RESTED AND READY : Anderson Has the Spark, but Can Tigers Claw Back?
Sparky Anderson never had it so good. It was, in fact, the nicest winter he ever had.
He slept in every morning until 8, got up and put on the coffee, read the paper, ate breakfast, helped his sons who live in his Thousand Oaks neighborhood paint their homes, and knocked off every afternoon about 2:30.
He felt so good, he wondered why it had taken him so long to stop running himself into exhaustion between baseball seasons.
“I’ve been running ever since I’ve been managing,” he said. “I did 15 things every winter. But this winter I didn’t go anywhere. I found out how nice it can be. Now I know why bears hibernate and why, when they come out again, they are smiling. I’ll never travel again. Not only will I not travel, I won’t do anything.”
Anderson didn’t travel anywhere to make speeches and appearances last winter for a good reason. Last fall he fell backward off a ladder at his home and broke his left arm.
As the deeply tanned, white-haired manager talked at the Detroit Tigers’ training camp here, the euphoria of his winter of content lingered.
“If I keep feeling this good, there is no limit to how many years I’ll manage,” he said. “I just turned 52 and I know how to do this thing now. You give it eight months and then for four months you don’t even think about it. It took me 16 years to learn that.”
It was not the kind of winter one would have expected Anderson to have. After all, his summer had been one of discontent. His team, which had won 104 games in 1984, had swept three games from the Kansas City Royals in the American League playoff, and then had beaten the San Diego Padres in five games to win the World Series, won only 84 in 1985.
There had been talk of a dynasty in Detroit after the 1984 season. There usually is when a team as young and talented as the Tigers were has such a truly awesome season.
How good was it?
The Tigers led the American League East every day, a feat never before accomplished in the major leagues by a team playing a 162-game schedule. The last team to do it in 154 games was the 1927 New York Yankees.
The Tigers won 18 of 20 games in April, and 35 of their first 40. They once won 17 straight games on the road. Six players made the All-Star team.
Shortstop Alan Trammell hit .314 and won a Gold Glove. Outfielder Kirk Gibson hit .282 and had 27 home runs, 91 runs batted in and 29 stolen bases. Catcher Lance Parrish hit 33 home runs and drove in 98 runs. Second baseman Lou Whitaker hit .289.
The pitchers weren’t bad, either. Jack Morris won 19 games, lost 11 and pitched a no-hitter. Dan Petry won 18, lost 8 and had an earned-run average of 3.24. Relief pitcher Willie Hernandez had 32 saves in 80 games, a won-loss record of 9-3 and an ERA of 1.92.
Former Detroit star Al Kaline said of the 1984 club: “This is the most professional team I’ve ever seen.”
Manager Anderson thought it was pretty good, too. “We catch it well, hit it well and pitch it well,” he said.
With unabashed enthusiasm, he compared the Tigers to his Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, which had featured Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, George Foster and Tony Perez.
As dynasties go in sports today, the one that was predicted for Detroit was as good as any. Teams with the ability to win even two championships in a row are as rare today as one-year player contracts.
Once upon a time, before athletes became rich, distracted and complacent, dynasties were not so uncommon.
The Yankees won 14 pennants in 16 years and five straight World Series. The Boston Celtics won eight NBA championships in succession. The Cleveland Browns won six straight division championships. The Oakland A’s won five straight division titles and three World Series in a row.
Anderson and most other observers believed the Tigers would be even better in 1985 than they were in 1984. Nevada bookies made them 4-1 favorites to win again. So when the club fell on its face it was not surprising that Detroit newspapers reacted with such headlines as, “The Roar of ’84" becomes “The Dive of ’85.”
Well, for starters, the middle relief pitchers had an off season. So did the defense, prompting Anderson to say, “I have never seen a team execute poorer than we did.”
Even Gold Glove winner Trammell went into a slump. The bench didn’t produce, driving in only about 40 runs. Only one reserve was hitting more than .200 in late August. The team blew several games after leading in the ninth inning, something it never did in 1984.
Oddly, the Tigers’ home run production increased but Anderson discounted that statistic, saying: “You have to pitch the ball and catch it, too.”
When first confronted with questions about his team’s uninspired performance, Anderson told The Times early last winter: “In 32 years I ain’t seen nothing like this. Never in my career have I seen a team do this. No place.”
And, when asked if the club had become complacent, he replied: “I’ll never believe that about any club.”
