BALTIMORE — He arrived for his last game hours before the first pitch, early Sunday morning, as the fog was breaking up and most people were still in church. He removed his clothes in stages, hanging up his gray sports coat, followed by the tie and the shoes. He pulled his baseball shirt over his dark slacks and socks, and he sat down that way, half-man, half- manager, munching a doughnut and holding the omnipresent cup of black coffee, part of the reason his hands now tremble like a nervous safecracker. The other reason is that he is 61 years old.
“Here’s something I don’t get,” he said, his voice almost as craggy as his leathered face. “We’ve been losing for years, and I get treated like a king. One night, we were leaving the park, and a guy yelled, ‘Sparky, you’re a legend!’ And I said, ‘Does a legend lose this many games?’
“And you know what? The guy didn’t care.”
Anderson shook his head. He cares. He is sick of losing. He is sick of going back to the hotel room and looking at his lineup and knowing that tomorrow he probably will lose again, and next year won’t be any better than last year. He no longer loves the men he works for, and without that, Sparky Anderson, in his mind, owes you nothing. So this morning, he will announce his departure from the Tigers, after 17 years. It is not a retirement, not a firing. In typical Sparky fashion, everyone is a little confused.
And few people realize what they’re about to lose.
There goes ol’ Silver Hair. The best manager the Detroit Tigers ever had has danced around the subject of his departure all year, but he talked about it Sunday: “It’s time to go. Let them get someone new in here, some new blood, give them a new kick, get them back in a war.”
“And you?” he was asked.
He looked at his feet, still tucked inside the white rubber shower slippers that, for one more day, bore his No. 11. “I’ll tell you this. I’m not calling no teams. I’m not contacting no teams. If nobody calls me, I will not be offended.”
He leaned back in his chair. They’ll call, and he knows it.
There goes ol’ Silver Hair. The good ol’ days
The phone rang. It had been ringing all morning, friends wishing him luck, friends asking him questions, where will he go, what will he do? This time it was Jim Campbell, the man who brought Sparky to Detroit in 1979. After Sparky says good-bye to the current ownership today, he will have lunch with Campbell and the longtime team physician, Clarence Livingood, before getting on a plane and flying away. Even now, his final loyalty is to the old regime, not the new one.
And why not? His best years were the early years, when the Tigers still developed young talent, and when they had a pitching staff that scared something besides birds.
That seems like a long time ago. Anderson, who always has been many things here, philosopher, historian, salesman, vaudeville act, has never had a year like this one. It began with him walking away from the game — over his refusal to manage replacement players — and ends with him walking away from the franchise, after 84 losses in 144 games. There was a night back in April when I interviewed Anderson as he waited for a call from the Tigers. The strike had ended, the players were headed to spring training, but Anderson still wasn’t sure whether he had a job. This is a man who has won more games than all but two managers in the history of baseball. I listened to him say,
“If they don’t call me, they don’t call me. I’m prepared.”
Truth is, he was embarrassed. And that was the beginning of the end.
Now he finished getting dressed, leggings, pants, belt. I asked whether he planned on taking anything from this year, any souvenir or keepsake.
“The hat,” he said.
The hat? He did it his way
Outside the office, the Tigers players were dressing for the final game of the season. There was a buzz in the room, like the last day of school. Players exchanged phone numbers and talked about tee times.
Against the far wall, Alan Trammell signed some baseballs. Sunday would be his last game, too. He and Lou Whitaker had played nearly every moment of their major league careers for Anderson. “I’ll be there for his press conference,” Trammell said. “It’ll be weird, it’ll be emotional, but I can’t miss it. I feel like I should be there.”
Trammell was asked whether he thought the Tigers could have done anything to keep Anderson. He grinned sarcastically.
“I think,” he said, “this is what Sparky wants.”
Indeed it is. Anderson knows he still can manage. He also knows he can’t spin gold from sawdust. It has been eight years since he has seen a post-season, 11 years since a World Series, he has maybe the worst pitching staff in baseball, few prospects on the horizon, and while he won’t admit it, he is concerned that all this losing will cut into his historical glow. Maybe one day, they won’t yell “you’re a legend” anymore.
And when you are one, that hurts.
