When the baseball starts to get zipped around the field at spring training in February, hope truly does spring eternal. Every prospect, every player, every team, has a chance to do big things in the coming season. The players are geared up, the media is geared up, and the fans are too.
No one ever handled the circus that is spring training better than George Lee “Sparky” Anderson, who skippered the Tigers for 17 seasons and enjoyed 16 springs in Lakeland, Florida at Tiger Town.
Often, spring training can seem like an army exercise, with a whole lot of “hurry up and wait.” There can be plenty of not much going on. But with Sparky around, spring training camps were always entertaining.
When his team was good – which it often was – Sparky knew he held the cards, and he made sure to divert attention away from his players so they could get prepared for a pennant chase. He liked to boil things down to their barest parts.
“Baseball is a simple game,” Sparky said with a gleam in his eye. “If you have good players and if you keep them in the right frame of mind then the manager is a success.”
A success he was – retiring after the 1995 season with the third most wins in baseball history. He was also the only manager to win 100 games in both leagues and the only to win World Series titles in both. Those marks have been surpassed or equaled since, but no one has surpassed Sparky’s mastery at handling hyperbole. The white-haired manager loved to wax on about young players he pegged for stardom.
At one of his first spring training sessions with the Tigers, Sparky said of young right-handed pitcher Dave Rucker: “If you don’t like him, you don’t like ice cream.” A left-handed hitting prospect had “every chance to make [the short porch in right field at] Tiger Stadium his playground.” And Kirk Gibson, a heralded young player out of Michigan State, was going to be “the next Mickey Mantle.”
Sparky wasn’t always accurate with his spring prognostications, but he held court with sportswriters and gave them plenty to fill their notebooks. More than a few writers had Sparky to thank for giving them a story when they were close to a deadline. And Sparky would talk to them anywhere, anytime – in his office, in the dugout, while hanging over the fence watching batting practice, you name it. Sparky’s mouth didn’t have an off switch.
In 1985, the season after his team barreled to the World Series championship in dominant fashion, Sparky spent much of the spring touting young Chris Pitarro, a rookie infielder with a sweet swing. He was so good, “you wanted to pay to watch him play,” Sparky would say. For a while, Lou Whitaker was shifted to third base in Lakeland, so Sparky and the Tiger brass could watch Pitarro do his thing at second. But on Opening Day, Sweet Lou was back at second, and within a week or so, Pittaro was back in the minor leagues, another one of Sparky’s spring phenoms who didn’t pan out.
When the Tiger manager didn’t have the horses, like the last few years he spent at the helm in the 1990s, Anderson made sure their were still plenty of interesting stories coming out of Lakeland. He would chirp on about a veteran or a youngster, or even turn the story around to himself, anything to make sure fans were interested in the game he loved.
One spring, after losing Gibson to free agency, Sparky made sure fans realized that the team could go on even after the departure of a star player.
“Babe Ruth is dead and buried in Baltimore but the game is bigger and better than ever.”
Sparky’s gone now too, and the game keeps going on. But Sparky is missed in spring training, especially as the spring starts and everything seems possible. Sparky made sure everyone knew that.