He never met a Tiger he didn't want to sell. Chris Pittaro? "He has a chance to be the greatest second baseman who ever lived," Sparky once said, adding that the youngster was "the best rookie infielder I've seen in 15 years of managing." Rico Brogna? "The finest young player I've seen since Johnny Bench." Torey Lovullo? "I'll die," said Sparky, "before he comes out of the lineup." Sparky lives. In Detroit, Lovullo does not.
When you are a veritable Mount Pinatubo of enthusiasm and kindness, you simply cannot help yourself. In 1982 Sparky publicly proclaimed that he would not make any more predictions (which was itself a prediction). Hours after the story rolled oil the presses. Sparky approached Boston Red Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak at the Tiger Stadium batting cage. It was June. The Mariners were hot. "Watch Seattle," Sparky said, arching those eyebrows meaningfully. "They're gonna win the whole thing."
In 1989 Sparky took 17 days off in the middle of the season for what he describes as "personal reasons." Sparky is old enough to remember when there were such things as "personal reasons." and, admirably, his personal reasons remain personal. Sparky is the last American celebrity not to gleefully fly his dirty laundry from a flagpole in the town square. In fact, he has no dirty laundry: Sparky is said to spend most days in the off-season padding about his Thousand Oaks, Calif., home in a sweatsuit.
"My wife and I, we're like old farmers," he says. "We're not party people. I don't care about celebrities. I ain't awed by 'em, and if I'm one of 'em, I ain't awed by me. The word celebrity and the word VIP? Ha ha heh heh hgggh. I die laughing when I get a letter marked VIP. It says call this number to say whether you're coming or not. I don't wanna go to the White House. I don't wanna go nowhere.
"Show-business people, that don't thrill me. I just wanna be around old friends who don't wanna talk about baseball. People think I'm outgoing, I'm not at all. If our general manager wants to talk to me in the wintertime about a deal he's got going, we'll talk. But otherwise the office doesn't call me, and I don't call the office. I want 4½ months to be a grandfather.
"I have nine grandchildren. Three children and nine grandchildren. My wife and I, we're in the same house in Thousand Oaks we bought 27 years ago, and I'll be there when I die because that's where our children were raised. If they don't want the house when I'm dead, it'll be up to them to sell it, not me."
It is a wonderful, Sparkyrific sentiment, and he is adamant about it: He will not sell the house when he's dead.
"They used to plunk ya regular."
Sparky is holding forth this Thursday in front of the Tiger bat rack. The subject is the lost science of beanball pitching. Someone has informed Sparky that the Angels and the Toronto Blue Jays engaged in an 18-minute brawl late last night on the West Coast. This gets Sparky going on the sundry atrocities that pitchers once perpetrated on hitters.
"What's this?" asks Tiger designated hitter Kirk Gibson, sidling over to his manager, surveying the audience, his interest clearly piqued. "We got the Thursday Court here. Really feedin' 'em the——today, huh?"