When a new leader takes the reins of a team, there are heightened expectations. When that leader comes with a winning pedigree, expectations can be sky high. Fans, media, and even the front office can be unreasonable with their optimism.
But when Sparky Anderson marched into Detroit early in the 1979 season to take the helm of the Tigers, he brought his own optimism with him, and no one really knew what to make of it.
No other manager in baseball could have brought a brighter star to Motown in ’79 than Sparky. In eight years as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Anderson finished first five times, won four pennants, and captured the World Series title twice. In Ciny, he’d managed an All-Star lineup, defeated Hall of Fame managers, and done it while commanding the media with a charm few have ever possessed in baseball history.
But his optimism was legendary. Some took it as bragging, others as empty promises designed to thrust Sparky into the limelight. Tommy Lasorda, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and a rival of Sparky in the National League, famously scoffed at Anderson’s boastful commentary. But though Sparky often said amazing things, he was also right a lot of the time. In 1970, when he was handed the Cincinnati job and local newspapers printed the headline “SPARKY WHO?”, Anderson told befuddled reporters that his team would win the pennant. They thought the prematurely grey-haired manager was insane. That season, the Reds went out and won 70 of their first 100 games (the first team in baseball history to do so), and won the pennant. Everyone knew who Sparky was after that.
Fast forward nine years later to Detroit and Sparky was amusing a new set of reporters in his office at Tiger Stadium. This time he had street cred, but he still left many of them chuckling with his optimistic flare.
“I didn’t go to school just to eat my lunch. I know what talent there is here,” Sparky proclaimed. “[Taking this job] is probably the smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It really is.”
But though the Detroit roster in ’79 was sprinkled with names like Trammell, Whitaker, Morris, Parrish, and Gibson, it was still very unclear how good those young players would become.
Anderson was always pegged with the label of a push-button, media-savvy manager, a guy who didn’t necessarily understand young players, nor have the patience for their mistakes. But in Detroit, Sparky knew that a solid core of players were in place to build a decent team. He also knew that young players lacked a critical element that was crucial for success: confidence. By the force of his championship pedigree and his unflinching optimism, Sparky Anderson made the young Tigers realize they could be winners in the major leagues. He knew he needed players who believed in themselves in order to win.
“I’m not a messiah. I’m not going to walk on water,” Sparky told The Sporting News in late June. “I’m not going to win anything in Detroit. A manager never wins the pennant. The only thing I’m going to win is what these guys win for me.”
To get his team to believe, Sparky set high expectations. He demanded that his players be professional and work hard. He bragged about their ability so much that pretty soon they started to believe in themselves. Kirk Gibson was “the next Mickey Mantle”; the young double play combo of Sweet Lou and Tram was “going to make people forget all the others”; and he called Lance Parrish “the most improved player I have ever coached.”
Within a relatively short time, Sparky’s team (reshaped after he cleaned out the pretenders from his clubhouse) was improving. In ’81, behind a dazzling second-half performance by Gibson and the ace pitching of Morris, the Tigs battled to the final day of the season before losing a chance to make the playoffs. It was disappointing for Sparky, but he held firm to his long range plan.
“If I can’t make this club a winner in five years, then I’ll walk away and say I failed,” he told Detroit reporters in 1979.
In ’84, right on schedule, Sparky’s team, like a fine-tuned machine calibrated for optimal performance, soared to a 35-5 record, won 69 of their first 100 games (just one win shy of the record Sparky’s Big Red Machine set in ’70), and in October rolled to the World Series championship.
It never would have happened if there hadn’t been someone there who set the bar high and had big dreams. Sparky never met a challenge he didn’t want to take on, and he always believed in Detroit and the Tigers.