Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sparky's Way

  • Underappreciated and brilliant:

With the news that Sparky Anderson has been admitted to a hospice care facility with dementia, the accolades of his managerial career will begin pouring in a bit too late.

There are plenty of cheap jokes to be made regarding many managers----past and present----with baseball-related dementia; with some, it's an open question as to who'd notice if they began to exhibit symptoms of Sparky's ailment.

I'm not going there.

Sparky Anderson was one of the best and most successful managers in the history of baseball while never truly being recognized for it. Since he steered one of the greatest teams ever to two World Series wins and seemingly did little other than write the lineup and walk out to the mound carrying a hook (hence the nickname Captain Hook), he was never given his due while he was managing.

Managers like Gene Mauch who won less (and many times were at fault for the failures) were often accorded more credit for brilliance than they deserved; and Anderson rarely received his due. What Sparky Anderson did as manager of the Reds was a more subtle accomplishment than a Tony La Russa-type who enters a situation and wins because of his strategic skills; or a Joe Torre who has his reputation as the consummate winner and calming clubhouse influence to bolster his candidacy as a "great" manager.

Anderson had great teams and great players, but that doesn't necessarily translate into success. Anderson had one year in the big leagues as a player, but was a mostly journeyman minor leaguer. For him to walk into the underachieving Cincinnati Reds clubhouse----a clubhouse that was in its formative years for a dynasty and included Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench----it would've been easy for him to alienate the stars and get himself fired before getting his feet on the ground.

Early in Anderson's tenure, Rose reportedly went to him and said something to the tune of, "I'm the highest paid player on this team; you want something done, tell me and I'll get it done."

Rather than chafe at the interference and allusion that Anderson needed one of the players to function as an enforcer as some insecure managers would, Anderson formed a bond with Rose to get his message across. That comes down to personality and intelligence. Had the manager of the Reds been a former star player with a hot temper a la Frank Robinson, the inference that such assistance was needed might have elicited a different (and negative) reaction. Anderson was comfortable enough in his job that he was able to accept Rose's offer of help.

The most impressive aspect of that Reds team wasn't that they were so good for so long with such diverse and powerful personalities, but that GM Bob Howsam hired an unknown to run the team, saw them lose to the Orioles in the World Series in 1970, had an awful year in 1971 (falling under .500 at 79-83) and he resisted the temptation to fire his young manager or trade Johnny Bench who also had a terrible year.

Howsam----another excellent baseball mind----made a blockbuster trade in which he brought in Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham and Cesar Geronimo from the Astros for Lee May and Tommy Helms. These decisions----keeping the team core intact and not changing managers----might not have happened in today's game. Morgan was the final cog in the lineup puzzle; Billingham became the number one starter; and Geronimo's mostly weak bat was shielded in the Reds lineup with his defense more than accounting for what he didn't provide offensively.

Anderson's penchant for yanking his pitcher at the first sign of trouble was innovative at the time; his bullpen was as important for what the Big Red Machine did as the lineup and starting pitching. Comparing two of the more high-profile opponents the Reds faced in the World Series of 1972 (the Athletics dynasty); and in 1975 (the Carlton Fisk Red Sox) and you see the difference in philosophies. The Athletics top two starters----Catfish Hunter and Ken Holtzman----threw 295 and 265 innings respectively; the Reds two top starters----Billingham and Ross Grimsley----threw 217 and 197. The Red Sox had Luis Tiant and Bill Lee throwing 260 innings and Rick Wise at 255; the Reds had Gary Nolan at 210, Billingham at 208.

With Clay Carroll, Rawly Eastwick, Pedro Borbon and Will McEnaney, Anderson deployed them mixing and matching in a way that has now become the norm and he did it without the Earl Weaver-style of computer printouts; it was pure baseball knowledge and innate "feel" that is almost unheard of and would never be allowed with a younger manager today trying to do something drastically deviating from accepted practices.

