Sparky Anderson used to play baseball with Buckwheat. That’s right. The Buckwheat. From “The Little Rascals.” In a Los Angeles playground, when they were kids. I’m not making this up.
“He’d come in a limo, right from the studio,” Anderson says. “He brought all the equipment and the balls. That’s the only reason we let him play with us. He was terrible.”
Can you picture the two of them, Sparky and Buckwheat, charging from the outfield for the same fly ball?
“Outta my way!”
“I got it! I got it!”
Now, I ask you. Can a manager who had this kind of start be thrown by something as ordinary as another baseball season? Can a 53-year-old smoothy, the son of a house painter, the grandson of a Norwegian house painter, a guy who flunked fifth grade, who once worked as a Rambler salesman, who was a terribly average shortstop, whose hair turned white before his first manager’s job, who, in his rookie season as manager, guided the Reds to the World Series, who snared four pennants and five division championships in nine years — then got fired — got a new job, and became the first manager to win championships in both leagues, who says things like “I ain’t never had no good education” and “If you don’t upchuck now and then, it’s time to quit” and who could finish under .500 for the next dozen years and will still rank third on baseball’s all-time manager’s win list — come on. Can a guy like that be thrown by anything anymore?
“Is The Spark Still There?” the title here reads. As if to say the last two middle-of-the-pack finishes for his Tigers might have siphoned the gas from his tank. As if this is some sort of crucial year for Mr. Sparky.
Perhaps you think so. Here is what I think: I think about the night I watched Anderson pose for the photo that accompanies this piece — the one with all the fireworks going off behind him. It was cold and windy and they couldn’t get the fireworks all lit at once. So they had to shoot it six different times. Six sets of explosions. And Anderson wasn’t allowed to move or he’d mess up the picture.
So there he was, on one knee, posing in the middle of a dark empty ballfield, while three prop guys tried to ignite the fireworks behind him. Only the things kept going off in their faces so they were screaming and rushing around and it was like guerrilla warfare because the fireworks make this loud hissing noise and they burn and the prop guys were yelling “LOOK OUT!” and “RUN FOR IT!” And right in the middle of this, Anderson, whose biggest worry was keeping a smile on his tired cheeks, started singing his laughter, you know, like “ha-ha-ha-HA-HA-HA- ha-ha-ha,” oblivious to all the chaos, all the smoke and the fire and the screams behind him. He was singing to keep his smile. And they got the shot.
And when it was over, he got up, turned around, looked at the burnt-out explosives, and the prop guys who were sprawled in the grass, and he shrugged and trotted back to the clubhouse.
I decided, that night, that very little fazes Sparky Anderson anymore. Why Sparky doesn’t worry, in his own words, reason No. 1: “Gene Mauch don’t worry, Whitey Herzog don’t worry, Chuck Tanner don’t worry, Tommy Lasorda don’t worry . . . “
Let me tell you how Sparky Anderson views this “critical” season. We were sitting in his clubhouse office in Lakeland a few weeks ago, and he was leaning back behind his desk, pipe in hand, and suddenly, he sprang forward and grabbed a piece of paper and a pen.
“Do you know where the experts are picking us this season?” he asked, and he wrote “5th” on the paper and slid it in front of me.
“And do you know what the Las Vegas odds are against us?” he asked, and he grabbed the paper back and wrote “18-1” on it then slid it in front of me again.
“Now,” he said, taking the paper back, “what if I finish here?”
He wrote “4th” on the sheet. And again he slid it in front of me. Then he folded his arms behind his head and smiled.
“Hell,” he said, “I’m up for manager of the year.”
That is how Sparky views this season.
Which is not to say he doesn’t care. You could never say that if you knew him. It is to say that after 23 years of managing teams in Rock Hill and Modesto and St. Petersburg and Asheville and Cincinnati and Detroit, Sparky Anderson has come to some conclusions: “If we’re a fifth-place club, we’ll finish fifth. If we’re a first-place club, we’ll finish first. I ain’t gonna do nothing about it. I ain’t gonna change us from a fifth- place club to a first-place club.
“Players win and players lose it. Bleep. I was the same guy in ’85 as I was in ’84. Whitey Herzog’s the same guy in ’86 as he was in ’85. What happened? The players didn’t win it. That’s what happened.
“It’s very simple. If you’ve got a last-place club, you can send 25 managers in there and it’ll still finish last. You can go through history and prove that. Take Casey Stengel. He couldn’t win with Brooklyn. He couldn’t win with the Braves. Then he got the Yankees, and he could’ve gone to the Bahamas after spring training. Everybody knows that.”
