There’s an old dictum about celebrities, to the effect that it’s unwise to ever meet your heroes because you will invariably be disappointed in them.
As a local reporter and television producer, I had the opportunity to interact with some of the people I had admired in local sports. Gordie Howe, for one, was a childhood hero of mine, and his decency and modesty put the lie to the “never meet your heroes” warning. He’s the rare kind of guy who leaves you MORE impressed after any kind of real encounter. Two other local “heroes” come to mind when I think of the impressions they left upon me; and while I had no previous feel for the characters of Sparky Anderson or Isiah Thomas — two disparate personalities but each certainly Detroit idols for their competitive accomplishments — my experiences with them subsequently left me clearly opinionated as to their hero/non-hero status.
This piece will focus on Sparky. As a writer-producer for a Detroit TV station in the 1980s, I handled a lot of his television work — taping commercials, station promos, historical flashbacks, even producing a primetime interview show in which he sat down for a chat with former President Richard Nixon, I kid you not. That’s a bizarre story for another time. This one concerns my first encounter with the man I subsequently came to call “The Captain” — nothing to do with his Captain Hook reputation as a pitcher yanker. He just seemed a genuine captain ‘type’ to me.
My first work with him was at Lakeland during spring training for the ’85 Tigers team. I was there with a camera crew to tape a series of “Tiger Moments” for our station; direct interviews about great moments in Tigers history flavored with old footage of each event. It was always fun visiting the training facilities at Lakeland, and in 1985 I took my parents along for the trip. My father, particularly, was awed to be in Florida and around the team he had followed since childhood. One of our first tapings was with Sparky, and we set up our camera in an old barracks room so as to interview players and coaches after their daily morning workouts.
Sparky joined us one day around 11:30 a.m, as scheduled, and showed up asking to pleaseget him out of there before noon, because he had a 12:00 tee-time at the nearby golf course with some pals. I assured the Captain that we could accomodate him; and sure enough — after his reflections on the ’84 pennant race and subsequent World Series — he was up and out of the interview chair around 11:55. As he hurried to make his exit, I stopped him long enough to introduce him quickly to my parents, Charlie and Virginia, who were patiently waiting for me in a room outside. I warned Mom and Dad that Sparky had to run, and they said quick hellos, which Sparky warmly returned — and then my Dad blurted how thrilled he was to be in Lakeland for the first time in his life; how he had grown up idolizing Gehringer and Greenberg and couldn’t believe he was finally at the training site he had read about in the newspapers all his life.
With that, Sparky pulled out his pipe — he always carried it in a jacket pocket — and slowly began to fill its bowl, asking my parents to sit down as he did so, while taking a chair himself. “Charlie, did you ever see Gehringer play in his prime?” he asked my Dad as he tamped down his tobacco. And to my amazement (I was due back in the interview room to quiz Alan Trammell at noon, and Sparky had been practically jumping out of his chair to get to his golf game) the old Captain sat and talked baseball and life with my parents for the next 20-25 minutes, until he had casually finished his smoke. I nervously came out after about ten minutes to remind my parents not to hold Sparky back — I recall he was telling my father how shrewed his managerial hero, Casey Stengel, had really been; employing double-talk for entertainment while knowing the game of baseball inside and out. Sparky gently waved me away, saying he was enjoying himself, and started telling my parents how Stengel had handled young Mickey Mantle, using psychological tricks to get the most of his young star. My entranced 68-year old Dad looked like the kid he had once been.
I was amazed. THIS was the guy who was in such a hurry to leave? As though his noon tee-time was the most crucial aspect of his day? At around 12:25, Sparky got up, thanked my Mom and Dad for the conversation, and made his way out of the building. My father was beaming from ear to ear, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. And I knew what Sparky had done for my parents … people he’d never met, nor would likely meet again. He took the time to give them something they would treasure forever. That was the day I first began to feel that I really knew Sparky Anderson.
A quick afterword: On Opening Day later that spring, our TV station held a big post-game party at the Roostertail restaurant on the Detroit river. Sparky showed up early in the evening and was swarmed. I eventually made my way through the crowd around him to say hello, and he was as friendly and gracious as ever. As I turned and left, I then heard his voice over the loud crowd and a live band, calling me back. “Tommy!” he yelled, beckoning to me. I turned, and when I got close enough to hear him, he hollered … “Be sure to say hello to Charlie and Virginia!”
And you can bet I did. I went straight to a pay phone. Never meet your heroes? If you get the chance, take my advice … meet Sparky.