Friday, November 5, 2010

Sparky Anderson Even Argued With Class

As a lifelong Reds fan, I was saddened to hear of the death of Sparky Anderson, the man who managed the team during the most glorious period in franchise history. In 1970, he took over a team that had led the National League in runs scored the previous two years, but had finished in the middle of the standings due to perennially mediocre pitching. He lifted them to the World Series in his first season managing in the majors, and if not for Brooks Robinson might have been an instant champion.

That took a few more years, and the reward was the back-to-back titles in 1975-1976, first overcoming a tough Red Sox team and Carlton Fisk's historic home run, then decimating the Yankees in a delightful sweep. It always seemed to me that Sparky did two things to turn those Reds into champions (three, if you give him credit for engineering the trade that brought Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, and Jack Billingham to Cincinnati). First, he put together a solid everyday lineup and let them play, not trying to micromanage, recognizing that the team was loaded with natural leaders who would make sure things were done right, and supporting them with his own energy and enthusiasm.

Second, he figured out how to overcome the so-so starting pitching that had plagued the team for a decade or two; he focused on the bullpen. In 1970 he had two established right-handed relievers, Clay Carroll and Wayne Granger, to carry most of the load (190 innings between them), plus 19-year-old rookie southpaw Don Gullett, who pitched even better. Within a few years, Sparky had acquired the nickname "Captain Hook" because of his willingness to remove pitchers from the game, yanking starters early and giving his relievers--the unsung gears of the "Big Red Machine"--a bigger responsibility.

By 1975, when the Reds won their first title after losing twice in the World Series behind Sparky, the bullpen corps was four-deep, all logging more than 90 innings as they were called on at all times and in all different situations, combining for 26 wins and 49 saves. Pedro Borbon worked the hardest, 125 innings in 67 appearances; he had the highest ERA of the bunch, 2.95. Rawly Eastwick led the staff with 22 saves and averaged just under five outs per appearance. Will McEnany, the only lefty of the quartet, and Clay Carroll, logged 90 innings apiece while keeping their ERAs under 2.5. No wonder the Reds won their division by 20 games and stormed to the Reds' first championship since 1940.

So it went through Sparky's tenure with the Reds--let Rose and company romp around the field, and keep those pitchers busy! Diehards became wary when Tony Perez was traded after the 1976 championship. We suspected that he was the heart of the team, and it turned out that we were right. The team's decline began with the exile of Perez to Canada, and it was cemented after a second-place finish in 1978 (with 92 wins) when Sparky was fired. That was shocking and offensive; the front office took away Perez, gave him a useless lump named Woody Fryman, and fired him for finishing second.

Sparky was quickly resurrected in Detroit and had a splendid second career there, including another title in 1984 when he piloted another of the best teams of his generation. His reputation grew not only because of his managing talents but because of the force of his personality and character. He emerged as "a man's man," tough when he had to be but fair, passionate, positive, and perpetually happy to be involved with the game he loved. Above all, he had class.

I saw his class displayed in an unusual way one day at Fenway Park. I may be one of the few people who even noticed, but the memory has stayed powerfully with me. On July 6, 1991, I sat in the first row right behind the Red Sox bullpen as they faced Sparky's Tigers. In the second inning, Pete Incaviglia blasted a Roger Clemens fastball over "The Monster" for a two-run homer. Rob Deer hit the next pitch, an angry Clemens fastball, even further over the wall in left. The next pitch from the steaming Clemens hit John Shelby in the back, right between the numbers.

Chaos ensued as Shelby charged the mound, tackled by catcher John Marzano just before he reached Clemens. The brawl was typical, a lot of pushing and shoving and screaming, with an actual skirmish or two along the way before the boys were finished being boys. When the dust settled, Shelby was ejected but Clemens was allowed to continue (part of Clemens' charmed aura--if he wasn't ejected for throwing a broken bat at Mike Piazza, why punish him for nailing a batter in the back with a 95mph blazer?).

Sparky waited until the end of the inning (three more batters) before uttering his protest of Clemens' continued presence in the game. Or maybe he was okay at the time but stewed about it for three more batters before he was so pissed off that he had to say something. He walked slowly out to the plate, where home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether was standing alone, gazing peacefully out toward the center field bleachers. That's where I sat, and I trained my binoculars on the scene next to the plate. Sparky took up a position next to Meriwether, also facing the bleachers.

That was the key for Sparky. The fans seated behind the plate and even off to the side saw only two men--the tall black umpire, the short white manager--standing side by side, like two strangers waiting for a bus. You had to have binoculars trained on them to see how their discussion unfolded. It began calmly--those two commuters exchanging a few notes on the weather, then perhaps disagreeing on when that next bus might come along. Their heads never turned; they kept staring straight ahead as the conversation became more heated. For most of the fans, they seemed to be standing at attention, hands clasped behind their backs as they might be during the national anthem.

But I could see them getting mad, especially Sparky. I'd like to think that his sharpest comments were directed at Clemens, not Meriwether, at least until Meriwether resisted the logic behind them. The Detroit pitcher was warming up the whole time, the commercials concluding on the telecast, and it was time for the game to resume. Now Sparky was livid, but even the people around me were unaware of it. I stayed zoomed in as he unloaded on Meriwether, red-faced with outrage, spitting out the words as his head bobbed up and down a little. The tirade done, he didn't wait for a response but turned sharply to his left and marched back to his dugout.

He didn't get ejected. He had followed the first rule of staying in the game, and the first rule of class: don't show up the umpire. Can you imagine Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, Lou Piniella or Bobby Cox having the presence of mind to give the fans the illusion that nothing in particular was going on over there by home plate apart from a discussion of the best place to catch some clam chowder after the game? No, I can't either.

That was Sparky. He treated everybody with decency, respect, and class--his players, the opposition, the press, and fans. Even the umpire who let a petulant Roger Clemens drill his player in the back.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Thanks Gabe, you're a master storyteller as always. Send me a note sometime, would be great to catch up.

Matt