(Photo by Associated Press)
With the sad news today of Sparky Anderson’s death at age 76, I began to look up some of the interviews I’ve had with him over the years. The underlying theme, I discovered, was Anderson’s insistence that he was merely along for the ride, that overwhelming talent is what made him a great manager.
“The public is so fooled,” he said in 2004. “They think, ‘Oh, boy, the manager won this or that. What did he win? Nothing. The players did all the winning.”
He went on to say that when it came to the manager in the opposing dugout, “The only ones I worried about were the ones with talent. The guys with no talent, I’ll let them be Einstein; they’re not going to beat me.”
Of course, there is some truth to that sentiment. The Big Red Machine helped make Sparky look like a genius, and so did Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker et al in Detroit.
But don’t let Anderson fool you — he did a brilliant job managing the disparate personalities he was handed, and beyond that presented himself in such an endearing and charismatic fashion that he legitimately rose to the stature of legend.
Part of that, to be honest, was because no one has ever been better with the media. He belonged to a dying breed that I refer to as the racanteur/manager, a group exemplified by the one-name icons — Sparky, Whitey, Tommy, Billy, Lou. These were guys with whom, early in my career, you could hang out in their office, hours before the game, and just shoot the breeze, talking baseball, listening to their stories, and soaking up knowledge.
Hal McCoy, the great Cincinnati-based writer, relates an anecdote that fits perfectly with my memories of Anderson:
From a media standpoint, Sparky was a treasure. He never saw a pen and pad or a microphone he didn’t like. And his stories and observations regaled everybody who wandered into his office, which was always over-populated with writers and broadcasters.
One of my favorites was before the start of the 1975 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. A large phalanx of writers trooped into his office to quiz him. One writer asked a question and Sparky gave a long, detailed answer.
The first group left his office and another wave wedged its way in. Another writer asked the same question and Sparky launched into a long, involved answer. But he gave the exact opposite answer to the same question.
When that group left his office, I said, “Sparky, two guys asked you the same question and you gave them two totally opposite answers.” Sparky gave me that impish grin and said, “Hey, you can’t give everybody the same story.”
Nowadays, managers don’t seem to have as much time to hang out and talk, and that’s understandable, though regrettable. The sheer volume of media has increased so much that a manager has to consolidate his availability or never have time to do his other tasks. But I wonder if we’ll have as many larger-than-life skippers as we did in the 1970s and ’80s.
One aspect of Anderson’s charm was his hyperbole. He was forever over-hyping his young players, to the amusement of all who listened to his breathless quotes. Peter Gammons once compiled 10 such quotes, which I found today in a poignant tribute to Anderson by Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle:
1. ” Chris Pittaro is the best rookie I’ve had in 15 years.”
2. “Mike Laga will make you forget about every power hitter that ever lived.”
3. “We’d have to have a staff of nine Dwight Goodens for Mickey Mahler not to make this team.”
4. “Don Gullett is going to the Hall of Fame.”
5. “Kirk Gibson is the next Mickey Mantle.”
6. ”If you don’t like Dave Rucker, you don’t like ice cream.”
7. “Barbaro Garbey is another Roberto Clemente.”
8. “When he’s right, Freddie Norman is the best lefty in baseball.”
9. ” Mike Ivie has the hitting mechanics of Steve Garvey.”
10. “Doug Baker is among the six best shortstops in baseball.”
For all the minimizing Anderson did about a manager’s importance, he lived and died with each victory and loss as much as any manager ever has. Tim Kurkjian, in his book, “Is This A Great Game, or What?” wrote how Anderson never filled his coffee cup more than halfway because his hands shook so badly during the season it would spill.
“This is 35 years of managing,” he told Kurkjian. “Two weeks after the season, the shaking stops. When the season starts, it starts.”
Former Giants manager Roger Craig, Anderson’s pitching coach in Detroit on the 1984 World Series chamionship team, told me once for a 1989 article in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat that I dug up today, “He suffers losses harder than anyone I have ever known. Even in 1984, when we won all those games, if we lost two in a row he’d think we would never win again. He would sit at home staring at the walls.”
Added Craig (who definitely fell into the raconteur/manager category), “At least I have my golf and my horses. Sparky, more than any other manager, is dedicated to his baseball. I hate to say it, but it comes before his wife and family, before anything.”
That single-minded dedication seemed to come back to haunt him in 1989, when Anderson abruptly left the Tigers in midseason for what was described as “physical and mental exhaustion.”
But when Mike Hargrove quit the Mariners during the 2007 season, I did an article on managerial burnout and contacted Anderson to ask him about that. I got a surprising admission. Here’s what I wrote:
Anderson returned to his California home and missed 17 games, later writing of the incident in his autobiography, “I no longer could do all the things that used to be so easy. I no longer could be everything that everybody else wanted me to be. I could no longer be Sparky Anderson. More importantly, I had no desire to be.”
But Anderson says now the exhaustion story was a ruse, and the real problem was a family matter he had to resolve.
“This was a personal thing in the family,” he said. “[Tigers president] Jim Campbell was the greatest in the world. He said, `Stay home until you get it all straightened out. We’ll say you were overworked and losing so much and it was just exhaustion.’
“Jim called me after I was home three days and said, `Why don’t you go play golf?’ I said, `I can’t show up on the golf course.’ He said, `You play golf and tend to the other thing in the afternoon.’ I did. I was playing golf. I have to admit, I was embarrassed.”
Anderson was a larger-than-life character, a tremendous ambassador for baseball, and, despite his protestations, one heck of a great manager. He will be greatly missed.