Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sparky Anderson, 1934-2010. R.I.P.

Hall of Fame manager George "Sparky" Anderson has died of complications of dementia. Anderson passed away a day after being placed in hospice care. He was 76.

Anderson was a light hitting second baseman who played only season in the big leagues when he was a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1959.

A little over a decade later, Anderson was named manager of the Cincinnati Reds and in 1970 guided the Reds to the first of four National League pennants. While only 36 when he took over the reins of the Reds his gray hair made him look far older. Anderson led teams with the likes of Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench who became the nucleus of the Big Red Machine. The Reds reached their epoch when they won back to back World Series in 1975 and 1976.

The Reds, however, dismissed Anderson following the 1978 season. But Anderson was not down for long. The Detroit Tigers named Anderson their new manager in June 1979 and he would remain at the helm of the Tigers through the 1995 season. In 1984, Anderson became the first manager in MLB history to lead a team to a World Series title in both leagues (a feat since matched by Tony LaRussa.) With a roster that included Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and Willie Hernandez the 1984 Tigers began the season 35-5 and never looked back.

In April 1986, Thunder Bay Television switched its American TV signals from Duluth, Minnesota to Detroit. It was then that I started watching Tigers baseball. The year I remember best was 1987 when they won the AL East title despite starting the season 11-19. They were behind the Toronto Blue Jays by 3½ games entering the final week of that season and swept the Jays in the final weekend series highlighted by a complete game six-hit shutout thrown by Frank Tanana on the final day of the season to clinch the AL East pennant. The only run of the game came on a solo homerun by Larry Herndon. However, the Tigers would be upset by the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS.

But the Tigers would soon fall on hard times. They lost 103 games during the 1989. I remember that Anderson was so overcome by stress that he took a month's leave of absence in the middle of the season. I remember when he said that he felt he "had died a thousand deaths." The Tigers would only enjoy two more winning seasons under Anderson over the next six years. Yet every spring training Anderson kept an upbeat attitude and would tell the press corps it was the best team he had since coming to Detroit whether or not it was true.

Anderson made his last public appearance in May when the Tigers visited Dodger Stadium for an interleague series.

Anderson is the fourth legend the Tigers have lost in the past 18 months. Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell passed away last May. In April 2009, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych died suddenly and a month earlier Tigers Hall of Fame third baseman and later broadcaster George Kell passed away.

Here's my favorite Sparky Anderson story. Shortly after he took over in Detroit, the Tigers were playing the Blue Jays at old Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. While Anderson was making a pitching change some fans were heckling him. As he walked back to the dugout he told them to shut up. And they did. That was Sparky.

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