Sparky Anderson, arms open and smiling nervously, turned to greet the parade of men in Cincinnati uniforms as they walked toward him at the Reds' spring training complex in Tampa. The former manager had been awake since 4 a.m., too anxious to sleep, wondering how he would feel and what it would be like to face his old players again. What it was like, happily, was a family reunion.
One by one he greeted them. Grabbing Manny Sarmiento's hand, he cried, "Oh, Manny, you look nice." Seeing Dave Concepcion, he held him by the shoulders. "David, my son." He put an arm around Joe Morgan—"Joe, how are ya?"—and then he took Johnny Bench aside. "I thought baseball was stealing," said Sparky Anderson. "This work is criminal."
Well, almost. Anderson, fired last fall after nine years as manager of the Reds, was visiting the team in his role as a commentator for a Los Angeles TV station. The stop in Tampa was just another on his itinerary, but easily the most bizarre. Here was the man who last year was the winningest active manager in baseball, dressed in lime pants and white patent leather shoes, nodding and pointing a microphone at the nose of the man who had replaced him, John McNamara, who has never won so much as a divisional title in the major leagues. Twenty feet away stood the man who had fired Anderson, Dick Wagner. Spotting him, Anderson yelled, "Daddy Wags!" and ran over to shake his hand. All that was missing to make it Old Home Week was Pete Rose.
Managers are fired all the time, dropping in the fall like leaves, but no dismissal quite matches that of Anderson. After six seasons in which they won five divisional titles, four National League pennants and two World Series, the Reds spent the next two years struggling and floundering, and failing to win the National League West. In 1978, badly hampered by injuries to Morgan, Tom Seaver, Bench, Dan Driessen and Bill Bonham, they finished second to the Dodgers for the second straight year.
"I felt we lost our aggressiveness both offensively and defensively," Wagner says, explaining his decision to replace Anderson, who is second to Joe McCarthy in modern lifetime winning percentage. "We were careless, lackadaisical—things like not hitting the cut-off man, just not having the dash that goes with a club like the Reds. A manager can't play for his fellows, but he's got to work with his coaches and the players that lead the team to get the job done. I felt if we didn't do something we could have a disaster."
Wagner broke the news to Anderson on a November morning at the Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles, telling him, "I'm going to do the toughest thing I ever had to do in my life. We're not bringing you back." And as the clincher, Sparky's successor was to be his old friend McNamara.
The Sparky Anderson era had ended. And on came the amiable, soft-spoken McNamara, a 46-year-old former minor league catcher who had been managing in the minors or majors since 1959. He first came to the big leagues in 1969, replacing Hank Bauer at Oakland late in the season, and led the A's to a second-place finish in 1970. Charlie Finley then dismissed him. He coached at San Francisco for three seasons, then took over as manager of San Diego. In three full seasons under McNamara, the Padres never finished better than fourth, but Wagner felt that he had done a good job. " San Diego was an expansion team," Wagner says. "A very tough assignment." Ironically, in a poll of managers, Sparky Anderson picked him as the best manager in the league.
In changing managers, Wagner was letting go a personable, gregarious skipper for one who managed much like Bob Lemon—in the key of utter low. But there were stylistic similarities between McNamara and Anderson. " John's no different from Sparky," says Reggie Jackson, who played under McNamara at Oakland. "Same mold, same type of guy. He was always letting you be your own guy, your own man. I liked him very much." McNamara says of himself that he is an open-door, come-in-at-any-time communicator.
One of the first things he communicated was the news to 26-year-old Ray Knight that he would be taking over for Rose at third base. "Somebody has to move over there," Knight says. "It's a great opportunity for me. It's something you dream of and hope for."
For Knight it has been eight years coming. He spent six years in the minors, four of them with Cincinnati's Triple A club in Indianapolis. In 1975, Knight's best year at Indianapolis, he hit .272, with 48 RBIs. He came to Cincinnati in 1977 as Rose's intended replacement, but was used only sparingly at various positions. In two full years Knight has 157 major league at bats; the first season he had 24 hits in 92 at bats (.261)and 13 RBIs. Last season he batted only 65 times, hitting .200 with four RBIs. Who knows?