I refuse to call a 56 - year - old man with white hair ‘Sparky.’
--American League umpire Al Clark
George Lee Anderson won’t debate this umpire’s decision.
Sure, Sparky was fine at Dorsey High School and a lot of playgrounds and ballyards in between then and now, but Sparky was never really what he was all about, not really who he was.
Always a nice person, but too much the showman, he says now.
Too much hype. Too much ego.
“Too corny,” George Anderson said in the dugout at Tiger Stadium.
“I mean, Sparky Anderson always thought he had to sell his players, his team and himself. His ego kept getting in the way. George Anderson is basically pretty quiet, much lower key.”
And now, the manager of the Detroit Tigers believes that a name change would be an appropriate accompaniment to the philosophical change--his better understanding of how inflated his ego became and how little control he has over winning and losing--that he took out of a devastating 1989 season.
The Tigers, the winningest team in the ‘80s until then, lost 103 games, and Anderson was sent to his Thousand Oaks home May 19 to recover from physical and mental exhaustion stemming, primarily, from his inability to personally reverse the mounting tide of losses.
A family situation that Anderson refuses to discuss is believed to have been a factor in what he calls his feeling of depression, but a member of the Tiger organization said it was more the jolt of the team’s collapse, the inevitability of only his second losing season in 20 years as a major league manager and his first since 1971, when Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine was first getting in gear.
“Here was a guy who had basically never lost, and suddenly he was riding a treadmill of losses with no end in sight,” the executive said. “It was a shock, and every time there was a hint of improvement, someone else got hurt.”
Twenty Tigers went on the disabled list in 1989 and there was no help from a farm system that has been unproductive for a decade.
Former football coach Bo Schembechler has been given the responsibility of revitalizing a once proud organization as president and chief operating officer.
Anderson, under contract through 1992, said he hopes to remain Bo’s manager for nine more years, giving him a total of 20 in Detroit, a goal reflecting the feeling of renewal he experienced during his 16-day hiatus last year.
The Tigers were 14-24 when he left, a victim of sleepless nights, suffocating feelings that he was locked in a closet and wouldn’t be able to breathe until he got out, and almost catatonic states in which he would sit in his hotel room and stare absently at a blinded window.
Anderson eventually called Jim Campbell, the Tigers’ chairman of the board, and said there was something very much wrong.
Campbell called in the doctors, who put Anderson through a series of tests, concluding that his sense of depression and absence of energy resulted from his bewilderment at being unable to stop the losses.
What did it matter that the aging Tigers had become, in large measure, a team of retreads and rejects.
Hadn’t Anderson led them to a division title in 1987 and to within one game of another in 1988?
Wasn’t he the first manager to win 100 or more games with two different teams and the first to win a World Series managing in two different leagues?
Hadn’t he inherited two dazzling groups of emerging talent and helped in their coalescence with his handling of pitching and role players and his ability to accept and deflect the media pressure?
Didn’t he win five division titles, four pennants and two World Series with the Reds, then lead the Tigers to an average of 92 victories per season over six years before 1989?
“When we won the division in ’87 with a mediocre club and missed winning by only a game with an even more mediocre club in ’88 and everyone in baseball was asking ‘How the hell did you do it?,’ my ego got away from me,” Anderson said.
“I felt that if I could win with the ’87 club, I could do anything. Then, when we started losing last year, I took it personally. I got so embarrassed I didn’t even want to go on the field.”
Anderson took his medical leave and thought about quitting.
“I knew I’d go back and finish the year, but I thought it would be my last--at least in Detroit,” he said. “On three occasions I could have moved for more money and I knew there would be offers from clubs ready to win.”
Carol, his wife, cautioned Anderson against a premature decision and said that if he was going to leave the Tigers for money or to enhance his estimable record he would be bailing out and sacrificing his integrity. Anderson rested (sleeping 16 hours the first day home, 13 the next), played some golf, visited his grandchildren, thought about what his wife said and realized that it was time for George Anderson to step forward and defuse some of Sparky’s ego.
“As it turned out, last year was more than good for my life,” he said. “It taught me about adversity and how to deal with it. I told Carol that I wish it had happened after my fourth or fifth year in Cincinnati, when I was riding so high. That would have knocked the pins out from under me and forced me to take a look at myself before my ego became so large.
“As Carol said, I was acting like a spoiled little boy with all the success. I mean, I agree with Donald Trump that everyone needs an ego so that they are driven to do the best they can do, but no one should be consumed by ego to the point of believing they have to be the star of the show.
“Sure, I think I’ve contributed to my teams with honesty, fairness and an understanding of pitching, but I’m no genius and I don’t want to hear that I am. I didn’t invent the game. There were a hell of a lot better before me and there will be a hell of a lot better after me.
“I mean, people talk about burnout, but I don’t believe in it. It’s what we do to ourselves. No one put me under the gun. I put myself under it with my ego.”
The lessons of 1989, Anderson said, have regenerated his drive, his interest in managing, his appreciation for the battlefield. He is no less a winaholic nor is he more comfortable with losing, he said.
