by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Somewhere along the line, we forget that they are human. We figure they will be there forever, or until they willingly retire to the broadcast booth or the Hall of Fame. Whatever takes them out, it will be something more than pain or exhaustion, right? That’s for us common folk.

If you had to pick two faces you would most expect to see on a late spring day inside the Tigers’ clubhouse, whose would they be? 1) Sparky Anderson — at 55, arguably baseball’s finest manager, and 2) Jack Morris, 34, the star attraction pitcher, the longest-tenured Tiger.

Sparky. Jack. The underlings might come and go, but the manager and the staff ace will remain, right? Haven’t they always been there? Yet Thursday, Morris was placed on the disabled list — for the first time in his career — a forced vacation for at least three weeks; and Anderson, even as his team battled the Cleveland Indians, was far away, on some quiet street in California, under doctor’s orders, trying to recuperate from severe exhaustion.

“The day Sparky went away was really weird,” said relief pitcher Mike Henneman, recalling last Friday. “Usually, you can smell his pipe smoke from the office. He’s always in there by the time I come in. That day, he wasn’t. No pipe smoke. Nothing. I kept looking at the time: 4:30, 4:45, 5 o’clock. Still nobody in that office. Finally, I said to myself, ‘Something’s up. He’s never not here.’ “

He’s never not here. Isn’t that the magic of baseball? Its timelessness? But while the sport may be immortal, the men who create it are not. And sometimes, sadly, they don’t want to admit it. The truth about living a lie

We are fond of the expression, “the sky’s the limit.” It symbolizes the American spirit: Do it all, experience it all, have it all. Nice idea. But never true. We push, we push, and if we are in the limelight, with people slapping our backs, egging us on, wooing, cheering, convincing us we are indeed special, well, we push even harder.

For Sparky Anderson, that meant more than just managing a baseball team. It meant attending every charity benefit, every speech, every cause that came to him like a lost puppy. It also meant swallowing every loss, every bullpen collapse, every strikeout as the Tigers fell to last place. And finally, it meant the drain of putting on a lie — some days bigger than others, but still a lie — a too-happy face that said, “Why worry? Either way, come October, I’ll be at home, playing with my grandchildren.”

Now he is at home, all right, but it is not October, and he was sent there by doctors who saw a man deflated by his own effort. Sparky was noble in some ways, foolish in others, keeping up such an impossibly sunny disposition. But the body gives no credit for good intentions. Run-down is run-down.

Push, push. Smile, smile.

For Jack Morris, it was the game itself, the pitching, every performance a personal challenge to his pride. He is cantankerous, yes, moody, sure, but his blood boils against opponents, game after game, year after year. He does not like to sit. He does not like to leave the game. Doesn’t Morris always make his starts? Hasn’t he won more games than any other pitcher in this decade?

His injury is an elbow problem that team doctor David Collon said may be “a number of weeks old.” X-rays revealed a career’s worth of strain. Quite likely Morris tried, as most athletes will, to play through the pain, to pitch

out of his slump. He does not want to let age beat him. He does not want to acknowledge his internal odometer. Has he really pitched more than 200 innings for seven straight years? That is the baseball equivalent of stocking the shelves, selling the merchandise and driving the trucks.

There’s an old Paul Simon song that says:

“Boy, you better look around,

how long you think you can run that body down?” Other examples around town

Anderson and Morris are hardly the only sportsmen in town who push the outside of that human envelope. Take a look at Jacques Demers toward the end of hockey season; he seems to scream exhaustion. Chuck Daly? That’s one weary cowboy. Consider the pain that Isiah Thomas plays through, broken bones, twisted muscles. Or visit the Lions’ training room on a Monday morning in November, where the bodies creak like doors in a horror movie. “We’re only human,” Chet Lemon said Thursday, shrugging. “All the money in the world won’t change that.”

No, but it can keep you trying. Endorsements. Fame. A chance to help people. Grab them while you can. That is the message to our American sports star, because his shelf life is not long.

After a while, the body simply says, “Enough.” So Thursday, the manager’s office was empty. And the corner where the star pitcher sits, was quiet. They played the game anyway. “It’s weird,” Henneman said, “you get so used to people being around, and all of a sudden when they’re not, you say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, something’s wrong here.’ “

What is learned? Perhaps only the lesson that all athletes learn sooner or later: The sky is not the limit, not even to heroes. Sometimes, the limit is closer to Earth than you think.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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