The Bahamas? Why Sparky Anderson doesn’t worry, in his own words, reason No. 2: “I used to call John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach, and say, ‘Hey, John. You got Pepperdine on your schedule? Let’s give the Pepperdine coach the night off. You coach Pepperdine, and I’ll coach your team. I ain’t never coached a basketball team in my life. And you can have the point spread. Whatever it is. Who are we kidding? How you gonna beat me? I got the best horses. The best horses win.’ It’s that simple.”
Now, OK. I hear you. If Sparky Anderson can’t turn a fifth- place club into a first-place club, if it’s all up to the players, just what is it, you ask, that he does for a living? What difference does the manager make? It is a legitimate question.
In his autobiography, Bear Bryant, the famed Alabama football coach, described his first meeting with a thousand Texas Aggies this way:
“I took off my coat and stomped on it.
“Then I took off my tie and stomped on it.
“Then, as I was walking up to the mike, I rolled up my sleeves.”
Now that kind of technique you can understand. That approach works in football. It does not work in baseball. For one thing, you can’t just rip off your uniform and stomp on it. The damn things are too tight.
So what is it that Sparky does if his team finishes fifth? “Well, you can be fifth one way and fifth another way,” he explains. “Take a look at our clubhouse. It’s a professional atmosphere. When the young players come in here, they know immediately what it’s going to be. If you’re fifth place, but you remain professionals, remain businesslike, eventually you’re going to turn things around. Two or three young guys replace the older guys, then two or three more, and then suddenly, you got a hell of a ballclub.
“That’s what happened here. We had (Lance) Parrish and (Lou) Whitaker and
(Alan) Trammell and (Kirk) Gibson. All young kids. And they grew with the system and all of a sudden — wham! — all four were ready, along with Jack Morris and Dan Petry, and it all just fell together. It just clicked.
“The players, like I say, are gonna win it or lose it. What the manager does is create the right mood. Create the system where the right players can succeed. That simple. Hell, my best season of managing, pure managing, was 1978. I got fired.”
You can buy this theory, or you can leave it. The problem, critics will point out, is that the Tigers aren’t sending in many of those good young kids Sparky refers to. It’s mostly the same old kids, with a little less hair. This season, Lance Parrish is gone. Kirk Gibson is hurt. And Detroit just completed the worst spring training record of any team in baseball. Yet Anderson recently proclaimed this “the best spring we’ve ever had.”
But then, he is always doing that. Words don’t give him much pause. Remember, this is the guy who predicted a championship when he arrived in Detroit (which came true), and superstar status for Chris Pittaro (which did not) and who always predicts the sun will come out tomorrow (which it does, though he really can’t take credit for that).
Because he juggles his lineup, because he says one thing, then contradicts it the next day, because he always seems to find a silver lining on even the dimmest of hopes, there are many who believe George Lee (Sparky) Anderson is full of it. Here is what I believe. I believe he speaks from the heart, he speaks spontaneously and optimistically and with passion and with a genuine love for the game and the people who play it. And sometimes, he is full of it.
But then, who isn’t? Why Sparky doesn’t worry, in his own words, reason No. 3: “You think I’m gonna worry about if the Detroit Tigers are gonna fire me? God Almighty! Let
’em fire me. You know what happened the last time I got fired? I got twice as much from the next club.”
There is a point in baseball where it’s up to them, and a point where it is up to you. Sparky Anderson — now the 12th- winningest manager in baseball history — says he has reached the latter stage. And he is probably right.
“I’d have to be a bleeping maniac to worry about losing my job,” he says, his voice tinged with anger. “I know my stature. I’m not gonna pretend I don’t know what I’ve accomplished.
“Put it this way. We go to the winter meetings. I put all the major league managers in a crowded room, scatter them around. How many of them are you gonna recognize? Who’ll be the most recognizable? Who do you think’s got the biggest crowd around him?
“You think if I was fired the phone wouldn’t be ringing? Let me ask you this. Who won more games than anybody in the 1970s? The Cincinnati Reds. Who won more games than anybody in the 1980s? The Yankees — but you know who’s second? The Detroit Tigers. What more can I do for you? You’re talking lunacy here when you suggest I should be worried about a job. If I’m worried about a job, there’s 24 other guys out there who might as well commit hari-kari.”
