DETROIT -- Sparky Anderson could have helped us through this.
He could have reminded us what matters. He could have helped us with perspective, just as he did with a young relief pitcher years ago.
|Grandsons of the late Sparky Anderson help unveil the Hall of Fame manager's jersey number. (AP)|
He would have done what he did two years ago, looking past grudge-holding Tigers owner Mike Ilitch so that his 1984 champions could enjoy one last weekend together. He would have told them to enjoy what they had Sunday, when the Tigers belatedly retired his number ... and to stop thinking about who wasn't here.
Sparky understood, and he always made sure his players understood.
Mike Henneman found that out in 1987. He was a young pitcher, and he'd had a bad road trip, one where he couldn't get anyone out. And when he got off the team plane at the end of the trip, he walked right past his pregnant wife and headed straight for his car.
The next morning, the phone rang. It was Sparky.
"Let's go have lunch," he said.
And when Henneman showed up at Tiger Stadium, Sparky drove him straight to Children's Hospital, to visit the kids in the cancer ward.
The message was clear. The message got through.
Some people have real problems. You don't. And don't you ever disrespect anyone, especially not the ones you love.
It's what Kirk Gibson was talking about Friday, when he said that Sparky cared about his players as people, not just as baseball players. It's what Gibson meant when he said, "If I can develop relationships that make these guys better players and better people, that's the greater cause."
And if you don't think that has anything to do with winning and losing, then you don't understand baseball.
The great managers are great not just because they know the game, but because they know people. They earn respect from their players, and those players are then committed to them and committed to winning.
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"He liked the players," longtime Sparky coach Dick Tracewski said Sunday. "And consequently, the players got to like him. He genuinely liked the baseball players. And if they like you, you've got a lot of problems solved."
Other managers have been the same way. I was at Turner Field last October when the Braves honored Bobby Cox, and it was amazing to see how many of his players showed up, and to see how much love they had for the man who was once their boss.
It was just as notable Sunday how few former Tigers showed up for the Anderson ceremony in Detroit. It was notable that Gibson and his Diamondbacks bench coach, Alan Trammell, remained in the Arizona dugout during the ceremony.
"I was exactly where Sparky would have wanted me," Gibson said cryptically.
I'm sure some of the players who didn't attend -- Jack Morris and Lance Parrish were notable absentees -- felt that they were where Sparky wanted them to be, too. The feelings between Anderson and the Tigers -- between Anderson and Ilitch, really -- never did totally heal, and there was some sense that in Sunday's somewhat understated ceremony, the Tigers did only what they felt they had to do.
I've got to believe Anderson would have found his way around that.
"I think he'd be very, very happy and proud that we came," said Anderson's daughter, Shirlee Engelbrecht, who along with her two brothers represented the Anderson family.
I think so, too. And I got the idea that the players who did show up felt that the ceremony was worth it, even without the man himself.
"But he is here," former Tiger Dave Bergman said. "We were talking about that. We felt Sparky's presence. In our minds, he was here."
In their minds, he's always there.
"The guy lives in me every day," Gibson said Friday.
He's always here, too, always in Detroit. The love Sparky had for his players was rivaled only by the love he had for this city, and the love the city showed him right back.
"Oh my gosh," Engelbrecht said. "He never wanted to leave, even if some of us wanted him to leave earlier. He loved the people too much."
Had he been here, Sparky would have expressed that love himself. He would have found a way to cut through the grudges. He would have had the words to remind us what matters, to focus on what we have and not on what we're missing.
Yes, we were missing him on Sunday. But on this day, it's more important to remember what we had.