Mark Tigers Late in Retiring Sparky's Number
Posthumously is an empty word, full of regret. It’s a parade rained on; a celebration muted.
Someone’s being honored in death, and so often the death wasn’t too long prior to the honoring.
Sometimes the posthumous honor can’t be helped. Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig, two of the youngest Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, come to mind. Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates died on New Year’s Eve, 1972, traveling on a doomed plane, trying to bring relief to some earthquake victims. Clemente was 38. The New York Yankees’ Gehrig succumbed to the neuromuscular disease that would bear his name at age 37.
It couldn’t be avoided, to pay homage to Clemente and Gehrig after they were taken from us.
This Sunday, the Tigers are going to hold a pre-game ceremony and the stories will flow and so will the tears and then the jersey will be retired and the whole thing will have an air of sadness about it—because the honoree won’t be there to see it.
The Tigers are going to do the right thing the wrong way, when they retire Sparky Anderson’s no. 11 on Sunday before the game with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It was by design, of course, that the D-Backs are the team in town for this occasion, because their manager is Kirk Gibson and their bench coach is Alan Trammell, two Tigers heroes of the past who were touched deeply by Sparky, and who are influenced by him to this day.
But this is all wrong. This is closing the barn door after the horses are out. The Tigers had years to put Sparky’s number out of commission and they failed to do so. The reasoning isn’t very tasteful.
Actually, there’s something else wrong with this whole thing. The Tigers should be honoring two men on Sunday: Sparky and Bill Freehan, the old catcher who was no. 11 before Sparky and whose wearing of that number has seemingly been erased from the fans’ memory banks.
Freehan was, simply, the best catcher in the American League for most of the 1960s and maybe the best catcher in Tigers history—though Mickey Cochrane supporters would have something to say about that.
Freehan, a local kid who went to the University of Michigan, wore no. 11 from 1963-76 and was one of the greatest of Tigers. He was a class act who stayed with the team after retirement to instruct the young catchers in spring training and then only left to coach Michigan baseball. Freehan stayed true to both his baseball wives.
But Sunday is Sparky’s day, which means Freehan won’t ever get his due. Neither will Sparky, if you want to know the truth.
The Tigers blew this one. They had a big lead and frittered it all away. It was a choke job, perpetrated by one man—owner Mike Ilitch.
Ilitch hasn’t made too many PR blunders in his 29 years owning the Red Wings and 19 years owning the Tigers. His commitment to Detroit and his generosity to his players have been above and beyond the call of duty.
Except when it comes to Sparky Anderson, who died last November after a brief battle with dementia. This is where Mike Ilitch has shamelessly put personal vendetta ahead of his stewardship of the Tigers franchise.
The relationship between Ilitch and Sparky got off to a rocky start and didn’t get much better. It all started when Ilitch, as part of his agreement to buy the Tigers in 1992, had outgoing owner Tom Monaghan fire two of Sparky’s close friends—team executives Jim Campbell and Bo Schembechler.
Sparky, in his book They Call Me Sparky, said that things changed after Ilitch bought the Tigers and Campbell and Schembechler were canned. Nothing too shocking there; Sparky was hired by Campbell in 1979 and in the two years that Bo was the Tigers president, he and the skipper bonded fast. So no wonder things changed when Ilitch took over and brought in his own people.
It got worse in spring training, 1995, when Sparky publicly and vehemently refused to manage the replacement players who the owners were considering suiting up in the throes of the 1994-95 players strike.
Sparky dug his heels in and Ilitch didn’t care for that one bit. 1995 was Sparky’s last season managing the Tigers, and he couldn’t get out of town fast enough. When Anderson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, he infamously chose to be chiseled onto his plaque wearing a Cincinnati Reds cap.
Sparky managed the Reds from 1970-78—just a little more than half the time he spent piloting the Tigers (1979-95). Yet Sparky chose to be immortalized in bronze wearing the Cincinnati “C” instead of the Old English D. Speculation as to why, leads to no unsurprising theories.
Sparky could have handled things better, too, I’m sure. It’s a new owner’s prerogative to retain or dismiss staff from the previous reign. Sparky should have been more tolerant of Ilitch’s discretion.
But Ilitch is the owner and thus has way more influence over what does and doesn’t get done when it comes to who the Tigers choose to commemorate.
Sparky stopped being Sparky, those close to him say, about two years ago. He’d still show up to baseball events but he wasn’t all there. It was evident during the 25th anniversary celebration of the 1984 World Series team.
Before that—long before—Mike Ilitch had his shot at retiring Sparky’s no. 11 but chose not to take it.
Now, only after Anderson’s death, are the Tigers getting around to doing the right thing.
Gibson was quoted in Friday’s Detroit Free Press.
“I’ll just tell you this,” Gibby said. “The thing I’m going to least like about (the number retirement) is that (Sparky’s) not there. That’s going to be the toughest part for me.”
It’s going to be the toughest part for everyone—from Sparky’s widow Carol, who expressed similar sentiments shortly after the ceremony was first announced, to the old Tigers players who plan on showing up, to the fans.
Here’s something telling: the Tigers actually released a statement on Friday that said Ilitch would appear in person and on the field on Sunday to help retire Sparky’s number.
The Tigers needed to issue a statement to confirm something that should be a no-brainer?
The reason is simple. The statement was indirect acknowledgement that Ilitch’s past grudge still haunts him, and the Tigers, to this day—or else the statement wouldn’t be necessary.
They’re going to put no. 11 into moth balls for good on Sunday. With apologies to Dickens, it will be the best of times, and it will be the worst of times.
That’s what happens when you do these things posthumously—especially when it didn’t have to be this way.
If you’re scoring at home, the play is E-owner.