Tigers got it right by honoring Leyland so quickly

Jim Leyland sports the Sparky Anderson commemorative patch on his right sleeve during the 2011 season.

Jim Leyland sports the Sparky Anderson commemorative patch on his right sleeve during the 2011 season.

Yesterday, prior to the Detroit Tigers’ afternoon game at Comerica Park against the Minnesota Twins, the Tigers honored former manager Jim Leyland. It’s was a nice touch by an organization that hasn’t always gotten these things right.

When Sparky Anderson “retired” following the 1995 season, the 61-year old grey-haired skipper drifted off into the baseball netherworld, never getting a job offer in a field or front office capacity, not like Leyland, who has been enveloped into the Detroit front office as a special assistant. Leyland was even seen at spring training this spring in Lakeland sporting his retirement goatee and looking much more relaxed than he had when the weight of the team’s fortunes were on his narrow shoulders.

What did Sparky get for piloting the Tigers for 2,579 games from 1979 to 1995, winning two division titles, and a World Series title in 1984? He got ushered out of town and essentially scrubbed from the memory of the team, at least for a while. When Anderson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, the Tigers organization had a small celebration to celebrate their popular former manager before a game in July, but it felt like they did that because they couldn’t avoid the publicity surrounding his enshrinement in Cooperstown. While the Tigers had a tradition of retiring the uniform number of Hall of Famers, they never retired Sparky’s while he was alive. Sparky died on November 4, 2010, and only after his passing did the Tigers succumb and add his #11 to the brick wall in the outfield, in a ceremony in June of 2011. The team also wore a black arm patch on their uniforms to honor Sparky that season, but for those who knew Sparky’s impact on the team, the organization, and the city of Detroit, the number retirement ceremony felt like a final slap at Sparky, a too-late honor. The organization had denied Sparky the pleasure of seeing his number alongside those of the other Detroit Hall of Famers.

Mike Ilitch never forgave Sparky Anderson for standing up to him and the other baseball owners in 1995 during the owner lockout crisis. The ’94 season had been halted in August due to a players’ strike, and eventually the postseason was cancelled for the first time in 90 years. Then, during spring training in ’95, the owners locked the players out and attempted to field replacement players in their place. But this was Sparky and this was Detroit, and “scabs” were not going to fly with the grizzled manager. Sparky was the only manager in the game who cried foul, refusing to manage the replacement players. Ilitch quietly seethed, and when the labor impasse was settled, he vowed that 1995 would be Sparky’s last year in his employ. Sparky was basically run off by the Detroit organization for what they saw as treason.

“If this is what the game has become,” Sparky said, “there’s no place for me in it.”

And as far as the Tigers were concerned, there wasn’t. Sparky wasn’t invited back to Tiger Town, he wasn’t asked to stay on as an adviser, he wasn’t feted as a “manager emeritus” as he should have been considering his long career and remarkable success. He had earned that and much more, but pettiness by Mike Ilitch kept Sparky ostracized. When the Tigers held that ceremony for Sparky in 2000 after his Hall of Fame induction, Sparky didn’t appear, instead taping a video segment that was shown on the scoreboard television. The on-field ceremony essentially consisted of video clips and a meager acknowledgment of Sparky’s impact on the franchise. There were some boos from those in the crowd who knew Sparky had been wronged. Later, when Sparky protege Alan Trammell was hired to manage the team, he invited Anderson back to visit during spring training. But the thaw never warmed between Ilitch and Sparky.

So now, less than a year after Leyland’s exit from the dugout, in the shadow of a disheartening loss to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, Ilitch and the Tigers celebrated his Detroit career with a ceremony that featured former players and coaches. Leyland deserves it, he led the Tigers to four postseason appearances and two pennants. He also presided over one of the most agonizing collapses in baseball history in 2008 when his Detroit club lost the division title in a Game 163 against Minnesota (ironically it will be the Twins who will face the Tigers on Saturday, and Ron Gardenhire, a huge Leyland supporter, will be in the opposing dugout).

At 69 years of age, Leyland is eight years older than Sparky was when he left the Tiger’ dugout. Leyland may or may not achieve Hall of Fame status (he ranks 15th all-time in wins and of the 14 managers in front of him on that list, 12 are in the Hall, but only three have a lower winning percentage). A “Jim Leyland Day” should happen now, while we have Jim Leyland here to walk onto the field, to make a speech, and to (inevitably) cry his eyes out. Sparky never got that chance.



About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.