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Sparky was one of the greats

Just last week -- and just before the passing of Artie Wilson -- I mentioned how lucky we are to still have Willie Mays and Bob Feller and Stan Musial and Yogi Berra among us. I should have mentioned Sparky Anderson, who today joined Artie Wilson in The Great Ballpark in the Sky.

The Daily Fungo:

    The 1984 season will always be remembered as Sparky’s enduring gift to Detroit and to Tigers fans everywhere. But for me, the 1987 season was just as thrilling in many ways. After 30 games the club was just 11-19 and looked tired. Then they woke up and hung around the top of the AL East before sweeping the Blue Jays during the final weekend of the season to win the division. A few years later I sneaked into the Tigers’ Winter Caravan in Kalamazoo and asked Sparky about that ’87 team. “Of all the teams I’ve managed, that’s the one I’m most proud of,” he said. “No one gave us a chance and we shocked them all.”People say that by winning the World Series in ’84 Sparky got a lifetime pass in Detroit. There’s probably some truth to that. After all, the Tigers’ record from 1985 to 1995 was just 852-864 — not dazzling but not enough to get Sparky Anderson fired. That just wasn’t going to happen in Detroit.

Sparky always seemed ancient to me. Partly because it seemed like he'd been around forever, but mostly because of that white hair and those deep creases that, even in his early 50s, punctuated his face. He also seemed to me the closest to Casey Stengel that I would ever experience personally, as Sparky loved to spend five minutes saying something that could just as easily -- if not nearly as entertainingly -- have been said in 30 seconds.

It does seem odd that Sparky Anderson could have managed the Tigers for so long -- he managed the Tigers nearly twice as long as he managed the Reds -- and been a losing manager during most of his tenure. It does seem odd that Sparky's Tigers never came close to making the playoffs in his last seven seasons as manager.

It seems oddest of all that the Tigers still have not retired Sparky Anderson's number. Bill James once suggested -- as only he can (or could; Bill has softened over the years) -- that Sparky had cost the Tigers 20 wins per season. Of course, Bill wrote that almost immediately before the Tigers won 104 games and eventually the World Series.

The last bit of his managerial career didn't go nearly as well. Maybe someday we'll try to figure out why. Maybe someday we'll try to figure out how many wins Sparky really cost the Tigers before 1984. (I'm willing to bet it wasn't 20 per season.) Someday we'll also figure out what Sparky meant to the Big Red Machine.

Today, though? He was one of the great ones. When he retired, he'd won more games than every manager except John McGraw and Connie Mack. His teams had won nearly 55 percent of their games, seven division titles, five league championships and three World Series.

Ultimately, we measure managers by how many games they won. And by that measurement, today we lost a truly great manager.