So Long Sparky!
- Updated: November 6, 2010
This article was originally posted by Anup Sinha who is the Executive Editor of Bucs Prospects. He also happens to be a former writer here at Baseball Reflections for a short time!
I realize this (the origin of this article is the site Bucs Prospects) is a Pittsburgh Pirates blog and perhaps the older fans don’t share my fondness for the man whose Big Red Machine ran over the Pirates in three separate National League Championship Series (1970, 1972, and 1975). But I think Sparky Anderson is one of those special figures whose appeal goes beyond the cities where he managed. Baseball fans as a whole were touched not only by the greatness of his clubs but by his unique style and charisma.
I, of course, came across Sparky years later as a Tigers fan growing up in Detroit. I watched my first Tigers game on TV on May 31st, 1979, and Sparky was hired exactly two weeks later.
Just as Lance Parrish was my definition of a catcher and Lou Whitaker the epitome of a second baseman, Sparky was the only manager I knew for a long time. I assumed all managers had white hair, big ears, and talked in double negatives. I assumed they all told stories and half-truths and made reporters chuckle.
I assumed they were all funny and warm and endearing and loved the game as much as life itself.
It was many years later before I realized that we had something special in Detroit.
Normal catchers weren’t 6’3”, 240 lb pieces of granite who hit the ball to the moon and carried a howitzer under their right shoulder. Normal second basemen didn’t hit lefthanded and turn double plays by shooting bullets to first base in their sleep. Normal pitchers weren’t as scary and intimidating as Jack Morris.
And normal managers were nothing like Sparky Anderson.
While the fans and the local media were excited when the Big Red Machine legend managed his first game on June 14th, 1979, the players were rather upset over GM Jim Campbell’s firing of previous manager Les Moss. Moss had managed many of the young Tigers in the minors and was a baseball lifer, immensely popular with the team.
But over the years, many of the same players grew to accept and love Sparky Anderson. Kirk Gibson was just quoted as saying that he and Alan Trammell were determined to “keep Sparky alive” as the 2011 managerial brain trust of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Gibson is the same bull-headed young outfielder who once knocked the old manager down after he feigned a football-style tackle while Gibson was jogging in the outfield. Gibson also once jumped the manager’s desk to grab his throat after Sparky told him he was being benched.
It became apparent to me over the years that Sparky wasn’t always the lovable grandfather he appeared to the cameras, he could actually be quite hard on his players and the clashes weren’t all that uncommon. There’s no way Sparky would have won three World Series rings if he wasn’t much tougher behind closed doors.
Still, he worked hard to cultivate his cuddly image, knowing the influence he had as a role model and as the face of the Detroit Tigers. There are countless Detroit-area kids like myself who grew up in the 1980s and were impressed upon by his generous public nature.
I’d like to share a personal story, of my only meeting with Sparky Anderson.
Back in January of 2007, I was working for the St. Louis Cardinals and weeks away from moving out of southern California. I’d lived there three years and had accepted a new role with the club in Jupiter, Florida.
While at a baseball scouts banquet, I mentioned to a couple at the table that my one regret of leaving southern California was that “I never got a chance to meet Sparky Anderson”, who was living in Thousand Oaks.
Both of their eyes lit up. “You know he’s going to be speaking at the College of the Canyons Hall of Fame Banquet next week, don’t you?”
It turned out this couple couldn’t make it, but they were good friends of Mike Gillespie’s daughter. Gillespie was the long-time baseball coach for the University of Southern California, another person I thought highly of, and he was being honored by the College of the Canyons for his years as their baseball and football coach prior to USC. Sparky was going to be the headline speaker.
So I put on a suit and went to the College of the Canyons banquet. I came early and within a half hour, Sparky walked in right beside me.
I worked up the nerve to say “hello” but after two sentences it was like we were old friends. I told him I was a scout for the Cardinals, but I’d grown up a Tigers fan and that he and his teams were a big part of whom I’d become as an adult. I was the son of Indian immigrants who grew to love and make a career out of baseball because of those teams.
He mentioned how glad he was for us and for Tony LaRussa becoming the second manager to win the World Series in both leagues just a few months before. I was a little surprised he rooted against the Tigers and he added with a swat of the hand, “Oh, I was just tired of being the only manager to win in both leagues!”
Someone had to whisk him away and I thought to myself that if I didn’t hear another word from Sparky, it would still be one of the most memorable evenings of my life.
Later on, I heard him talking to someone about Pete Rose, a story I must have heard a hundred times already between radio and television. I sort of meandered behind him when he stopped in mid-sentence.
“This young man here,” he started, while putting a hand on my shoulder. “He’s a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals.”
Sparky opened up his trademark smile and his hand shivered on my shoulder in a way that made me feel like Kirk Gibson after he hit the 1984 World Series-winning home run off Goose Gossage. For just a moment, I felt all the magic and charisma that was Sparky Anderson and I still get a goose bump when I remember it today.
Later that evening, Sparky signed his autobiography for me and we got someone to snap the picture of us together.
I guess I never rooted against Sparky, he was always on my side. I can only imagine what Pirate fans felt like in the 1970s, thrice missing the World Series because of his Big Red Machine. The Bucs finally beat the Reds in 1979, but Sparky had moved on to Detroit. Would he have been able to out-manage Chuck Tanner and stop The Family from going to the Series?
I’m sure the Dodgers and their fans harbored the same bitterness in the earlier part of the decade having to play in the same division. I often wondered if anyone would have heard of Tommy Lasorda had Sparky not been fired by the Reds!
Nevertheless, I hope that all of his old rivals can appreciate just what he’s done and how he’s done it. Whether you rooted for him or not, whether you thought he was a good manager, there’s no question Sparky was great for Baseball. To borrow Sparky’s own lingo, “There won’t ever be no other.”