Sparky Anderson died Thursday, and with his passing, baseball has lost one of its great characters and all-time gentlemen. I only spent four days with Sparky one spring in Florida and he made a lasting impression on me and his death has left me deeply saddened.
They said he was 76, but that's irrelevant. With his white hair and craggy face, Sparky always looked 20 years older than he really was. His given name was George, but only his wife and childhood sweetheart, Carol, ever called him that. The last time anyone in baseball ever remembered him being called George was on his 1959 Topps baseball card, his one and only season as a player in the big leagues, a season in which he hit all of .218 with no homers in 152 games as the Phillies’ everyday shortstop.
His garbled syntax, repetitive double negatives, contradictory monologues and often outrageous hyperbole belied the genius of the man who went on to become a Hall of Fame manager with the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers, the only skipper in history to win world championships and have 100-win seasons in each league - in 1975-76 with the "Big Red Machine" Reds.
His unique style is what led me to choose him for a simple TV commercial for the building supply giant Georgia Pacific. The TV spot was not very memorable but somehow at spring training Sparky and I hit it off. I think he realized how thrilled I was to be around Major League Baseball.
We needed more Detroit players to fill in in some of the background shots so I was lucky enough to actually dress out with the team. I got to pitch, I got to bat and because it was too difficult to explain my presence on the diamond, I even got to sign autographs. My apologies to Tiger fans who may have thought I was a new prospect that year.
The highlight of the week was the day I pitched with Sparky at the plate. I did come very close to ending his managing career with my first pitch. I pitched him high and tight, under his chin. I was so nervous but after that pitch I settled down and performed admirably for an out of shape ad guy. Sparky applauded my placement which for a true baseball fan from birth was something I will always remember.
Everyday I got to hang out and talk about baseball and life with a true baseball legend. "You gotta be a psychologist in this job," said Anderson. “The secret to managing is knowing your players and keeping them happy."
As for losing, he said philosophically: "We don't always get what we want in life. Don't put your head between your legs. Just stand up and give the other guy credit and hope that someday you'll get another chance. I never judge me. I have too much fun liking me." I believe he lived his life that way.
He also told me before I left spring training to lose some weight and back then I was even that chubby. He asked me to walk a mile or two every day at least.
Sparky was our latter-day version of Casey Stengal, a beguiling old philosopher who never knew a question he couldn't answer - in some way or another.
A sportswriter once told him reporters should be advised not to enter his office without wearing hip boots because of all the BS he'd be apt to toss around amid puffs of smoke from his pipe during the course of his customary hour-long pre-game sessions.
Baseball and all sports in general need more characters like Sparky.Do you have any great memories of sports legends like Sparky?