Sparky Anderson was one part baseball savant, one part traveling preacher and one part gnome. It always seemed like he was dropped into the majors as a white-haired wizard of 70 ... and left as a white-haired wizard of 76 on Thursday.
Truth is, he first stepped into the dugout to manage the Reds in 1970 as a prematurely white-haired kid who was all of 36. And he left the dugout for the final time as Tigers manager in 1995 as a white-haired genius of 61.
|Sparky Anderson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. (Getty Images)|
They all say goodbye eventually. And in Detroit, it has been especially tough these past few years. Tiger Stadium. George Kell. Ernie Harwell. And now, sadly, a Hall of Fame manager who presided over one of the city's greatest summers.
"Dick Tracewski [the long-time Tigers coach] and I were talking on the phone last night," Roger Craig, Anderson's pitching coach in Detroit from 1980-84, was telling me during a telephone conversation Thursday afternoon.
"Forget baseball. Sparky Anderson was one of the greatest people I've ever been around. He treated everyone so nice. When you asked him for an autograph, whether you were 8 or 80, he'd always say 'Thank you' back."
Nobody loved the game, or people, more than Sparky Anderson (as colleague Danny Knobler, who covered the Tigers for Anderson's final six seasons as manager, wrote so well here on Wednesday). There have been managers who loved the game and tolerated people. There have been managers who loved people and didn't quite understand managing.
Sparky was a Hall of Fame manager because he was an all-time great in both departments.
He was the first man in history to manage teams in each league to a World Series title. He was a latter-day Casey Stengel, whose mangled English and sparkling eyes often translated into more sense than most people made using dictionary words (and, well, sometimes not).
He smoked a pipe in the manner of a college professor.
He stayed humble in the manner of your neighbor who watched the World Series on television instead of managing it.
"One night we went to dinner at Excalibur restaurant in Detroit," Craig recalled. "The owner came out and said, 'Sparky, we've got a table set up for you and your coaches in the back.'
|More on Sparky Anderson|
"He said, 'No, we'll wait in line like everyone else.' And he said it quiet. It wasn't like anyone could hear him."
Or, as Sparky once said, "I don't know why the players make such a big fuss about sitting in the first-class section of the plane. Does that mean they'll get there faster?"
There are threads that run through each of our lives connecting childhood to adulthood. And full confession here, Sparky Anderson is one of mine.
As a baseball-loving boy growing up in Monroe, Mich., I remember the day the Tigers hired this Reds legend to replace Les Moss (poor Les, his timing was awful), the clashes with Ron LeFlore, the persistent "my way or the highway" quotes in the newspapers as he was working toward building a winner and, of course, the summer of '84 when one of the best teams in history roared to a 35-5 start.
That October, I remember coaching a college women's intramural flag football team on a Sunday afternoon, watching the Tigers beat the Padres that night in Game 5 and the Kirk Gibson home run after Sparky waved four fingers at Gibby from the dugout, sure that Padres reliever Goose Gossage was going to intentionally walk Gibson, a famous clip that would be replayed for years.
Odd, isn't it, which memories are dredged up because of one man? I mean, coaching a women's intramural flag football team? But that's baseball. At its best, the game's most joyous moments take you back to a specific place and time, like a favorite song or an old girlfriend.
As a baseball-writing adult, I continue to marvel at the consistent and glowing praise Gibson, Alan Trammell, Jack Morris and so many others heap onto Anderson even all these years later. The way these men openly speak of being students at the feet of a great master, and their love for him.
I always came away from an interview with Anderson smiling, and I couldn't help but smile even bigger years later when I would see a retired Sparky and the conversation would turn to the old days and he would refer to Trammell as "Huck Finn."
|1. Connie Mack||3,731|
|2. John McGraw||2,763|
|3. Tony La Russa-x||2,638|
|4. Bobby Cox||2,504|
|5. Joe Torre||2,326|
|6. Sparky Anderson||2,194|
He was a cartoon drawing from an age when baseball men were characters.
He was a man of character when things around him devolved into cartoons.
"I can't say enough about what Sparky meant to our team," Morris told broadcaster Eli Zaret for the book '84: The Last of the Great Tigers. "There would be other guys who might say, 'All he did was piss us off and we won it despite him.' I didn't see it that way. I knew that he had control. I knew the things he did to motivate us and if that included pissing us off, it's all part of the motivation.
"It's a technique that probably isn't used anymore because of the character of the people playing the game today, but it worked at the time."
"He was a fiery little guy," Craig said. "That's why they called him 'Sparky.' He was a real competitor, and a real gentleman.
"Baseball was his life. Some of us coaches would stay at Sparky's house in Detroit early in the season before our wives would come in, and we'd be up until 1 a.m. and all he'd want to talk about was baseball. Eventually some of us would be like, 'Shut up, man. We're tired of talking about baseball.'"
During the 2009 season, the Tigers held a 25th anniversary celebration for the '84 team and, as part of the festivities, asked Craig, who pitched in four World Series and managed San Francisco to an appearance in 1989, to deliver a speech comparing the 1984 Tigers club to those.
"I had prostate cancer at the time," Craig said. "And the first thing Sparky did was, he put his arm around me and told me, 'You're going to beat it, don't worry.'
"That's the way he was. He was so positive."
Forever in the mind's eye will be the white-haired gnome manager hunkered down in the shadowy, tiny old Tiger Stadium dugout, leaning against one of those bright blue posts, intensity blazing so fiercely from those eyes you swore you could see sparks.
Craig, meanwhile, did beat the prostate cancer. Three weeks ago, his doctor told him, "You're great. See you in six months."
Sparky was right.
"He was right about a lot of things," Craig said. "With Ernie Harwell and now Sparky Anderson up there, they can talk to God and we'll have a better country."