Losing Sparky like losing one of the family

by | Dec 29, 2010 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

I had a dream about Sparky Anderson a few days ago. He looked old and his hair was brown, and I called to him, but he didn’t recognize me. Only after I said my name did he smile.

And then it ended.

I’d been wondering about that dream because Sparky doesn’t usually show up in my REM cycle. And why was his hair brown? Sparky? The original White Wizard? Then, Thursday afternoon, I heard the jarring news: At age 76, Anderson, one of the most colorful, charming, perfectly suited managers baseball ever produced, had died in California.

I don’t know what that means for the dream. I know what it means for baseball. A mold has been forever shattered. Fans of a certain generation need only hear the word “Sparky” and they’ll know what just passed. And kids, well, it may be hard to explain. Anderson didn’t belong to today’s fantasy league/money ball/analytics world of baseball. He was born to manage it. Not study it. Not even play it. (He was a pretty lousy player.) Manage it. He got the game. He felt it. He gripped the clubhouse the way Ruth or DiMaggio gripped a bat. He played hunches, pulled pitchers, tinkered lineups. He lived the game’s lore until he became part of it. Baseball wasn’t a diamond to Sparky, it was a planet. His home.

Unlike most managers, Sparky Anderson actually looked more natural in a baseball outfit than in regular clothes. If you saw him in a shirt and tie or, heaven forbid, one of those colorful sweatsuits he sometimes wore, you wanted him to yank it off, Superman style, and reveal the leggings, the belt, the cap.

You know. The Sparky look.

He knew the game inside out

Because George Lee Anderson was baseball. As a kid in Los Angeles, he played the game with Buckwheat from the “Little Rascals.” True story. I learned this in one of countless visits to his inner sanctum, the manager’s office. Those lucky enough to get inside recall a whirling dervish of a man in his underwear, scarfing spaghetti, his head almost in the sauce, but talking. Or a man hurled back in his chair like a king, hands raking through his white hair, still talking. Or a man stuffing his pipe with tobacco, eyes on the stem, still talking.

I’ve heard Sparky talk about the Pope (“Oh, that man there, what a face!”), an alternative career (“I woulda been a painter like my daddy”), even a punk rock group, The Dead Milkmen. Ain’t? None? Nobody? No? I have heard Sparky use so many negatives in one sentence that it became a positive.

But the players who heard him talk baseball were the luckiest of all. He knew the game’s DNA. Don’t misunderstand. Sparky was no Kumbaya campfire skipper. He made his players shave. Dress in jackets and ties. To paraphrase Kipling, they all counted with him, but none too much. Kirk Gibson remembers a time Anderson called him into the office, yelling, “Big Boy, come in here! … You got something to say?” And Gibson did. He ranted and raved for three minutes, uninterrupted, about playing time and usage. Finally, Sparky nodded and said, “Are you done?” Yes, Gibson said. Sparky motioned to the door – go on now, get out – and never added a word.

“But I felt better,” Gibson recalled.

And that was Sparky’s touch.

‘A father figure’ to his players

Anderson’s accomplishments speak for themselves. (And given how much Sparky spoke, that’s saying something.) Sixth on the all-time wins list. World Series titles in both leagues. Hall of Famer.

But in the flood of memories Thursday from former players, few focused on that, and nearly all focused on how cherished they felt by him, how much he molded them. Cecil Fielder referred to him as “a father figure.” Jack Morris said the team felt like “his family.” Lance Parrish recalled Anderson’s endless charity work.

It would be fitting to ask Ernie Harwell – he and Sparky walked together every morning on road trips – but we lost Ernie this year, too, and it seems like some heavenly roll call is taking place in our town.

I know this. The Sparky I saw in my dream wasn’t the Sparky we loved – nothing brown about him – and if that was to be his path with the dementia he suffered, perhaps this is a kinder fate. Better to recall the best manager Detroit ever had as smiling, chatting, lighting up a room with a gravelly “How ya doin’?” Forever young in name and spirit, forever white and bright.


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