After managing over 3,600 games, it’s pure fear that keeps Sparky Anderson fired up. The Detroit Tigers manager and his nerves come to Baltimore this weekend with a chance to maul the Orioles’ pennant hopes.
“My fear is a good fear,” Anderson contends. He’s the only manager to win a World Series in both leagues, he’s No. 5 on the all-time win list, and he’s just the seventh manager to break the 2,000-win barrier. Yet, Anderson admits, “I get nervous before every game,” which may explain the white hair that has been his trademark since his playing days, and perhaps his three-week absence for nervous exhaustion during the 1989 season.
During the first of his nine years of managing the Cincinnati Reds, Anderson remembers his then-9-year-old daughter asking at the breakfast table, “Why does Daddy’s orange juice shake?”
Anderson holds out his right hand, and it gently trembles 70 minutes before game time, no matter where his team is in the standings.
“There will never be a day during the season when I don’t have that,” Anderson states. “If you don’t have that, you’re not in the game. You’re not alive.”
Anderson went to work for a television station in Los Angeles after the Reds dumped him at the close of the 1978 season (he’d finished second two years in a row, the only time he went consecutive seasons without a title in Cincy). “I did a couple interviews before the game, sat in the press box, watched a few innings, and I was out of there every night at 9 o’clock. It didn’t matter if it was bases loaded, three-and-two,” Anderson remembers. “Nine o’clock and I was gone.”
Barely two months into this life of ease with good money, California living, and bankers’ hours, Anderson informed his wife that it was time to take another baseball job, with Detroit.
“I told her I had to go back. I wasn’t nervous anymore.”
Anderson admits he’s in it for the pain. “You must have pain to enjoy coaching. Without it, you don’t have nothing. A guy working on a telephone all day—and I’m not saying anything bad about any profession—he never gets that fear of losing.”
This season, Anderson had the Tigers very much alive in the American League East, leading the division for much of the first half and suddenly re-entering the race a couple of weeks ago, despite poor pitching and worse defense. But even the best team loses one out of three, so Anderson is guaranteed enough pain to keep him quite alive at age 59.
Despite all the worrying that he does, Anderson believes managers make little difference in which team wins. “There’s never been a good manager in the history of the game,” according to Anderson, “but there have been some great players.”
Anderson has managed some of the greatest, and he has adapted his managerial style to accommodate them and keep things sweet in the clubhouse. If that’s your definition of a players’ manager, Sparky’s picture belongs next to that entry. “They’re the game,” Anderson says of players, and he says a manager’s job is to stay out of their way. Anderson’s ebullient optimism and sometimes outrageous hyperbole often overshadow his managerial abilities in a way reminiscent of Casey Stengel, to whom Anderson is often compared for his winning ways and nonstop mouth. He often makes contradictory statements as he puffs on his pipe during pre-game gab sessions, but most observers agree that he believes what he says when he says it. (One dissenter is former coach and longtime friend Alex Grammas, who called Anderson a fraud after being fired under a front-office edict to pare the staff.)
During his tenure with the Reds, Anderson often consulted with team leaders Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose. He also earned the nickname “Captain Hook” for his quick removal of struggling starting pitchers, because those Reds featured a bullpen stronger than the starting rotation. Anderson credits Charlie Dressen with teaching him about handling pitching. But Anderson’s skills at handling diverse personalities are harder to pin down. “You gotta be a psychologist in this job,” he winks.
“With most managers, you can barely talk to them about baseball,” Tiger standout Tony Phillips says. “With Sparky, you can talk about anything: family, finances, and, of course, baseball. He respects you as a person, so it’s hard not to go out there and not want to do well.”
Phillips’ success during the early ’90s at a variety of positions has added a new wrinkle to Anderson’s managerial style with the power-packed Tigers. In an effort to keep his best bats in the lineup, Anderson routinely switches players’ defensive positions.
“If they make an error, it’s my fault,” Anderson says. On the subject of his Hall of Fame catcher on the Big Red Machine, he adds, in typical Anderson fashion, “If I’d played Johnny Bench at first 40 games a year, it would’ve added years to his career. There’s no telling what he would have done.”
Bench and those Reds did all right, despite that oversight. The 1976 Reds won 102 games, becoming the first National League club since expansion to post back-to-back 100-win seasons. They swept the Phillies in the playoffs and the New York Yankees in the World Series, the only sweep in the history of the two-tier post-season format. The consecutive world titles were the first for an NL team since McGraw’s New York Giants in 1921 and ’22.
Over the first seven years, Anderson averaged 98 wins and collected five pennants. The reason for his firing after the Reds’ second-place finishes in 1977 and ’78 remains a mystery. “I still don’t understand it,” Anderson says, adding that he no longer worries about getting the pink slip. “Maybe they’d be doing me a favor.”
After his three-week hiatus in 1989, Anderson returned to baseball with a lighter schedule of off-field commitments and a healthier approach. “It’s a marvelous fantasy,” he says of baseball, even if a nerve-racking one. “There will be 40,000 people in the stands tonight, and every one of them wishes they could be down here.”