You might have thought about it, looking into the two dugouts Tuesday night.
Sparky Anderson. Billy Martin.
A year ago, the former was hanging ten on victory, riding the September waves with his first-place Tigers, headed for the big splash, a World Series championship.
Revered? By November he nearly glowed in the dark. His face was everywhere. His book was everywhere. If managers were canonized, there’d have been a St. Sparky here by first snowfall.
And where was Billy Martin during all this?
Hanging around in some beer commercial, mumbling that he “didn’t punch no dogie.”
Out of baseball.
Some said sick. Some said depressed.
But the Yankees called him back. And there he was Tuesday at Tiger Stadium, in pinstripes, within shouting distance of first place and the playoffs.
And Sparky Anderson was across the field, resigned to fate, 18 games out. No waves beneath his feet. Nothing but reality, cold and hard as a garage floor.
I think it was David Bowie who sang, “Turn and face the strange . . . ch-ch-ch-changes.”
St-st-st-strange indeed.Billy rises as Sparky falls?
Or maybe not so strange.
Oh, it might be neatly dramatic to say how Sparky has fallen, how Billy has risen from the ashes — it might even make a good column — but it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.
For despite the letters that come to this office more and more, saying how Sparky has blown it, how the Tigers’ tailspin can be largely blamed on bad managing, I still must confess, after 1,000 baseball games, that I do not yet know how one truly measures a manager’s contribution.
And if you do, you’re smarter than I am.
There was once a “Scroogie” comic strip in which a manager sits in his dugout, thinking: “I can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. All I do is sit on my hands for nine innings and we plaster Pittsburgh 9-1. (Pause) Just think what we could do if I sat on my fists!”
There’s a certain point there.
Oh, yes, there is more to managing. A timely substitution, a pitching change, an adjusted lineup. But when these things blow up in the managers’ faces they’re called idiots, and when they work out they’re called geniuses, and the truth is, they don’t deserve either compliment.
Last season, Anderson’s confidence in reliever Willie Hernandez was rewarded with a Cy Young year. This season, that same confidence — according to letters I get — has been his downfall. “He leaves him in too long!” people write. Some go so far as to call it stupidity.
Well. I don’t know. I have a hard time accepting that a man grows more stupid one year to the next, unless he works with airplane glue.
Nor can one grow that much smarter. Tell me, if the Yankees win it all this year, will Billy Martin be called some kind of genius? Will every manager be encouraged to work for George Steinbrenner, get fired, and spend a year making silly commercials before coming back?Don’t compare the managers
So when we glance over Sparky and Billy, locked in September combat, and the feeling becomes irresistible to make a comparison, start first with names like Henderson, Mattingly, Winfield, and Righetti, Fisher, Guidry. And their performances this year.
The real difference.
You’ve heard how managers can’t bat, can’t catch, can’t pitch for their team. It’s a cliche already. That’s because it is true.
The other day, Martin was quoted as saying that “Sparky has lost his magic touch.” Billy, of all people, should know better.
And so should we. Sure, witnessing their change in fortunes suggests a metamorphosis as dramatic as the leaves turning color in the fall. And in truth, it’s just as inevitable.
Managers will win behind their teams, and managers will lose behind their teams. Often the same team. And when September comes around, people will be convinced that what they see is the real mark of the man’s ability.
Until the next September.
Any wonder then, that 13 years ago, when the Tigers finished first in the AL East, their manager’s name was Billy Martin? And that same year, the Cincinnati Reds finished first in the NL West. Their manager? Sparky Anderson.
Maybe you thought of that while watching the game Tuesday night. Or maybe a more familiar adage came to mind, behind Bowie lyrics:
The more things ch-ch-ch-change, the more they st-st-st-stay the same.