One thing we have learned in baseball is that first impressions do not always offer a glimpse of things to come.
Sometimes they do, but many times they don’t.
Mark Fidrych for instance turned out to be the real deal. So did Denny McLain.
Fidrych’s first Tigers start was a gem. The Bird authored a complete game, two-hitter in his first starting assignment against the Cleveland Indians in May of 1976.
McLain meanwhile, beat the White Sox allowing only one run in nine innings with eight strikeouts in his first start in the Old English D in 1963.
Yet, for every Fidrych and McLain, there is a Van Hekken and Timmermann.
The following pitchers dazzled in their first start as a Tiger, only to soon thereafter never be heard from again.
September 3, 2002-Andy Van Hekken
In an otherwise uninspiring season, the Tigers were enroute to a 55 win campaign when Van Hekken provided an entertaining night at Comerica Park.
In front of 11,635 fans, the native of Holland, Mich. fired a gem in front of roughly 100 of his of family and friends.
Van Hekken fired a complete game shutout against the Indians, allowing 8 hits while walking two and striking out one. Showing the poise of a 10-year veteran, Van Hekken became the first Tiger to pitch a shutout in his debut since 1933 when Schoolboy Rowe blanked the White Sox.
The victory would be Van Hekken’s lone career win. He would make only four more starts down the stretch in 2002 and would not see a major league mound again.
He would spend a total of 13 seasons in the minor leagues and also made stops in Korea and Japan.
But, for one night in 2002, the native Michigander lived a dream during one magical night at Comerica Park.
May 31, 1979-Pat Underwood
In 1976, the Tigers owned the 2nd overall pick in the amateur draft. After the Astros selected Floyd Bannister with the first pick, the Tigers grabbed a high school pitcher out of Kokomo High in Indiana named pat Underwood. Underwood rose quickly through the Tigers minor league system and just three years later made his big league debut.
It was anything but a normal debut. On May 31, 1979, at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, Underwood made his first start in a major league uniform. The opposing pitcher that day was a familiar face. As fate would have it, Pat’s brother Tom was starting for the Blue Jays. It would be the first time in major league history that a pitcher would make his big league debut against his brother. The game did not disappoint.
Pat retired the first 12 hitters that he faced that evening and before the night was over, he would out-duel his brother Tom with 8 1/3 brilliant innings, allowing only three hits and no runs in a 1-0 Tigers win. Growing up, Tom taught his younger brother how to throw a slider and a changeup and both pitches were on display that night.
Unfortunately for Pat, his first start would be his best. After parts of three more seasons with the Tigers, he was traded to the Reds and never made it back to the major leagues. Underwood would finish his major league career with a 13-18 record and a 4.43 ERA
June 26, 1972-Bill Slayback
Bill Slayback was in his fourth season in the Tigers organization in 1972. On a Sunday afternoon in June he was preparing for another start with Triple-A Toledo. The very next day he was in Detroit preparing to make his first major league start. Against the New York Yankees.
Slayback was summoned from the minor leagues to pitch for a Tigers staff that included Mickey Lolich, Joe Coleman and Tom Timmermann. All had pitched well. Joe Niekro, meanwhile, was bounced early from his previous start and manager Billy Martin wanted some new blood. Slayback was tabbed to start in place of Niekro.
So, in his first major league start, Slayback was flirting with the unthinkable: no-hitting the Yankees.
Slayback held the Yanks hitless through seven innings before Johnny Callision singled to right field to start the 8th inning. Al Kaline tried to preserved the no-hitter by throwing to first base in hopes of getting Callison
When it was over, Slayback would pitch 8 2/3 innings allowing only two earned runs and striking out five.
Over the next two years, Slayback would make only four more starts and appear in 19 games before his career ended with arm troubles.
June 25, 1971-Bill Gilbreth
In 1971, Gilbreth was 23 years old and toiling in the minor leagues. He was 7-9 at Triple-A Toledo with and ERA north of 4.00.
So when Tigers GM Jim Campbell called him in him at his Toledo apartment, Gilbreth was stunned to learn he was headed to the big leagues.
It was just days earlier that he was considering calling the Tigers to see if he could score some comp tickets to see the Tigers play the Indians. The Tigers did one better, promoting the lefty to Detroit to start against the Tribe.
Gilbreth did not disappoint. The Abilene, TX native fired a complete game, scattering five hits and striking out seven in a 6-1 Tigers win. Willie Horton and Al Kaline each homered to support Gilbreth in his debut.
Two starts later, Gilbreth would author another complete game in a 3-1 win over the Yankees.
That however would be the high point of his major league career. Over the next three years, Gilbreth would make only five relief appearances for the Tigers and Angels.
His career ended following the 1974 campaign.
September 30, 1969-Tom Timmerman
On the second to last day of the 1969 season, the Tigers fate had long been sealed. Trailing the Orioles by 19 games, they would finish a distant 2nd in the American League East, only one year after wining it all.
Moreover, the Tigers would face Dave McNally, who had beaten the Bengals seven straight starts.
Timmermann was 29 years old at the time, a veteran of 10 minor league seasons and sporting a record of 9-2 at Triple-A Toledo. He joined the Tigers in mid-June and pitched out of the bullpen.
With Earl Wilson nursing a sore shoulder, manager Mayo Smith gave him the ball with two days to go in the season.
Timmermann took advantage of his opportunity, earning a complete game win, allowing only three runs. A sparkling debut considering the Orioles would win 109 games that year and featured a lineup that included All-Stars Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Paul Blair.
Despite the outing, the Tigers felt Timmermann’s future was in the bullpen. He would appear in 61 games the following year, all out of the pen.
While the tall right-hander had success in relief for the Tigers, he was traded the Indians in 1973 for Ed Farmer. In two season with the Indians, Timmermann posted an ERA just under 5.00. He was out of baseball following the 1974 season.