Sparky Anderson had gift of gab -- and a language of his own
If baseball minted coins, Sparky's face would be embossed on its pennies
Sparky never liked to travel, so he often travelled light -- without luggage
In 26 seasons with the Reds, Tigers, Sparky won 4,030 games, three World Series
Well, God is certainly getting an earful tonight. Jim Murray wrote it 35 years ago, when Casey Stengel died, and the same must be said today, with the passing of Sparky Anderson, who spoke the way he lived and managed: Entirely without punctuation.
"I truly don't know the language," Sparky once told me. "I wish I could know the difference between a noun and a pronoun and an adverb and a verb, but I don't know, and you know, I don't wanna know. Why do you have to know English? It's like 'two'. There's three 'twos'! There's tee-oh, there's tee-double-ya-oh, and there's tee-double-oh! Three twos! Now, if I put any one of those down in a letter, you know which one it is I'm talkin' about. It's like 'there' and 'their.' What's the difference, as long as you know there's a there there."
These remarkable words issued from one of baseball's great faces. If baseball minted its own coins, Sparky's face would be embossed on its pennies. "When I'm here, I'm at home," he told me in the dugout at Tiger Stadium. "There are days when I'm at home and I say, 'Oh Christ,' I say to my wife, 'I don't mean this against you, but when I'm here'" --he meant the ballpark-- "'I'm home.'"
His interests outside baseball and family were few: On the road, Sparky enjoyed watching several laps of CNN Headline News in his hotel room. His gift for math was in inverse relation to his mastery of English. And it was a good thing, too, for Sparky was sometimes the only one who understood his Byzantine lineup changes. A confused scoreboard operator at Tiger Stadium once posted in lights: Now Batting Number 11 Sparky Anderson.
Mercifully, it never came to that for the Tigers: Sparky batted only .218 in 477 major league at-bats before becoming a Hall of Fame manager, the first in history to win the World Series in both leagues. But his real achievement was in adapting to the game's evolving mores over three decades. Or as he put it: "Things change, so change with 'em."
And so Sparky quietly closed his office door when the heavy metal blared in the Tigers' clubhouse. And he eventually allowed players to wear jeans -- nice jeans -- on the road, though they still had to wear slacks and jackets on airplanes.
When he retired, after 27 seasons managing the Reds and Tigers, Sparky shed his own jacket for all future flights. He didn't like to travel if he could possibly avoid it. But Sparky was a pushover for manifold charities, and thus he couldn't avoid it.
I last spoke to him five years ago, at a formal dinner in Connecticut hosted by a group of nuns, the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. (Sparky and the Tigers, you may recall, always had a loyal following among nuns.) Sparky arrived late --having traveled across country from his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. -- wearing a golf shirt and Dockers, a leather shaving kit in hand. "The airline lost my luggage," Sparky said, by way of apology.
Former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, also on the dais, whispered to me: "I've been to dozens of dinners with Sparky and the airline is always losing his luggage."
When I repeated Kuhn's comment to Sparky, he laughed, his eyes twinkling. "That is true," Sparky said, by which he meant the airlines hadn't lost his luggage, because he hadn't brought any luggage at all.
"I bet my entire wardrobe isn't worth $500," Sparky said, plucking at the shirt on whose breast was the logo of a charity golf tournament.
The last time I saw him, I was changing planes at O'Hare when I saw a group of businessmen rubbernecking a celebrity. I turned and saw that it was Sparky. (Only childhood friends called him George; nobody called him Anderson.) Sparky and his wife, Carol, were walking across the United terminal, changing planes. Sparky wore a golf shirt and khakis, a shaving kit swinging from his wrist on a leather loop. I smiled, knowing he was en route to another speaking engagement, where he'd lament the loss of the luggage that contained his suit.
"Speaking engagement" was the right phrase with Sparky, because no one, in my experience, spoke more engagingly, even when -- especially when -- he couldn't express himself as precisely as he wished. He was famous for butchering player names, but that was part of his great charm, the greater part of his charm, even. His genius was not just tactical but syntactical.
"English?" he said. "What's the difference? If you're a writer, yeah, you gotta put it all in there or you'll get letters from teachers. But I see now they're even puttin' 'ain't' in the dictionary, so I'm good, man. I'm covered."
He said that to me in the Tiger Stadium dugout 17 years ago, in a century passed, in a ballpark that no longer exists, on a glorious Sunday afternoon that has receded into memory. "I wish there was such a thing as 'You could do this forever'", Sparky said that day, surveying the beautiful diamond before a game. "But there ain't, let's face it, it don't work that way."
And so God will get another earful tonight when Sparky arrives -- a little late, shaving kit swinging, having traveled light, as ever.