He’s reached cult-like status in Detroit. Almost as if he was more than just a man, as the years have passed, Sparky Anderson, like Buddha, has taken on a more iconic place in history. But as great as Sparky was – and he was one of the greatest to ever manage a baseball club – it could have fallen apart at any time because he went to work every day with the possibility that his secret nightmare would take him down.
In 1979 when Sparky Anderson was hired to manage the Tigers, he was anxious – no, it would be more accurate to say thrilled – to be back in the game. There was a pilot light burning white hot under Sparky. Ever since the Cincinnati Reds had fired him after the ’78 season, Sparky had been itching to prove that his old employers wrong. Just 44 years old, Sparky was a young man, but he feared that his dismissal by the Reds might keep him out of the game long enough to make teams doubt whether he had what it took to lead another team to the postseason. He heard the rumors – “Sparky’s a push-button manager,” and “anyone could have won with the Reds’ lineup,” and “give him a young team of unproven players and he won’t know what to do.” Deep down, way down there, Sparky had doubts himself. His ego had been bruised when he was fired, though he didn’t want anyone to know.
Of course, Sparky proved those critics wrong, and he regained his confidence. Five years after taking the helm of the Tigers, he became the first skipper to win the World Series in both leagues, the first manager to win 100 games in both leagues, the first to have a dominant “all-time great” type of team in both leagues. As he smoked a victory cigar and chatted with President Reagan in the Tiger Stadium clubhouse after Game Five, Sparky was on top of the baseball world. But, as he himself pointed out in one of his Sparkyisms: “Every day the earth turns over on a guy who’s sitting on top of the world.”
And that was the seed of his deepest secret.
Sparky Anderson didn’t know how to handle losing. He digested every defeat, choking it down like a meal of regret. The losses piled on him like a stack of bricks, and there were times when they threatened to bury him in a suffocation of anxiety.
“I don’t believe there has ever been an individual … that would take losses harder and keep them inside longer than I do,” Sparky said once. And it was true. Though he won far more than he lost, guiding The Big Red Machine to the status of Team of the ’70s and the Tigers to the best season of any team in the 1980s, Sparky couldn’t stand losing. His friendly, enthusiastic demeanor belied the fact that inside, Anderson was torn up when his team fell short.
One of Sparky’s closest friends in Detroit was broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who frequently walked with the Tiger manager during the regular season. Ernie knew that if the Tigs had won the night before, Sparky was game for chit-chat, but if they had been on the wrong end of the score, stone silence would prevail.
“There wasn’t anything that could get Sparky’s mind off a bad game,” Ernie remembered later on. “He wore each defeat on his heart.”
At times during his career, Sparky had been told to relax, to learn how to handle the inevitable defeats better. Close friend Billy Consolo, who coached under Sparky for 15 seasons, tried to soothe Sparky’s fragile psyche. But it never really worked. At the end of the season, when Sparky returned to his wife and family in California, it would take a few weeks for Anderson to get back to being “George.” The grind of the long season took time to wash off of the manager.
What was so amazing about Sparky was how he remained so positive with the media and the fans throughout his years in baseball. Ask Cincinnati and Detroit fans about Sparky and they’ll probably tell how much fun it was to have him as the manager of their favorite team, how he knew how to handle the players and the press, and to be a great ambassador of the game. His smile was famous in the city of Detroit, it endeared him to Tiger fans forever. But underneath that was his secret aversion to losing, the unhealthy way in which he processed the downs in the up-and-down game of baseball.
In 1989 it caught up with Sparky. After 19 seasons, he finally had a miserable team. Losing became more than just an occasional nuisance, it became commonplace for his club. That season the Tigers languished in last place, by far the worst position Sparky had ever been in. In the middle of the summer, with temperatures rising and his team sinking farther into the abyss, Sparky had had enough. He couldn’t take it anymore, and he fell apart. The losing was too much. After a poor road trip, he called his wife and told her he was coming home. He wasn’t sure if he’d manage again, but he knew he couldn’t manage right then. Losing had made him a wreck. Emotionally and physically he was exhausted. The Tigers told him to take a leave of absence, that his job would be waiting for him when he was ready to return.
“Inside I die a thousand deaths, people do not realize how hard that is on you and how hard that is on your nerves,” Sparky explained. But he couldn’t live that way anymore. At the age of 55 the white-haired skipper looked at least 10 years older. His body was frail and unhealthy. His nerves were shot. He stayed away for more than two weeks, recharging his battery while learning that he needed to manage disappointment better. When he came back to his team, he was more calm, but his team was no better – they lost 103 times, the first time he had ever managed a team that lost 100 games. But after his hiatus, Sparky took the losses a little better.
The Tigers had Sparky around for another six seasons, and he brought them back to respectability for a short time. He was a different manager, a little less intense, a little less serious about winning. But he still had the stuff we all loved – his great personality, his love and respect for the game, his baseball IQ – while still managing as well as anyone.
“I didn’t know I could lose,” Sparky said. “I thought I shouldn’t ever lose, but you learn that there’s no one bigger than this game. This game will be here long after we are all gone, and there isn’t anything we can do to stop that.”