November 4, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Jerry Green: Sparky Anderson: 1934-2010

Sparky Anderson's legacy with Tigers had plenty of wit, charm

Former Tigers manager Sparky Anderson was his jovial self during the 25th anniversary reunion of the 1984 championship team. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Georgie Anderson perched atop the dugout at Tiger Stadium and flashed a sign to Kirk Gibson at home plate.

Sparky, being Sparky, did not transmit the conventional baseball signal to Gibson: hit or take the pitch. He splayed out five fingers.

Gibson flashed 10 back. Sparky nodded.

The amount of the wager having been agreed upon, Gibson promptly fired a line drive into the upper deck in right field. He pranced and flourished his arms as he circled the bases and displaced his fangs in a leering grimace.

It was a gloomy, gray Sunday in October 1984, but all of Detroit cheered and danced and celebrated wildly when the Tigers won the World Series.

Sparky Anderson, that day, etched his name into Major League Baseball history. He became the first manager to win world championships in both the National and American Leagues.

And that Sunday it had cost him only 10 bucks.

Now all of Detroit mourns Sparky, who died Thursday in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Anderson died from complications from dementia, family spokesman Dan Ewald said. A day earlier, Anderson's family said he had been placed in hospice care.

Sparky, at his best, made baseball fun. He made it fun for the fans, and he made it fun for the ballplayers. And he made it fun for the ink-stained wretches who chased after the Tigers, listened to his wisdom, and chuckled at his anecdotes.

The Tigers of 1984 started off 35-5, a historic beginning for a ballclub.

It was in Anaheim, Calif., that Sparky received a lesson in humility -- a bit of a shock for him. He had become famous years before in managing the Cincinnati Reds to World Series triumphs during the 1970s.

One day before a ballgame, Sparky went into the restaurant in the club hotel across from Disneyland.

"Sparky," said a man sitting with his wife at the next table. "We're from Cincinnati. How are you?"

By habit, Sparky went deep into conversation with the couple. They talked about Cincinnati and the so-called Big Red Machine. The way Sparky told the story, the Cincinnati man was enraptured. Then the man suddenly asked:"By the way, Sparky, what are you doing now?"

Always a character

There were moments when Sparky might mangle the language.

We were in Kansas City one sweltering summer's day at a luncheon hosted by The Sporting News.

Tom Gage, The News' baseball beat writer, and I were sitting across the table from Sparky. He was talking about Jose Canseco, who was having an extremely productive season. Sparky admired Canseco's strength, then said:"And he's built like a Greek goddess."

We all laughed and the quote etched -- etched in cement.

Cement, because it was part of one of Sparky's favorite sayings.

He had the habit of raving about young ballplayers. He raved about the young Kirk Gibson -- "The next Mickey Mantle."

And at times he went too far in his statements about a young, untested rookie.

One spring training period down in Lakeland he anointed Chris Pittaro as a certain superstar. Sparky shifted Lou Whitaker, an All-Star at second base, to third to make room for the rookie Pittaro.

"He's going to be a great ballplayer," Sparky told us about Pittaro, "and that's etched in cement."

The cement, unfortunately for Pittaro, soon cracked.

Whitaker was adamant about playing second base -- his position -- and Sparky moved Pittaro to third.

And not too deep in the season, it was discovered Pittaro was not quite ready for the major leagues.

Then there was another Florida spring training day when Sparky was discussing a shoulder injury that hampered Alan Trammell's throwing.

Sparky pooh-poohed the injury, one that sidelined Trammell.

"Pain don't hurt you," Sparky said.

There was focus, too

Sparky had his serious side …sometimes.

He told me in the spring of 1985 how he dreaded the days and nights at the ballparks the previous summer, when the Tigers dominated Major League Baseball.

They had the 35-5 start, they led from opening day to that final World Series victory in October. They trounced the Royals in the American League pennant playoff and the Padres in the World Series.

Sparky worked magic bringing in Willie Hernandez from the bullpen.

And the whole run often drove Sparky to overwhelming stress.

"You know?" Sparky said in Lakeland before the 1985 season, "I worried all last year. I was afraid, after that good start we had, that we'd blow it all."

Of course, the Tigers didn't, and helped maintain the manager's monumental ego.

This writer saw it firsthand in 1983, after Milt Wilcox retired the first 26 White Sox batters in the old, dilapidated Comiskey Park.

Jerry Hairston took away a perfect game from Wilcox that day when he lined a single between Trammell and Whitaker.

I trooped onto the field an instant after Wilcox won the one-hitter and stepped into the dugout tunnel behind the Tigers.

"That's too bad," I could hear Sparky say of the near historic accomplishment, "I ain't never managed one of those."

There was, however, plenty of accomplishments that enhanced Sparky's reputation.

Sparky invented, without meaning to, something that bothers us baseball purists today: the pitch count.

He grinned at his nickname, Captain Hook.

It started, to my knowledge, when Sparky managed the champion Reds.

He had a young lefthander named Don Gullett.

No matter how well Gullett was pitching, Sparky would hook him in the seventh or eighth inning. And what he did with young Gullett would become fashionable for all managers, apparently for eternity.

There was only one pitcher who dared to defy Sparky's hook.

Jack Morris would scowl and sometimes refuse to leave a ballgame.

When the Tigers reassembled for the 25th anniversary of the 1984 champions, Morris told me how he had become so adamant with his refusals to leave for relief pitchers.

I had asked him about his bravura performance in the 1991 World Series when he demanded to pitch in the 10th inning of a 0-0 Game 7 for the Twins.

Tom Kelly, the Minnesota manager, sought to take Morris out of the game after nine.

Morris said, "I'm pitching."

He did and the Twins won, 1-0.

"You know who taught me to be that way?" Morris said, acknowledging the irony. "Sparky Anderson."

After years of getting an education from Sparky, we -- all of Detroit - mourn the loss and cherish the memories.

See Also