LAKELAND, Fla. — I am ready for anything. I am ready for one-eyed pitchers. I am ready for a third baseman named Clark Kent. I am ready for wild and crazy predictions.
I am sitting in Sparky Anderson’s office.
“How’s it going?” I say.
“It’s going pretty good,” he says.
I take out my pen. I am ready for big news. I am ready to be told the Tigers are going to win it all; every game, maybe. I am ready to be told about this new prospect from Santo Do- somewhere, who’s the hottest thing to hit baseball since rubber cleats. I am ready for the truly weird. The unbelievable. I know where I am. I am in Sparky Anderson’s office, and it is springtime. I am ready.
“Any impressions so far?” I begin.
“Well, I don’t know yet,” he says.
“Doesn’t know yet,” I write.
He is just warming up, I figure. The good stuff is surely coming. I am ready for stories about the pitching staff. How they just came down from Mt. Olympus. Or how their arms are so good, doors spring open whenever they touch the knobs. Or how they will win 100 games this season with their jackets on. I am ready. I am in Sparky Anderson’s office. The good stuff is surely coming.
“How about those new pitchers, LaPoint and Campbell?” I ask.
“I haven’t really seen them yet,” he says, stuffing his pipe. “People I trust tell me how good they are.”
“People he trusts,” I write. Even old third-base trick fails I shift in the seat. I am still waiting for the good stuff. Every year there is good stuff. Remember 1979? “We’ll have a pennant in this city within five years,” he said. Remember 1984, and the lucky T-shirt? “I won’t take it off till we lose,” he said. Remember 1985?
“Ninety wins is a lock,” he said. Remember?
Soon I will hear the good stuff. The tall tales. He’s switching the outfielders with the infielders. He’s bringing back Al Kaline. Willie Hernandez will play second base. Let it fly, Sparky. I am ready. “Who’s impressed you in workouts?” I ask.
“Well, I’m letting Dick Tracewski (the first-base coach) handle all the detail stuff in practice,” he says, smiling. “I don’t have to hear any complaining that way. I like it.”
“He likes it,” I write.
Where’s the good stuff, I wonder. Third base. Third base will get him going. Remember third base last spring? Remember the Chris Pittaro prediction?
“He’s our starter,” Sparky said, “the best-looking rookie I’ve seen in 15 years.” Pittaro was back in the minors by June. This year there’s another new face, Darnell Coles. Yes. Let’s talk third base. Let’s talk some good stuff. I am ready.
“Want to make a third base prediction?” I ask.
“No,” he says, puffing on the pipe. “I don’t have to decide that until five days before the season starts. We’ll just see how it develops.”
“See how it develops,” I write.
This is not the good stuff. I am getting desperate. I will settle for a fire-breathing reliever from Costa Rica. I will take a rifle-armed outfielder from Australia. I will be happy with a prediction that Cleveland is going to win it all this year, then cut a record called the “World Series Shuffle.” I am ready. And still waiting.
“Hell, I don’t know who’s gonna win it,” he says. “New York and Toronto are awful tough. For me to say we’d beat them . . . I don’t know. I know we’ve improved our ball club. I hope we can beat them.”
“Hopes he can beat them,” I write.
Hopes? Limelight has become ho-hum “Why so reserved?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, rubbing his white hair, “I found I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the off-season. I realized I really love managing the players, but I don’t like the other stuff anymore.
“You know, I’ve probably eaten every banquet meal there is. I’ve given every speech from every dais there is. I don’t need to be in the forefront so much anymore. I’d like more time for myself.”
“No more predictions?” I ask.
He grins. “Ahhh, I guess not,” he says.
The time has come to hit the field. Sparky Anderson smiles and leaves.
I look at my notepad. It is empty. I have no predictions. No zaniness. Nobody from the basement to win the pennant. No immigrant off the boat to win 30 games. I have nothing spectacular. I am not sure what to do.
And then I remember something. I remember who I am dealing with. There was no good stuff today. That is all right. I am still smiling.
This is Sparky Anderson I’m dealing with. I know what I will do.
I will come back tomorrow. CUTLINE Sparky Anderson