They Don’t Make ’Em Like Sparky

In this classic file photo from March 1973, Sparky Anderson watches his Reds play a spring training game against the Dodgers. He died Nov. 4 at age 76

For all his talents as a manager, Sparky Anderson wasn’t one of the game’s great prognosticators. Due greatly to his overall enthusiasm, Anderson’s promotion of young players could be almost comical. In 1985 with Detroit, Anderson called Chris Pittaro “the best infield prospect I’ve had come through camp in 15 years.”

The plan was to shift All-Star second baseman Lou Whitaker to third to make room for the rookie. It never happened. Whitaker played 11 more seasons in a near Hall of Fame career, while Pittaro hit .221 over three seasons with no home runs and just seven RBI.

A few years later it was Torey Lovullo’s turn to benefit from Anderson’s vocal talents. “I’ll die before he comes out of the lineup,” he said. Lovullo did come out. He played a total of 41 games for the Tigers over two season.

Then there was Rico Brogna, whom Anderson called “The finest young player I’ve seen since Johnny Bench.” Brogna did hit 102 home runs in nine seasons, but a Bench he was not.

That Anderson wasn’t endlessly ridiculed for his pronouncements shows how the former weak-hitting infielder related to people in and around the game. They loved him, and Sparky returned the feeling in kind. That’s why his passing has evoked such strong emotions. Baseball is quickly losing its great ambassadors and storytellers.

We now live in the era of corporate baseball and corporate managers. Every word, whether from the league or the teams, is carefully crafted to purposefully be more boring than a 1-0 15-inning game. Sparky came from the wellspring of managers such as John McGraw, who cajoled and entertained players, fans and most importantly, the media.

Lou Pinella, Jim Leyland and Tony LaRussa all have been successful, but always seemed more ready to argue meaningless points and opin-

ions than enjoy real conversations about the sport that has dominated their lives. Joe Torre is pure corporate PR. Bobby Cox is enjoyable but could never quite connect like Anderson and Earl Weaver. He just seemed gruff. Really, only Tommy Lasorda remains as the smiling, back-slapping promoter of baseball.

While Anderson’s good humor and love of conversation helped him become a cultural icon in his sport, it was his skill as a manager that has had the greatest impact on the game.

His well-earned monicker “Captain Hook” wasn’t a compliment. At the time, starting pitchers were expected to go eight or nine innings, but Anderson was impatient when it came to his pitchers. He wasn’t going to let them dig a hole for his offense. An older Anderson wasn’t so quick when he reached Detroit, perhaps because he had better pitchers or the fact that Jack Morris didn’t like coming out regardless of who was boss.

Either way, Anderson’s way is now the norm. Pitchers have become specialists, and the white-domed manager is a big reason why.

Anderson also helped change the way players were handled. Perhaps before most others, Anderson realized that stars are not like other people.

Joe Posnanski, in his book The Machine, which chronicles the world champion 1975 Cincinnati Reds, recounts a spring training meeting Sparky had with his players. “He announced that the Machine was made up of two different kinds of players,” wrote Posnanski. ” … there were four superstars … ‘The rest of you,’Sparky said, ‘are turds.'”

That’s quite a statement considering the “turds” included George Foster, César Gerónimo, Ken Griffey Sr. and Dave Concepción. Anderson felt future Hall of Famers earned special treatment, and the others, if they wanted such freedom, had to play better. His message was honest and inspirational, and even somewhat confusing. Which, of course, was pure Sparky.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said relief pitcher Will McEnaney in the book. “None of us ever knew what the f— Sparky was talking about.”

With the talent he had in Cincinnati and the 35-5 start in Detroit in 1984, it would be an easy mistake to say Anderson’s greatest skill was being smart enough to fill out the lineup card. But managers are just that, managers. They are paid to handle egos and attitudes, and no team had more of both than the Reds. Yet even with a player who once tried to argue his way out of a free pass after being hit with a pitch (Pete Rose, of course), Anderson was able to hold it together.

RIP, Sparky.

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