ANAHEIM, Calif. — He buttons his shirt and pulls a tie over his head. It is seven hours before the first pitch. The stadium is just across the street. Still, he moves like a man with a plane to catch.
“Let me grab my jacket,” he says. The hotel suite is large, and the table holds the remains of breakfast: croissants, fruit, coffee. It is Opening Day of baseball across America, the start of a season many thought would never come.
Yet here we are, back again.
And here he is, back as well.
It is hard to say which is the bigger surprise in a Detroit uniform: the real Tigers or Sparky Anderson. Just weeks ago, some swore his Tigers career was over, after his spring- training walkout.
Now he taps his chest and stomach, as if checking to see if he’s all there. He finds his pipe and matches. His white hair is combed back. His face still shows the Florida sun. I ask if he heard the news from home: Don Chaney, Pistons coach, was fired.
At this, Anderson seems to slow, as if learning of a death. He nods, then drops into the couch. “He was a good man, you know.” He shakes his head.
“Mmm-hmm. A good man.”
Since he took over the Tigers in 1979, Anderson has seen six Detroit basketball coaches, nine Detroit hockey coaches and two Detroit football coaches hired and fired. He befriended Chuck Daly, then watched him go. He did commercials with Jacques Demers, then watched him go. He knew Darryl Rogers, Bryan Murray, Ron Rothstein, Monte Clark. They are all gone.
Sparky is still here.
“Luck?” he says when you ask him why, but he knows this is a feeble explanation. Luck is working for one owner who loves you. Anderson has had three different owners in Detroit, and he only delivered the big prize for one of them, Tom Monaghan, in 1984, when he won the World Series.
That seems long ago. The last six years have finished badly — sometimes even in last place. Chaney, Rothstein, Demers, Murray all got fired during that time for seasons that weren’t any worse.
Sparky is still here.
“You know I get as nervous now as I did for my first Opening Day.” He puffs quickly on his $20 pipe. He does not buy expensive pipes because he goes through so many. Besides, the pipe thing is not about looking smart or distinguished. “It’s a crutch, that’s all. It calms my nerves.
“I’m tellin’ ya, my nerves never stop. I get that cup of coffee in the clubhouse, my hands are shaking. I don’t fill it up, because I’ll wind up with coffee all over me.
“It ain’t changed. I remember in Cincinnati, my first year, my daughter at the breakfast table saying, ‘Mama, why is Daddy’s orange juice shaking?’ “
He puffs deeply and disappears in a cloud of smoke. This does not suggest the world’s most stable man, yet pundits suggest he is exactly that, a guy who needn’t worry about his next job, because any team would have him.
That’s why, they say, Sparky was able to walk out of spring training rather than coach replacement players. That’s why he could go home while every other manager had to deal with those hacks. Sparky didn’t care if they fired him. Heck, he wanted it — so he could take a better job.
Not so, Sparky says.
“I never believed for a second that I could find work quickly elsewhere. That’s easy to write, but it ain’t so easy to find the club to hire you.
“There were many times I didn’t think I’d be here after what I did. I told my wife, ‘You know, I may never go back.’ Those were the consequences. I knew it. I never said what I did was right, but it was right for me.
“Then, that (final) weekend (when the strike was settled), I didn’t know until I got that phone call from John McHale what would happen.
“The first words he said to me, I will never forget them. He said, ‘We want you back.’
“I can’t tell you what that meant.”
I have a theory about Sparky’s longevity. I think he has reached such a venerable place in baseball — he will soon be the third-winningest manager in history — that owners are afraid to fire him. They don’t want to be the guy who told a legend good-bye.
“I don’t think that’s true,” says Anderson, 61. “What may work for me is the record thing. Maybe they respect that.
“But if they want to get rid of me, they will. Believe me.”
We’ll see. On Tuesday, Sparky said of his Tigers career, “I can see the lights dimming.” For now, he has this season left. He admits he wanted to finish his contract — so at the very least he won’t be fired, just not rehired. He also admits he has no idea what will happen. “I made a deal with John not to talk about it. I won’t and they won’t. Not during the season. When the season is over, we’ll see what happens.”
We go downstairs, get in the car, and ride to the stadium. It is still more than six hours until game time. Sparky gets out, and a small band of fans rush him for autographs.
He has a bad club again this year, light on talent, lucky to finish fourth. How can he look forward to this?
“Nobody likes to lose. But I look at my job this year as developing the kids. I have to make sure they are better at the end than at the beginning.”
I tell him that is exactly what Don Chaney said. I tell him it didn’t help
— Chaney was still fired.
He thinks about this.
“Maybe so. But Don was right.”
He walks into the stadium, and another season begins.
He is still here.
He may outlast us all.
STAYING POWER Detroit coaches in major sports who have come and gone since Sparky Anderson, right, arrived in June 1979:
* LIONS: Monte Clark, Darryl Rogers.
* PISTONS: Dick Vitale, Richie Adubato, Scotty Robertson, Chuck Daly, Ron Rothstein, Don Chaney.
* RED WINGS: Bobby Kromm, Marcel Pronovost, Ted Lindsay, Wayne Maxner, Nick Polano, Harry Neale, Brad Park, Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray.