The old desk was gone. It was a dark wooden thing, with coffee stains, scratches and a drawer that didn’t work. If you pulled that drawer out, it fell in your lap. Never failed. Finally, after many years, Sparky Anderson unscrewed the handle. I guess he got tired of bruises on his knees.
Still, year after year, that desk was there, in the manager’s office of the Tiger Stadium clubhouse. It held Anderson’s coffee cup, his lineup cards, his plate of spaghetti after the games, the ashtray for his pipe — which, if you ask me, is how the desk got so scratched up, Sparky banging his pipe on it all the time.
But on Tuesday morning, the first home game of the 1996 season, the old desk was gone. So was the wood paneling that made Sparky’s office feel like a card room in the back of a pool hall. Gone, too, was a needlepoint portrait that hung on the wall, and the sign that read “Leave me alone, I’m having a crisis.”
And gone was Sparky. There was a new man in his place — a younger, blond-haired, former major league star, who had redecorated the room into something from the ’90s, clean white walls and a black metal desk with a gray-flecked Formica top.
“Is today the opener? That’s right, it is,” Anderson said, sounding like a grandfather, when reached early Tuesday at his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
“I forgot. I’ll tell you what, the sun is shining out here, I got a big glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, and I’m sanding a patio table right now.
“Later on, I’m gonna plant some flowers in the garden. I went to Home Depot and just about cleaned them out.”
What kind of flowers was the Tigers’ former manager planting out there, near the Pacific Ocean, while his old city was celebrating a typical Opening Day in 37-degree weather?
“Pansies,” he said.
Things change. Who are these guys?
Opening Days in baseball are all about rebirth, things starting anew. But I would be lying if I told you Tuesday was like any other Opening Day I have witnessed in the last 11 years in Detroit. In the past, the excitement changed, expectations changed, maybe a couple of free agents changed.
But this year, everything changed. There was a new general manager, a new PR director, a whole new coaching staff, and a roster full of new players that had even the venerable Paul Carey, the radio voice of the Tigers for decades, gazing around the locker room and whispering, “Goodness, I only know three players here.”
Things change. And nowhere was this felt more than in the manager’s office, where Buddy Bell’s new desk holds framed photos of his father and his family. There is also an air purifier on a metal cabinet, and a dark gray Sony
television in the corner. Funny. In all the time Sparky was in Detroit, there was never a television in his office.
“TV?” he laughed over the phone from California. “No, I never got to shop in the TV department. No sir.”
How strange this was, entering the Detroit clubhouse and not finding the small white-haired man with the pipe in his mouth, waxing on about Opening Days of years past, comparing this year’s team to last year’s, saying who was going to be a star — even though we knew he’d change his mind 100 times.
Instead, Anderson had pansies to plant in his garden, and then a golf game with Billy Consolo, another missing face from his coaching staff.
Meanwhile, at the stadium, the new manager was fielding grounders during warmups, and pitching batting practice, and wandering among his troops, clapping hands, having brief conversations.
Later, in the clubhouse, Buddy Bell was asking reporters about Detroit.
“The Pistons play at the Palace, right?”
Yes, he was told.
“That’s a nice facility?”
Very nice, he was told.
“How far is it from here?”
About 30 minutes, he was told.
He nodded, drawing a mental map in head. I remember when Sparky Anderson and Pistons coach Chuck Daly were good buddies, both their teams were enjoying success, and they made commercials together and called each other on the phone.
“Thirty minutes from here?” Bell said. “So . . . the Palace is in Pontiac?”
Things change. The game marches on
Of course, it is still baseball. And the Tigers still wear the olde English D, and they still are owned by Mike Ilitch, and they still have no pitching staff to speak of. Tuesday’s game would go more than three hours, and feature 19 runs — not exactly a defensive battle. But the Tigers won. They beat Seattle, Cecil Fielder hit a grand slam, and 42,000 fans who took the day off from work went home happy, if chilled to the bone.
Still, there has not been an Opening Day that felt as unusually new as this one — not in a long, long time. Yes, Alan Trammell was at shortstop, but his second baseman was not named Lou Whitaker, but Mark Lewis. The starting pitcher was named Scott Aldred. The first relief pitcher was someone named Greg Keagle. The general manager is younger than most of the reporters. The PR director was introducing himself to everyone.
This is going to take some getting used to. But that’s OK. Seasons change, teams change, and frankly, the Tigers were getting stale. They now have a new front office, a new manager, a new roster and a new stadium plan that is more than just a pipe dream.
Tuesday was the beginning of a recasting of baseball here, a different look, and for a while — like most construction projects — it won’t be very attractive. Lots of mud and dust.
But it is necessary. The game marches on. Tuesday officially closed the door on the way things used to be, when Lou was at second and Paul Carey knew the players and the manager was too old to pitch batting practice, but loved to spin yarns about the game with his feet wedged up against the dark wooden desk.
“How long did you have it?” I asked Sparky.
“That desk?” he said, laughing. “I think it goes back to George Washington.”