Which doesn’t mean he can’t be fired. On the contrary, he expects it sooner or later. (We should note that he did not expect it the one time it happened before — in 1978 with Cincinnati. The Reds had sent him on a winter tour of Japan, used him for promotional purposes, then let him go when he got back. A guy who had won more games than any other manager that decade. He remembers coming home and finding only his youngest son, Albert, in the house.
“Your daddy just got fired,” he told him. He has never forgotten that.)
These days, Sparky, sufficiently realistic, employs what you might call the Anderson Theory of Animosity: The longer you are anywhere, the more animosity builds up. Eventually the animosity spreads within the organization. Eventually it reaches the top. And eventually you are gone. “Has to happen,” he says. “But I never worry about it. Never. That’s the truth.”
Which, again, does not imply that Sparky doesn’t care. On the contrary, he cares plenty — but only about each game. “His intensity is the same now as it was when he was a player,” says George Scherger, who was Sparky’s first manager back in the early ’50s and who, like Billy Consolo and other old-time friends, Sparky always manages to take care of. “He hated to lose, even then. He was crazy about it.”
It is true, Anderson’s hands still shake when he comes in after the ninth inning. He still vomits a half-dozen nights during the season from anxiety
(“My wife laughs. She says, ‘I see you were at it again last night.’ “) But that is warfare. A mandatory element of baseball. Sparky says he will quit if he ever loses those jitters. But they are not the same as worrying about a job.
“If I was fired from the Tigers,” he says, “you know what would happen? Jim Campbell would tell me, ‘Go on home to Thousand Oaks. I’ll see you next week on the golf course.’ That’s what would happen. Then I’d go home and wait for the phone to ring.” Why Sparky doesn’t worry, in his own words, reason No. 4: “You think Pete Rose honestly ever cared who was managing him — me or Dave Bristol or Freddie Hutchinson or any of those guys? For one minute you think he cared? Not for one minute. Not for one second.”
So, is the spark still there? That is really some question. It’s true that Anderson has turned more of the club over to his coaches in recent springs. (“I’ll be the bad guy soon enough,” he says. “Spring’s the only chance I have to be the good guy.”) But once Opening Day arrives, Sparky is back on center stage. He remains the team leader. Him. Not a player.
Anderson wants to keep managing until he’s 65 — half for financial reasons, half because, as he puts it, “Jeez, what else would I do?” Yet winning the big one can no longer mean the same thing now, not because he has done it in both leagues, but because he has seen how quickly its glow evaporates. After his first World Series victory in 1975, Anderson expected to be the toast of Cincinnati for the winter. Instead, he woke up on Monday and football season was in full swing. He was back-page news. Then no news.
In those days, he used to race around the off-season dinner circuit. He has given up that chase. He rarely makes winter appearances anymore, preferring to stay at home in California. When he does have to give a speech, it takes him a week, he says, to think of an opening line. “In the summertime I can rattle those things off the top of my head.
“In the summer there are so many people around, so many accolades, you start to believe, hey, wait a minute, your opinion really means something. In the winter, I’ll be honest, I feel very inadequate. I feel incompetent. I realize without being a baseball manager, nobody would ever pay any attention to me. It’s a lack of education. No sense lying about bit. You take me out of this uniform, the lack of education is apparent. At least I understand it.”
“Understand what?” he was asked.
“That without baseball, I don’t have nothing. It don’t need me, I need it.” Why Sparky doesn’t worry, in his own words, reason No. 5: “I got 24 players. Every one of them has a fan club. Tommy Brookens has a fan club. Kirk Gibson has a fan club. So every time I bench one of them, I lose some fans over here. Every time I take one out of the lineup, I lose some fans over here. The longer I stay around the more I lose. That’s the way it works.”
So here comes another baseball season. The Tigers are projected to be average at best, and Anderson, who once sold cars on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles — “I was excellent until it came to closing a sale” — will put on his full-scale salesman’s smile and take charge. And let us not forget a few things before we paste him. He now has the longest tenure of any American League manager working. He is the only guy besides Leo Durocher to win more than 600 games with two different teams. Only once has a major league squad of his finished below .500. There is a reason for this stuff.
People in Detroit may be growing, well, used to him. Maybe tired of him. Yet the delight in this guy is that something new can surface any time. He is the verbal equivalent of water above a sunken ship. We were talking once about nothing special, and suddenly, out of the blue, he admitted that he has never liked people with money, and he has a hard time remembering rich people are not necessarily bad people.
