Bless You, Sparky

The first book that I can remember reading on my own as a child was “Bless You Boys”, by Sparky Anderson. It was a daily diary of the 1984 Season that had Sparky’s comments on each game, his views on all the players, and a glimpse into his personal life. After reading it, over the next couple years I bet I checked that book out of my local library at least a dozen times to re-read it. I can actually remember a librarian laughing and asking me how I wasn’t sick of that book by now. Truth is, I could never get sick of seeing, hearing, and/or learning from George “Sparky” Anderson.

And now the man is dead. Sparky died this morning at his home in California at the age of 76. It’s been a tough stretch for Tiger fans recently. First we lost George Kell. Then the legendary Ernie Harwell passed. And now we’ve lost the most iconic figure of the Detroit Tigers of my childhood in Sparky Anderson.

Of course, Sparky would never want to hear that. He always took any praise heaped onto himself and immediately credited the players. In fact, on the day of his Hall of Fame induction, he said, "I got good players, stayed out of their way, let them win a lot, and then just hung around for 26 years.” But Sparky wasn’t fooling anyone. He was and is one of the greatest leaders in baseball history.

Sparky won 2,194 games as a manager, which was the third-highest total in major league history when he retired. All these years later, he’s still ranked sixth. Anderson was the first manager to win World Series titles in both leagues and the only manager to lead two franchises in career wins with Detroit and Cincinnati. Most importantly, the man held the respect of all of his ballplayers. Noted tough guys like Kirk Gibson and David Wells credit much of their professional success to Sparky’s leadership.

For me as a kid though in the 80’s, none of that mattered. I just remember being captivated by the white-haired little man’s passion whether he was smiling and talking to a reporter or screaming his head off at an umpire that dared to make a stupid call. It sounds cheesy, but whenever I think of him, I imagine him with this little twinkle in his eye. I imagine him yelling at Gibby that Goose Gossage doesn’t want to walk him. And whether he was calling Chris Pittaro baseball’s next superstar or Gibson the next Mickey Mantle, you couldn’t get mad at Sparky for his hyperbole. That was just Sparky being Sparky and Tiger fans wouldn’t want him any other way.

At the end of the 2009 season, I was lucky enough to be there for ’84 Tigers reunion. Before the game, my friends and I were walking to our seats when word spread that some of the players were about to arrive and pose for pictures. We stopped to see who it would be and I can’t tell you how surprised I was to see Sparky as one of the guys. My excitement turned to sadness, though, as the legendary manager looked like a shell of his former self. He was so skinny and pale. But as quick as I could register those thoughts, something seemed to spark, no pun intended, in his mind as he broke out in a grin and began laughing and talking with all of the fans. I actually teared up when I saw that…please don’t tell anyone.

When the players were introduced later on, no one got a bigger reaction than Sparky. And he didn’t disappoint when he addressed the fans showing some of the old fire from his managing days.  It was awesome.  For the second time that day, I had to wipe a tear from my eye. It really was a magic moment and something that I’ll never forget.

And for the third time, the tears welled up again today as I learned of the passing of the Icon. The fact that his #11 hasn’t been officially retired is disgusting to me and I hope Mr. Ilitch and the team properly honors Sparky on Opening Day this season. The man gave so much to not only the Tigers, but to the entire city of Detroit with his tireless charity work that it’s the very least the team could do for his memory.

Okay, I’m done. I know this isn’t the kind of stuff you check out this blog for, but it feels good to get this out. Sparky, bless you and your family, good sir. Thank you for so many great moments in baseball history. Your memory will live on forever.