Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sparky: Remembered Always


       By Ross Newhan

       If you didn't love (there is no other word that fits) Sparky Anderson, if you weren't enlightened and uplifted by his spirit and passion about a game he was never that good at playing but never tired of talking about, the fault was your's and not his.

      George (Sparky) Anderson, a manager's manager, died Thursday at 76 after a long illlness, and the loss is his family's, of course, but also mine, baseball's and that of everyone who crossed his enthusiastic path, including all of his lifelong pals from Dorsey High who are leaving us too quickly.

     I do not write an obituary. Those can be found in the newspapers and other sites on the internet.

     I simply write a few words in regard to how fortunate I feel to have known him, to have him take the phone every time I called, to be invited to take a seat in his clubhouse office every time I visited, to be asked to his Thousand Oaks home on those occasions when I woud be looking for an off-season story and Carol would always have lunch ready.

    I simply write about how his unbridled enthusiasm could fill a reporter's notebook after just one question, and if at times he brought a little Casey Stengel to the language, if at times we all chided him in regard to how he would over estimate the ability of a young player, predicting he would be the next great (pick any All-Star or Hall of Fame player), well, what is spring training and confidence and motivation all about anyway?

   Sparky Anderson would be voted into the Hall of Fame to the headshaking disbelief of the one time infielder from Bridgewater, South Dakota.

   He would win World Series titles with the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 and '76 and with the Detroit Tigers in 1984, the first manager to do it in each league.

   I covered the Dodgers for the L.A. Times during most of the '70s and how lucky can a reporter be?

   I covered the last few years of Walter Alston's managerial career and the beginning of Tom Lasorda's as Alston's successor. I covered the roster turnover in Los Angeles as all those young players who Lasorda had managed in the minors found major league homes, and while that was going on, as Garvey and Lopes, Russell and Cey, became the infield of the present and future, as Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker arrived to establish a veteran tone in the clubhouse, I watched a group of similar young players in Cincinnati develop into what would become known as the Big Red Machine under their comparatively unknown manager, or "Sparky Who?" as the headlines in Cincinnati had read when he was hired at the end of the 1969 season by longtime Reds general manager Bob Howsam.

  Sparky was 35 and preparing to become a coach for Lefty Phillips with the Angels in 1970, two baseball lifers, when Howsam, who was seeking a fresh face for the fresh young Reds and who had been impressed by Anderson's aggressive style while managing the Cardinals' Rock Hill, S.C. team when Howsaw was with the St. Louis organization, called then Angels general manager, Dick Walsh, for permission to offer the fiery Anderson the managerial job with Cincinnati.

  "Everything I have in this house I have because of Bob Howsam," Sparky would tell me on one off-season visit to Thousand Oaks.

  "I would never have become a major league manager if he hadn't given me the opportunity."

 Sparky actually might have become manager of the Angels considering their managerial merry go round during much of the 70s, but he was clearly better off in Cincinnati with a cast that included Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, George Foster and Davey Concepcion.

  The Reds and Dodgers were in the same division then, and their pennant battles were ferocious, and each time they would play each other I would call Sparky to get an update on his view of the race and his team and each time I hung up the phone I had more in my notebook than I needed. Sparky came in worshipping the stoic Alston and, although they later became friends, Sparky often confided that he believed Alston was pushed out and that Lasorda had contributed.

   As it played out, given the Dodgers internal turnover, the arrival of so many young players, the gregarious Lasorda was the right fit at the right time, but his presence added to the heat between the two division rivals.

   Sparky would take the Reds to World Series titles in '75 and '76, and Lasorda would lead the Dodgers to National League pennants the next two years, after which the standup Sparky would quit rather than meet the demands of new general manager Dick Wagner that he fire three coaches.

   Ultimately, he would manage the Tigers for 16 1/2 years, winning the '64 World Series, and retiring with 2,194 victories, at the time third on baseball's all-time list.

   He seldom bragged about his acomplishments, citing Detroit players like Jack Morris and Kirk Gibson and the Hall of Fame nucleus in Cincinnati, but he did once say to me, strikingly under playing it, "for a kid from Bridgewater, a guy whose baseball career pretty much started as a bat boy for Rod Dedeaux (at USC), I  think it's been a pretty good life and a pretty good career."

   His hair would turn prematurely gray and dementia would eventually steal some of his memories, but not those of anyone blessed with having known him.

   He was a great manager, an outstanding personality and a terrific friend who never failed to ask how my baseball playing son was doing and how much he appreciated the intensity that David brought to his job.   
   Rest in peace, Sparky. Even in death you will continue filling up notebooks. 



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