“It’s a terrible fault I have,” he said softly, “but I feel so inferior around them.”
And then someone walked in and his voice jumped three octaves and he was chattering about curveballs as though the previous conversation never took place.
I don’t know whether Sparky Anderson is the best manager going. I will tell you this. You don’t find his players bad- mouthing him. You don’t hear whispers behind his back. You don’t hear rumblings. Some would say that’s because anyone who rumbles will be gone. There is some truth to that.
“A ballplayer who blames the manager for his problems is an a–,” says Anderson. “Why would I want to spend seven months around an a–?”
That makes sense to me.
So take him or leave him. Complain that he yanks pitchers too fast. That he tinkers with the lineup. Is the Spark still there? Sure. Where else would he go? Anderson has reached that rare stage where the dugout is now his privilege, not his prison. He can sit there, pipe in hand, talking baseball and dishing out the philosophy like an army chef dishes out mashed potatoes. First place? Fifth place? What, him worry? This is a guy who played with Buckwheat.
“You know,” he muses, “I asked Vin Scully once, ‘What does success mean?’ He said, ‘For the moment.’ That’s all it means. No more. Some guys seem to think one success should last them a lifetime. Shoot. Those guys don’t last.
“What does success mean? For the moment. That’s the greatest piece of philosophy I ever heard. Yes, sir. That’s what I believe. That, and one other thing. ‘Don’t tell me, show me.’ I love that philosophy, too. I believe it with all my heart. ‘Don’t tell me, show me.’ Oh yes.”
“Who said that?” he is asked. “Herzog? Stengel? Connie Mack?”
“I seen it on a bumper sticker,” he says.
Sparky Anderson’s managerial record YEAR CLUB RECORD, FINISH
PLAYOFFS WORLD SERIES 1970 Cincinnati Reds 102-60, 1st W, 3-0 (Pittsburgh) L, 4-1
(Baltimore) 1971 Cincinnati Reds 79-83, tied 4th 1972 Cincinnati Reds 95-59, 1st
W, 3-2 (Pittsburgh) L, 4-3 (Oakland) 1973 Cincinnati Reds 99-63, 1st
L, 3-2 (New York) 1974 Cincinnati Reds 98-64, 2d 1975 Cincinnati Reds 108-54, 1st
W, 3-0 (Pittsburgh) W, 4-3 (Boston) 1976 Cincinnati Reds 102-60, 1st
W, 3-0 (Philadelphia W, 4-0 (New York) 1977 Cincinnati Reds 88-74, 2d 1978 Cincinnati Reds 92-69, 2d 1979 Detroit Tigers 56-50, 5th 1980 Detroit Tigers 84-78, 5th 1981 Detroit Tigers* 31-26, 4th 29-23, tied 2d 1982 Detroit Tigers 83-79, 4th 1983 Detroit Tigers 92-70, 2d 1984 Detroit Tigers 104-58, 1st
W, 3-0 (Kansas City) W, 4-1 (San Diego) 1985 Detroit Tigers 84-77, 3d 1986 Detroit Tigers 87-75, 3d Totals 1411-1132
* Strike season.
Winningest managers MANAGER RECORD PCT. Connie Mack 3,776-4,025 .484 John McGraw 2,840-1,984 .589 Bucky Harris 2,159-2,219 .493 Joe McCarthy 2,126-1,335 .614 Walter Alston 2,040-1,613 .558 Leo Durocher 2,010-1,710 .540
Casey Stengel 1,926-1,867 .508 Bill McKechnie 1,898-1,724 .524 Gene Mauch 1,826-1,950 .484 Ralph Houk 1,619-1,531 .514 Fred Clarke 1,602-1,179 .576 Sparky Anderson 1,513-1,122 .574 Clark Griffith 1,491-1,367 .522 Earl Weaver 1,480-1,060 .583 Dick Williams 1,470-1,334 .524 Best percentages MANAGER RECORD PCT. Joe McCarthy 2,126-1,335 .614 Fred Clarke 1,422-969 .595 Billy Southworth 1,064-729 .593 Frank Chance 932-640 .593 John McGraw 2,840-1984 .589 Earl Weaver 1,480-1060 .583 Al Lopez 1,422-1026 .581 Sparky Anderson 1,513-1122 .574
CUTLINE Tigers skipper Sparky Anderson, directing traffic at spring training, always has made it clear that there’s room for only one leader in the Detroit clubhouse. Sparky Anderson hands back a glove after spring training autograph.