David Wells was throwing a simulated game at Tiger Stadium on a hot day in 1994, but it could have been any day in any year. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson sat in the dugout, legs crossed, smoking a pipe and watching Wells throw as he talked breathlessly to a writer. He was watching Wells with one eye; with the other, he looked at the writer, with complete attention to both. "He's throwing great,'' he said. "Great curveball. Oh, he's ready.''
That was Sparky Anderson. He was a great judge of talent, and a great communicator with people, all at the same time, all the time, every day of his life.
No manager in baseball history was more true to his nickname than George "Sparky'' Anderson. No manager ever loved the game more than Sparky. No manager did the job with the same relentless energy and enthusiasm as Sparky. No manager smiled as often as Sparky. No manager was more of a gentleman than Sparky. No manager was nicer than Sparky. Late in his career, Anderson asked the media to start calling him by his given name, George, saying no man in his 50s should be called Sparky. But, it never took. He was and always will be Sparky.
Part of his charm was his penchant for hyperbole. He once called Kirk Gibson, "the next Mickey Mantle,'' and said second baseman Chris Pittaro was a "future Hall of Famer'' even though everyone knew he wasn't. A writer once asked him about the great Reds teams that he managed, and Sparky ran his hand through his silver hair, put his two hands out and began counting fingers: "Bench, greatest catcher ever. Rose, most hits ever. Morgan, maybe the greatest second baseman ever. Perez, Hall of Famer. Concepcion, should be a Hall of Famer; Foster, unbelievable power; Geronimo, best defensive center fielder in the game,'' then proceeded to name every player on those teams, with a superlative attached to each.
"What do you think?'' he said. "Give me a team that could beat those teams.''
Anderson fractured the English language, but in an engaging, homespun sort of way. Of his Stengelesque mangling of words, which was comical and harmless, Anderson once said, "Why do you have to know English? It's like 'two.' There are three twos! There's tee-oh. There's tee-doublya-oh, and there's tee-double-oh. Three twos! Now, if I put any one of them down in a letter I wrote, you would know which one it is I am talking about. It's like 'there' and 'their.' What is the difference as long as you know there's a there there?''
When Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated went to do a story on Sparky, Anderson brought up the hilarious movie, "The Naked Gun," and in full uniform in his office, did his impersonation of Leslie Nielsen as the umpire, complete with the moonwalk and the yelling of Steeeeee-rike threeeee.
Anderson was a simple man who was, at times, embarrassed by the money and the lifestyle of a major leaguer, in part because he grew up in South Dakota in a house that didn't have an indoor toilet.
He once said, "I only had a high school education and, believe me, I had to cheat to get that.''
As the manager of the Tigers, he once said on game days, he would mostly stay in his hotel watching TV. "I loved 'Headline News,'" he said. "I could watch it all day. Sometimes, it was the same show, and I'd watch over and over.''
But his simple approach is what made him such a great manager. He didn't try to out-think the room, as some managers do. He knew, and said many times, that managers win only because of the players. At his Hall of Fame induction speech, he made that very clear.
And Anderson was a great manager. He won 2,194 games, sixth most ever. He won five pennants and three World Series. He and Tony La Russa are the only managers to win the World Series in each league. He is the all-time winningest manager for two franchises, the Reds and Tigers. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2000, and nothing made him happier than going back to Cooperstown each year and shaking hands with the other Hall of Famers.
But, as a manager, he was tough when he needed to be. His other nickname was "Captain Hook" because of his willingness to go to his bullpen as often as he saw fit. Some of his pitchers weren't particularly happy about coming out of a game, but Anderson once said of removing a pitcher, "I'll tell you when you're tired.''
Anderson was 36 years old when he took over the Reds in 1970. That was a good team, a relatively young team, but the veterans tested their new manager immediately, and immediately Sparky made it clear: It didn't matter that he was a rookie manager, or only 36 years old, he was in charge, and the players would do as he said. Quickly, they did. The Reds won world championships in 1975 and 1976. Those teams are considered among the greatest teams in National League history.
In 1979, Anderson took over the Tigers. He was instrumental -- but took no credit -- for helping make Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and many others the players they became. In 1984, the Tigers started out 35-5, went wire-to-wire to take the division and won the World Series in five games over the Padres. Anderson wrote a diary of that special season, in which he typically lauded in the players in a book titled "Bless You Boys.''
No Sparky, bless you.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.