I guess it's somehow fitting that the Skipper of the Tigers has passed away in the same year that the Voice of the Tigers passed on too. Sparky Anderson and Ernie Harwell were easily the most iconic Tigers of my youth and two of the game's great men. It's a shame that Sparky is not in the Hall Of Fame as a Tiger, especially since it stems from a tiff with ownership over refusing to manage the replacement players in the spring of 1995. Sparky was the only one in the game to have sense enough to refuse to be a part of that nonsense, and for that he should always be recognized. In fact Mr. Ilitch, it's far past time that a statue went up at Comerica Park to honor Sparky. This should have been done when he was well enough to have a day of his own. Do it now.
The images of Sparky are everlasting. Heaping praise on the next big prospect, only to ship him out three weeks into the season. Yelling at Kirk Gibson that Goose Gossage was not going to walk him before one of the most memorable HR in Tiger history. Talking to the media in that "aw shucks I don't know nuthin" persona he carried even though he was usually the smartest man in the room. It seems hard to believe he walked away from the game fifteen years ago and never once looked back. Baseball coulda used a lot of Sparky since then.
I have a couple of pretty cool pieces of Sparky memorabilia. One is a life sized cardboard cut-out of Sparky that was part of a Fantastic Sam's promotion from some time in the 80's. I picked it up at a card store in Memphis for $1. I used to have it set up in a two bedroom apartment I once lived in. The way it was placed in the room it was the first thing you saw when you exited the bathroom and I can't count the number of people who jumped back startled when they saw ol' Sparky standing there. I still laugh thinking about it.
I also have a game program from 1984 that I got Sparky to sign that summer at Tiger Stadium. My friends and I went to many games that summer and we would always sit in the lower deck right field bleachers so that we could cheer for Kirk Gibson. On several occasions we were the first ones in line when the gates opened, but there would always be this guy already sitting in the stands listening to a boom box and chatting with the players on both teams. (When I got older I figured out that the must have been the official Detroit dope dealer to the visiting A.L. players....)
This particular day was in the fall, when it was apparent that the Tigers would be making the postseason. The guy was badgering Gibby about getting him some Series tickets. Gibby told him he'd see what he could do. The guy then asked Gibby to get Sparky for him. Gibby put two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly at the Tiger dugout and waved his arm. Immediately Sparky came trotting out to the right field fence. There were only a handful of us standing there as the guy begged Sparky for Series tickets. I walked up to the fence and held my program and pen out to Sparky. He grabbed it and signed it without ever looking up. He told the guy he'd see what he could do and then trotted back to the dugout. To this day I'm more amazed that hippie got Gibby to get Sparky to come out there and talk to him about Series tickets as anything I've ever seen in baseball.
My other favorite Sparky story is the one that never happened. Earlier that summer, my family from Arkansas came to visit us. My uncle grew up with Glenn Abbott, who was a Tiger pitcher at the time. My uncle was hoping to be able to say hi to Glenn at the game, which my 15 year old brain took to mean that I was going to get to go into the clubhouse before the game and meet Sparky and all the players. I had visions of getting a ball signed by all the players and getting to sit in Sparky's office with him and discuss the great summer of Tiger baseball that we were both enjoying.
Well, we went to the game that night and Abbott was nowhere to be found. We looked high and low for him and never saw him once. I sat and brooded for the rest of the night while we got swept in an old fashioned twi-night doubleheader against the California Angels. My dream of getting to meet Sparky was crushed. The next morning when I got up, my dad handed me the sports pages and showed me where Glenn Abbott had been released the day before we went to the game. And so it goes.....
Luckily I did get the autograph from him later that summer. But whenever I think about Sparky, I always think about the time we never got to meet and hang out. Hopefully, a long time from now of course, we will be able to spend that time together and catch up on baseball after all. We'll have a lot to discuss.
Rest In Peace, Sparky. You were the best. Bless you, boy.