Wednesday, March 01, 2000

Sparky gives tip of cap to Reds

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sparky Anderson at a news conference Tuesday.
(AP photo)
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        TAMPA, Fla. — Sparky Anderson searched his heart meticulously, as if he were looking for lost spectacles. He weighed all the data, and still he wavered. He has looked at caps from both sides now — from all sides, really — and finally conceded that his mark was made in Cincinnati.

        “A month ago I told my wife that I had made up my mind,” Anderson said Tuesday afternoon. “Cowards die a thousand deaths, and the brave die but once.”

        With this latest non sequitur — padding his previous world record — Anderson announced his decision to have his Hall of Fame plaque depict him in a Reds hat, despite his longer tenure in Detroit. It's a small matter in the greater scheme of things, but it affords us a good glimpse of what made this man so successful.

Sparky managed the Reds from 1970-78.
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“It was so hard,” Anderson said. “I spent nine years in Cincinnati and 17 in Detroit, and they treated me like a king in both places,”

        “This was the deciding factor: Bob Howsam hired a 35-year-old nobody knew,” Anderson said. “He had the courage and the fortitude to do that. If he had never done that, I doubt if I would have ever managed in the big leagues.”

        Sparky Anderson takes pains to avoid hurting people, and he agonized over this one. He was known as Captain Hook, for his limited patience with pitchers, but his character more closely resembles that of Wendy Darling — spinner of stories, guardian of lost boys.

    Four of the six Hall of Fame inductees July 23 will have Reds connections.
    The veterans committee elected Big Red Machine manager Sparky Anderson and 19th century Reds second baseman Bid McPhee.
    Big Red Machine first baseman Tony Perez was elected by the baseball writers, and Marty Brennaman was chosen for the broadcasters' wing.
    “It can't get any Redder than that,” Brennaman said.
    But it's not a record. In 1946, five players with ties to the Cubs were inducted.
        Baseball has never known a more benevolent dictator or a more sensitive soul. The first time I spent any time in Anderson's presence, the week after Dick Wagner fired him in 1978, I left his house feeling as if I'd known him forever. Wherever Sparky Anderson hangs his hat feels a lot like home. That he had to wrestle over which hat to wear in Cooperstown reflects how entwined he became with two different teams.

        “It's going to be a tough decision for him, because he's so conscious of feelings,” veterans committee voter John McHale said a few minutes before Anderson's disclosure. “He'll be looking for one of those caps that works both ways.”

Tough and tender
        Indecisiveness is not normally a good trait in a baseball manager. A new lineup must be drawn up each day, and there are only nine spots for 25 players (10 in the American League, with the designated hitter). Casey Stengel used to say that the secret to managing was to keep the five players who hated you away from the five who were undecided.

Sparky gets doused by Pedro Borbon after 1970 celebration. Watching are Cesar Geronimo and Johnny Bench
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        Anderson ran a game as ruthlessly as any of his peers. But he worked the clubhouse with the diplomacy and tolerance of a second-grade teacher. He understood which players needed a pat and which ones needed a challenge, and he stroked their egos and stoked their fires accordingly. Anderson was 35 when the Reds hired him, looked 60, and acted as if he owned the wisdom of the ages.

        In hindsight, he probably did.

        Most career baseball men can manage a ballgame. Selecting the right pitch for a hit-and-run or a squeeze play is not science but intuition — an educated guess on an unknowable outcome. Shifting fielders is probability theory in practice. Changing pitchers is usually a matter of checking statistics.

        What separates Hall of Fame managers from abject failures often involves what happens before the first inning and after the ninth. It's making veterans feel important while reducing their roles. It's showing confidence in the kid who blew the ballgame. It's putting the proper spin on the reporters' stories — pumping up a prospect, making a big fuss over a bit player. It's about people skills, not grand strategy.

Sparky at his home.
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        Anderson was blessed with an extraordinary amount of talent when he joined the Reds in 1970. He won at least 88 games eight times in nine seasons, and as many as 108. Another manager might have fared as well with the same roster — Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, etc. — but a lot of guys could have screwed it up.

        The Reds have had several strong managers since Anderson — most notably Lou Piniella, Davey Johnson and Jack McKeon — and they have also employed such miscast men as Vern Rapp and Ray Knight. None of them has lasted as long or worn as well as George Lee Anderson.

        “Great managers don't win with bad players,” John McHale said. “But some of the comments from several of the Hall of Fame players on our committee were about how great he was to play for.”

        As often as not, great managers win by being great people.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at

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