So Anderson will check out. On Sunday he even laid the ground rules for his next team — should there be one.
“I don’t want to go to any rebuilding project. Oh, no. No more. I’d like to go back to winning some games. Having some victories would be nice. . . .
“But I would only manage again under my conditions.”
“I have complete say in my coaches, that’s No. 1. I keep who I want on my team, and I don’t have to keep nobody I don’t want. Nobody interferes with my clubhouse, and nobody–“
He points around his office.
“Nobody calls me here.”
What he means is, no owner interference. Nobody telling him who to pitch, who to trade, what he thinks should be happening. In other words, Sparky won’t be working for George Steinbrenner.
Why should he? The good, bad and ugly
Now game time was just 90 minutes away. “I need to get my boys in here,” he said. By this he meant Trammell, Whitaker, Cecil Fielder, Travis Fryman and John Doherty. Those players had been with him the longest. “They deserve a private meeting.”
One by one they came in, Fielder, his arms thick as a longshoreman, and Doherty, showing a pitcher’s tan, and Trammell and Whitaker and Fryman, still in his underwear. And they shut the door and they sat down one more time. A few minutes later they emerged. This, in part, is what Sparky had told them:
“I haven’t always said it . . . but I want you to know how much I appreciate the way you’ve played and acted like professionals.”
He also told them he was leaving.
There goes ol’ Silver Hair.
How can we gauge what he did since 1979? He won a World Series and more games than any Tigers manager in history. He took a ragtag team in 1987 and churned it into a division winner, giving Detroit arguably its best week of baseball ever, seven games, all against Toronto, all decided by one run, the last being the clincher, when Frank Tanana got the last man to ground out and Sparky actually ran from the dugout and kissed his pitcher in celebration.
“That may be the sweetest moment I had here,” he admitted.
There were other not so sweet moments, the time in 1989 that he left in the middle of the season — family concerns — and all the outlandish predictions he made for rookies that never came true (remember Chris Pittaro?). And the last seven years, as he said Sunday, were mostly dismal, 495 wins, 574 losses, never finishing higher than a second-place tie.
But remember, baseball is not football or basketball. You don’t win because you have elaborate schemes or unbelievable motivation. You win when you have top pitching and solid defense and menacing hitting.
In other words, talent. He hasn’t had a lot of it recently. He will now pursue a team that does. The final chapter
When the game started Sunday, Anderson was determined not to make a fuss. This, after all, was Camden Yards, not Tiger Stadium. He came out to deliver the lineup, and suddenly, in the stands behind home plate, fans began to clap. Anderson, with his back to the crowd, had no idea what was happening. Finally, he turned and ran back to the dugout, as the applause swelled into the upper deck, a standing ovation. Anderson glanced up before disappearing.
“Why didn’t you walk back,” coach Dick Tracewski asked Sparky in the dugout.
“I didn’t know they were clapping for me,” he said.
He should have no such doubt today in Detroit. Love him or hate him, the man deserves a slap of appreciation. Sure, he was bloated with hot air, but he always took the game seriously, he fought for players he believed in, and was beloved by the ones who truly understood the sport. He was always kind to kids, was accessible to the media — heck, he was salvation to the media — and took criticism as part of the job. He never took a good team and made it bad, although he did the reverse more than once during his tenure.
In the locker room after Sunday’s game — fittingly, another loss — he sat for the last time by his desk, his white hair now matted with sweat. His uniform was already in the laundry. Sparky had not asked for it.
Only the hat.
“Do you have any thoughts on your career at this moment?” a Baltimore TV man asked.
“Yeah,” Anderson said. “I’d like to know where all the years went.”
They went into a legacy that will not soon be repeated. The truth is, as long as the Tigers had Sparky, they had star power. Now they become one of the
nobody pack, another young team with marketing execs.
There goes ol’ Silver Hair. A few days ago, with the season long since dead, Sparky took a young pitcher into his office and chewed him out for his behavior on the mound. The next day, he pulled the kid aside and said, “I want you to know something. I did that because you needed it if you ever wanted to be great.”
Maybe a few years from now, the kid will appreciate that kind of managing. Maybe, a few years from now, we will, too.