Now, however, he is no longer embarrassed to lose to a better team, he understands that losing has to be lived with “or the alternative is to die,” and he believes that he is a better manager for his players because he has more compassion for their periods of adversity, their failures.
And he wants to ride it out and help turn it around in Detroit, hoping he continues to get three-year extensions when his current contract expires.
“I won’t leave until they tell me to leave, and I won’t be mad then, nor will I go anywhere else to manage,” he said. “I’ve had it all my way here. These people have never said no to me. Where else could I go and get that? I mean, when they don’t want me any more, I’d like to stay home, play some golf and maybe do some color on the Angel or Dodger cables.”
The 1989 Tigers finished last in the American League in earned-run average, last in saves, last in team batting, next to last in runs and ninth in fielding. The 1990 Tigers are headed in the same directions. Anderson said they could lose 90 or more games again or finish .500.
“We have the potential to score runs and it looks like we’re going to have to,” he said, alluding to the suspect pitching. “I don’t know how many games you can realistically count on winning when you know you have to keep scoring five or more runs to do it, but I can live with it now because I know the direction we’re heading in is to develop kids.”
“I know it’s possible to have another tough season but I don’t care how bad it gets. The important thing is to get every ounce we can out of every player, and go from there.”
Anderson became manager of the Tigers June 12, 1979. The core of a team that would finish .500 or better for 12 consecutive seasons was already at the varsity level or on the way.
It is a startling fact, but of the current Tigers, only one--relief pitcher Mike Henneman--has come out of the system in the 11 years since Anderson was hired.
And in those 11 years, in Anderson’s view, the system has produced only three other bona fide major leaguers, all subsequently traded: Howard Johnson, Glenn Wilson and Mike Laga.
Why the drought?
Anderson and others cite a pair of pivotal factors:
--Having finished fifth or lower in six of seven years starting in 1974, the Tigers were vested with advantageous draft positions and laid the groundwork for their future success by selecting, among others, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris and Dan Petry. That ensuing success resulted in the Tigers losing their draft position. From 1982 through 1989 they did not draft higher than 15th, and five times were 20th to 26th.
--On top of their poor position in the draft, the Tigers have obviously drafted poorly, the result, perhaps, of a disruption in continuity amid front office changes under owner Tom Monaghan. The Tigers have employed five scouting directors since Bill Lajoie left that position to become general manager in 1983, each change producing a turnover in scouts. The Tigers have not had a No. 1 selection reach the majors since pitcher Rich Monteleone, picked in 1982.
The absence of a productive system has been compounded by the refusal of pizza king Monaghan to deal in free agent dough.
The signings last winter of Tony Phillips, Lloyd Moseby, Cecil Fielder and Ed Romero were strictly a necessity born of the 1989 decimation and not a serious indication that the policy is changing, sources said.
That policy has been criticized by veterans such as Morris and Trammell, who have pointed out the devastating impact--on the field and off--of the departure of Gibson, Parrish and others as free agents, with the club getting virtually nothing in return.
How all of this--or any of it--will change under Schembechler isn’t clear. He isn’t giving interviews during what he calls a period of indoctrination, but it appears that he is intent on being more than a figurehead and is determined to beef up the farm system.
He has already provided each of the minor league clubs with video equipment and permanent coaches and, in the style of football recruiting, has made forays, along with Lajoie, into the homes of draft prospects to develop a feel for their character and commitment.
“Bo has great leadership qualities, and I’m sure his enthusiasm will filter down and make people work harder and play harder,” Lajoie said.
“I think it’s possible that a degree of complacency set in.”
In that regard, there is also a degree of concern that the new, lower key George Anderson has mellowed out and may not have the stomach for what are going to be difficult rebuilding years.
“Sparky has had great success with good players who you only have to tell something once, but we now have some players who have to be reminded everyday,” Lajoie said. “I’m not being critical, but I do think the atmosphere has to be jacked up.
“There has to be more attention to fundamentals. The players have to be reminded of things more often, and some of the veteran players have to take more of a leadership role, which we discussed with them when they were signed to their big contracts.”
Anderson said that he and his coaches understand their responsibility, the need to do more teaching and communicating. He said that lower key shouldn’t be confused with timidity, that his 1989 sabbatical awakened a meanness in him, that his players know what will and won’t be tolerated and that he is prepared for the task ahead.
He also said that within the next two to three years there will be a significant turnover in playing personnel, that for the first time he can see a wide range of prospects on Detroit’s horizon, though he is not predicting the Hall of Fame for any of them, resisting the hype he has laid on others.
“I really feel I hurt some of those kids by what I predicted,” he said. “I would again classify it as ego. I thought I could do anything. I thought I could make them into anything.”
After 20 years as a manager, he still has his goals.
“I’d like to manage for at least 25 years because I think that says a lot, and I’d like to get one more win than Walter Alston because I think Walt would consider that a show of respect,” Anderson said.
The late Dodger manager, a friend and mentor to Anderson, had 2,040 career victories. Anderson entered the 1990 season with 1,758, 10th on the all-time list.
The victories are coming less frequently, but Anderson insists he is prepared to cope with that.