Friday, January 09, 2009

Thirty Years Ago (gasp!), Sparky Changed Detroit Baseball

He bounded into town, talking about catching lightning in a bottle, raving at the young talent he was inheriting. He hadn't been out of the game even a year, but he was already chomping at the bit to don a uniform once more and monkey around with lineup cards, batting orders, and to speak in dramatic hyperbole about his players.

Then the Tigers started playing games under Sparky Anderson, and promptly fell flat on their faces.

It didn't last, though -- Sparky's initial wretched streak of games as Tigers manager. But you can look it up and see that the Tigers were 2-9 in their first 11 games under Sparky.

It was 1979 -- 30 years ago, believe it or not -- when Sparky Anderson changed baseball in Detroit forever.

I've told the story here before, but here goes again.

Sparky was all set to manage the Cubs in 1980, after having been fired by the Reds after the 1978 season. The firing surprised him so much, and left such an indelible mark on him, that Anderson even remembers the room number of the hotel in which he was given the ziggy.

So the Cubs had Sparky wrapped up -- or so they thought -- to take over in 1980.

But an innocent conversation in Anaheim changed all that.

Tigers announcer George Kell overheard Angels announcer Don Drysdale say that Sparky was looking to get back into managing, and that he had an agreement with the Cubs. Kell told Tigers GM Jim Campbell. The Tigers were being managed by Les Moss, and playing reasonably well for Moss in his first season. But this was Sparky Anderson, and once Campbell learned that Sparky was looking to manage again, Campbell got some ideas.

Several pestering phone calls later, Campbell managed to convince Sparky to ditch the Cubs and come to Detroit, forthwith. Within days, Sparky was announced as Tigers manager. It was June, 1979. He stayed for 16-plus years, winning a couple of divisional titles and one World Series.

And Detroit was introduced to Sparky-ese.

Sparky's Hall of Fame plaque; yes, that's a Reds cap

Kirk Gibson was "the next Mickey Mantle." The 1980 Tigers would "win 90 games, easily." Chris Pittaro would force Lou Whitaker, no less, to switch positions. Torey Luvollo was the best thing since sliced bread, or at least Cal Ripken, Jr.

Starting in June '79, pain wouldn't hurt, there wouldn't be enough perfume to make pigs smell good, and newly-acquired players would make their Tigers debut on their very first day.

It wouldn't be all fun and games, though. There was the bottoming out of the team in 1989, leading to Sparky taking a leave of absence, just to get away from it all. The relationship between he and the Tigers brass changed, for the worse, when Mike Ilitch bought the team. After the team canned Bo Schembechler as president, Sparky started playing out the string in Detroit. Hence his decision to depict himself in a Reds cap when his Hall of Fame plaque was chiseled. That was a real slap, considering how disappointed he had once been with the Reds.

Thirty years ago, this June. The calendar really won't stop for us, will it?


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