In the view of some observers, the Tigers appeared to let down mentally in 1985.
“Midway through the season, the players seemed to lose their intensity,” said one long-time Detroit baseball writer here the other day. “Some of the players even admitted it.”
Anderson said that outside distractions that usually go with a championship affected his team, but he denied that the team let down mentally.
“We just started playing bad and we never could get it righted,” he said. “The pieces of the puzzle didn’t fit. Sometimes a guy who is not a great player just fits in. Last year nothing fit.
“We had some freak injuries and some other little things. The people we put in just didn’t contribute. These things happen; you just hope they don’t happen too often. If they did, I’d get a chance to go back to Thousand Oaks and do a lot of things.”
All things considered, however, Anderson now believes that the Tigers simply played over their heads in 1984. “We won 104 games but we were not a 104-game club,” he said.
In his view, in fact, no team in the major league should be able to win even 100 games today.
“When you win that many, everything has to work for you. In 1984 we had four or five guys who belonged in triple A-ball and they contributed for us. We were the best team in the league, but we should have won about 95 games.”
Using the same logic, Anderson said of his 1985 team: “We won 84 games but we were not an 84-game team. We were a 90-game team. We just played bad. You can’t play that bad and expect to beat people.”
Asked why he thought his team had played so poorly, he said: “I don’t know; that’s a strange thing.”
Could the problem have been complacency?
“I think players do get complacent without knowing it,” he said. “What the hell, I have to really watch it myself and I have been around 17 years. They get distracted, too, and I think distractions bothered the team in 1985.
“But that’s going to happen to every club. It’s a minor thing, but it is something. All these little things come together and before you know it you have a mountain.”
Dynasties in baseball are a thing of the past, Anderson said. “My Cincinnati teams (in the ‘70s) were the last. There won’t be any more.”
The player draft is one reason, he said. “It takes only about four years, if you’re on or near the bottom, to turn your club around. If you get four No. 1’s, I promise you that you’re going to have a decent club.”
The Tigers’ best years should be the next five, he said.
“After that, we’re going to have to start replacing over half our club. With the club we have, we’re going to end up high in the standings and our draft choices over the next five years are going to be terrible. There’s no way you’re going to keep producing guys out of your farm system.”
Another Anderson theory: “Once a team wins, it grows prosperous. The payroll gets so high, you have to trade one or two players just to keep a balance. If you have two good years, back to back, you have to unload somebody.”
The Tigers’ payroll is $15 million to $16 million a year. “Money affects players today,” Anderson said. “It’s pretty hard to have everything and still have the drive to get something else.”
Anderson said he knows how the players feel. “I have no need for money. If I don’t feel just right today, I have nothing to drive me through the day. I just take the day off.”
Now, for Sparky Anderson, there is 1986, and he is as confident and ebullient as ever. “We have a good ballclub,” he said. “We no longer have kids. All our people, Trammell, Whitaker, Morris, Petry, Gibson, Herndon, Tanana, LaPoint, Hernandez, have played a long time. I can see the difference in the clubhouse. They are grown men. They are not kids you have to watch and worry about.”
The talent, in fact, is deeper than it was in 1984, he said. “We have much better personnel now, the best since I’ve been in Detroit (he started there in 1979). In 1984, we had only three starting pitchers; now we have five. We didn’t have a left-handed starter; now we have two. We didn’t have a catcher who could swing a bat to back up Parrish; now we have one in Dave Engle.”
Pitching will be the Tigers’ strength. The five starters are Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Walt Terrell and left-handers Frank Tanana and Dave LaPoint. “They are bona fide major league starters,” Anderson said.
The club is vulnerable only at third base and left field. Anderson does not question third baseman Darnell Coles’ ability but said: “It’s a question of whether he can play in the big leagues. We don’t know yet because he never has. He has great talent.”
Larry Herndon is the left fielder in question. “He hits left-handers extremely well so we’re covered there against one side,” Anderson said. “But I’d like to see him play both ways.”
The rest of the team is set, with Parrish behind the plate, Darrell Evans on first base, Whitaker at second, Trammell at short, Gibson in right field and Chet Lemon in center.
“This is going to be a good year,” Anderson said. “Of course, a good year may be third place. The Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees and Blue Jays are all loaded.”
Anderson made no stirring clubhouse speeches to his team this spring. “I told them they would never hear me discuss last year,” he said. “That one was so bad I don’t even want to bring it up.”