said he was fortunate to play for “great” managers. He was able to learn how to play the game before he was required to do so in the major leagues.
In 1977, after Bristol, Petry moved on to play for the Lakeland Tigers in the Florida State League, Detroit’s A-ball team. Headed by manager Jim Leyland, the team went 85-53 and Petry was 10-11 as an 18-year-old. Lakeland won the league championship. This was Petry’s first experience with Leyland, who he said had the most influence on his development as a pitcher and as a baseball player.
The following year, 1978, Petry, who had acquired the moniker Peaches, moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he and teammate Tom Brookens played for the Montgomery Rebels of the Southern League, the Tigers’ Double-A team. Eddie Brinkman, Detroit’s gifted shortstop earlier in the decade, managed the club. After Petry went 6-7 with a superb 2.45 ERA in 14 starts, the Tigers promoted him to their Triple-A affiliate, the Evansville Triplets of the American Association. In Evansville, and though still just 19, Petry had a 4-3 record in 13 starts. The Triplets, managed by Les Moss, had a good team, finishing with a 78-58 record. Petry played after the season in the Instructional League, where the Tigers sent their top prospects.
In 1979, Petry was glad to be reunited with Leyland in Evansville. He was 4-3 in 15 starts. Recognizing his ability, the Tigers called him up in midseason, and he got his first taste of major-league ball. Petry was only 20 years old, but he certainly believed that he belonged in the big leagues. And he pitched that way as well. He made his major-league debut on July 8, 1979, losing to the Milwaukee Brewers, 3-1. But he ended the year getting 98 innings of big-league work under his belt and going 6-5 with a 3.95 ERA for the Tigers.
Entering spring training in 1980, Petry fully expected to make the Tigers and head north with the team. But much to his chagrin, he was sent to Evansville. Determined to show that the Tigers should have kept him, he started the season strong, going 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA during the first two weeks.
The Tigers decided that Petry was ready for the big club, and they called him up. Petry pitched well, finishing his rookie year with a 10-9 record and a 3.94 ERA. Except for brief rehabilitation assignments in 1986 and 1988, he never played in the minors again.
In 1981 a players strike shut baseball down for about one-third of the season. During the strike, Petry worked hard to improve his pitching. He was frustrated, though, because he was not seeing the improvement that he expected, and had no live games in which to participate. Finally, though, it suddenly clicked for him. Both manager Sparky Anderson and general manager Bill Lajoie encouraged him to relax and use the strike time to become re-acquainted with his wife. He did so. When he returned after the strike, he was refreshed and ready to pitch. Despite the strike, he still got in 141 innings and posted another 10-9 record, with a much-improved 3.00 ERA.
In 1982, Petry finished ninth in voting for the American League Cy Young Award as a 23-year-old after compiling a 15-9 record and a 3.22 ERA in 35 games, all of which he started. He had eight complete games, one of them a shutout, and pitched 246 innings. He seemed to have a long career ahead of him.
Petry was 19-11 and led American League pitchers with 38 starts in 1983. Baltimore topped Detroit for the American League East crown, but after the season Petry thought the Tigers had a good chance of winning the pennant in 1984. Although Detroit’s won-lost record belied it, they had a great spring training. Still, despite his optimism, Petry was surprised by the team’s 35-5 start. He almost got a no-hitter on April 29 — a 6-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians in which he didn’t give up a hit until there was two outs in the eighth inning.
Petry’s 18-8 mark (with a 3.24 ERA) in 1984 was good for the third-best winning percentage (.692) in the American League, and he was the No. 2 starter for the world champion Detroit Tigers. Petry lost Game Two of the World Series to the Padres (Detroit’s only loss in the Series), and was the starter in the deciding Game Five, but got no decision. He finished fifth in voting that year for the American League Cy Young Award.
In 1985 Petry was 15-13. He pitched more than 230 innings for the fourth straight season. He was selected to the All-Star team. But though he was only 26 years old, all the innings and the constant wear and tear on Petry’s arm were beginning to have an effect on him.
In 1986, for the first time in Petry’s career, he went on the disabled list. He missed more than two months after having arthroscopic surgery on his elbow to remove bone chips. His career as a front-line starter was effectively over. He never fully recovered from this operation, and his productivity never reached its former level.
Petry’s ERA ballooned to 5.61 in 1987, and he was traded to California for outfielder Gary Pettis after the season. In 1988 for the Angels, he spent two more months on the disabled list, and he won only three games in his 22 starts. In 1989 he pitched only 51 innings for the Angels and won three games.
A free agent after the 1989 season, Petry returned to the Tigers for 1990, taking a slight cut in pay. He enjoyed a mini-renaissance, going 10-9 in 23 starts. But in June of 1991, the Tigers traded him to the Atlanta Braves for Victor Rosario, an infielder. Less than two months later the Braves sent him to the Boston Red Sox for Mickey Pina, a minor league outfielder, and Petry retired after the season ended. He went to spring training the following year with Pittsburgh, which was managed by his old mentor, Jim Leyland. But he just didn’t have it anymore.
Petry was a consistent, durable starter for his 13-year career. He pitched for the Tigers for nearly a decade, and showed flashes of brilliance. Of the six straight seasons in which he won 10 or more games for the Tigers, he had at least 15 victories in four of those years. For his full 13-year career, he was 125-104 in 370 games with a 3.95 ERA. He had 11 shutouts and more than 1,000 strikeouts. In 2009 a baseball researcher called him the fourth-best fielding pitcher in major-league baseball from 1900 to 2008.
Though he had opportunities to coach or manage at the minor-league level, Petry didn’t stay in baseball after he retired. Instead, he wanted to devote more time to his family. He worked in sales for International Paper for 16 years, and in 2010 was at work for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, selling luxury boxes at the Lions’ new stadium, Ford Field. Petry married his wife, Christine, in 1982. Their son Jeff was a second-round pick of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. Jeff was named USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year for the 2006-07 season while playing with the Des Moines Buccaneers. As a junior, Jeff was a captain for the Michigan State University hockey team in 2009-2010 before signing with Edmonton.
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David, Kurt A. From Glory Days: Successful Transitions of Professional Detroit Athletes. Baltimore: Publish America. 2007.
Detroit News. The 1984 Detroit Tigers: The Magic Season. Indianapolis: News Books International. 1984.
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Knox, John A. “The 100 Top-Fielding MLB Pitchers, Circa 1900-2008.” In The Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Summer 2009). Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research.
Peterson, Don. Interview with Dan Petry. August 2008.