I first heard of Sparky Anderson's passing from a CBC colleague, who immediately asked me if I had any Sparky stories. Thankfully, memory serves because I did.
Sparky had already won two World Series with the Cincinnati Reds by the time I met him. Back then, he skippered the Detroit Tigers, when they and the Toronto Blue Jays were fierce division rivals and wore itchy polyester. Sparky, whose penchant for pulling pitchers earned him the monicker "Captain Hook," avoided stepping on the powdered lines as he strolled to the mound and always kept his hands in those stretchy back pockets — so as not to get physical with the umpires he said. Perched on the breezy shores of Lake Ontario, Exhibition Stadium, the first home of the Blue Jays, could be cold and dingy, so Sparky often wore a deep royal blue warmup jacket that lit up his hair as white as rosin.
"The players make the manager. It's never the other way."
"The only reason I'm coming out here tomorrow is because the schedule says I have to."
"I've got my faults. But living in the past is not one of them. There's no future in it."
"Just give me 25 guys on the last year of their contracts. I'll win a pennant every year."
"If I ever find a pitcher who has heat, a good curve and a slider, I might seriously consider marrying him — or at least proposing."
As much as he loved to talk — and boy, did he love to talk — Sparky always kept mound conversations to a minimum. He didn't want to be there and he knew the pitcher didn't want him there, either. But make no mistake about it, Sparky was a player's manager — up front and honest with a homespun charm, and forever grateful for the talent he had to work with. In 1984, he parlayed that talent with the Tigers into a 35-5 start and a third World Series ring, becoming the first manager to win the World Series in both leagues. Success aside, Sparky was beloved in baseball circles. He was affable, colourful and charismatic — a genuine character and, I'm told, a gem of a man.
It was easy to see how much the players admired him. Reporters, too. For a time, I thought Tom Kelly was the easiest and most enjoyable manager to deal with. But Sparky's pre-game sessions were top drawer.
The visiting manager's office at the Ex was cramped and sparsely furnished, with little more than a wooden desk and a padded chair in front of a locker and a shower stall to the left. Sparky's pipe smouldered in an ashtray on the desk beside a black telephone as he leaned back in his chair and handled the scrum with the same ease that Alan Trammell fielded a one-hopper. Sparky willingly talked about anything and everything and, with his Dakotan twang and chewing the Queen's English like a wad of Red Man, he was endlessly entertaining. He could make sittin' on the porch and watchin' the good ol' countryside grow sound exciting. His stories were that good.
Sparky always had time for everyone and always had time to talk baseball. Even in the shower. One afternoon, I burst into the room with cameraman in tow to see a radio reporter interviewing Sparky in the shower stall. Sparky was yakking away about the game as only Sparky could, while the reporter held his microphone in the spray — with the curtain pulled, natch. Sparky stepped out, still talking, and towelled off, still talking, then sat down at the desk, still talking. He seemed genuinely surprised — and appreciative — when I told him I'd happily wait for him to get dressed before getting my clip. He did, and we had a great talk.
That's what made Sparky so beloved. He talked as good a game as he managed. And as a manager, he will be remembered as one of the best.