Because they got bounced in the playoffs as often as they did (without a championship), the Reds were sometimes labeled as underachievers. (It was said that the Big Red Machine was equipped with a "choke".) It's hard to blame the manager for losing in the World Series to the Athletics in 1972 (in seven games); to a Mets team with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack in 1973 in a five game NLCS; not making the playoffs in 1974 with 98 wins because the Dodgers won 102; again finishing behind a great Dodgers team in 1977-1978 after the Reds won back-to-back World Series in 1975-76.

The Reds fired Anderson after the 1978 season, for which he was deeply embittered.

Anderson took over the Tigers mid-season, 1979 and it was then that his managerial greatness was cemented.

There are teams for which it can be said "anyone could've won with that team"; several of Joe Torre's Yankees teams are of that ilk; and the 2001 Diamondbacks could've won with a mannequin in a uniform rather than Bob Brenly. Then there are teams that won because of their manager. I don't believe the 1996 Yankees would have won without Torre; the 2006 Cardinals wouldn't have won without La Russa.

It was a risk for Anderson to take over a Tigers team that hadn't been a legitimate contender since 1972 when they won the AL East under Billy Martin; and it's not as if they didn't have "name" managers with Martin and Ralph Houk. What those Tigers did have was a great foundation to win fast. Already in place for that team was the potential Hall of Fame duo of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell; catcher Lance Parrish; outfielder Kirk Gibson; and pitchers Jack Morris and Dan Petry.

Because he was so reputable from his days with the Reds didn't automatically mean that the Tigers youngsters would develop. It could've gone either way had Anderson not been as savvy as he was. Proving that the Reds success had at least something to do with the manager, the Tigers were contending by 1983 and a champion by 1984 using a similar strategy of a quick hook and deep bullpen to support a power-laden lineup.

Anderson won another division title in 1987; the Tigers stumbled into mediocrity by the end of Anderson's tenure, but that had more to do with a lack of talent than anything Anderson did or didn't do.

Like anyone else, Anderson had his faults. His penchant for hyperbole damaged several young players like Torey Lovullo and Chris Pittaro; he didn't like Howard Johnson and facilitated a trade to the Mets where HoJo blossomed into an MVP candidate. (They got a good pitcher for him in Walt Terrell.)

Anderson was a great manager who deservedly has a place in the Hall of Fame and has yet to receive, in my mind, the proper reverence for being the winner he was. It's a shame he's ill as people recognize him, but as he was overshadowed by Tommy Lasorda, Martin, Dick Williams and later La Russa, he was still widely revered in the managerial brotherhood.

It was more than his record and championships that made him a great manager. He was a great manager because he knew the game without it having to be placed in front of him in books, printouts and a meddling GM.

We won't see another like Sparky Anderson in theory or practice.

  • Speaking of managers...

After flirtations with Bobby Valentine and trying to get Ozzie Guillen (somehow, some way), the Marlins have decided to keep Edwin Rodriguez as their manager for next year. Rodriguez was given a 1-year contract leading to speculation that the Marlins are going to go after Guillen again next year. The White Sox manager's contract is guaranteed for 2011 with an option for 2012 that becomes guaranteed with a division title in 2011; the White Sox are legitimate contenders to win the AL Central in 2011.

I thought Rodriguez did a good job after taking over for the fired Fredi Gonzalez. Although the records were similar, things stabilized under Rodriguez. Of course Gonzalez's 34-36 record was accumulated amid the turmoil that accompanies the Marlins no matter what they do; there was the Hanley Ramirez disciplinary mess and the open lovestruck gazes owner Jeffrey Loria exchanged with Valentine going back to the previous winter.

Rodriguez deserves a chance at the full-time job.

How that translates into a long-term opportunity depends on what happens on the South Side of Chicago. I don't think they're letting Guillen leave, period, but how the Marlins play will determine Rodriguez's future. The Marlins managerial job has always been chaotic; the man in the manager's office fungible; so Rodriguez at least knows his situation; he doesn't appear to be the type to sacrifice the health of his players to suit his own ends; worst case, he'll still be in the Marlins organization if they decide he's not the man they want leading them into their new ballpark in 2012.

With that in mind, don't believe that the Valentine-Marlins rumors will be dead until Valentine has a managerial job somewhere. As for Guillen, as combustible as the Valentine-Loria partnership might've been, Guillen-Loria has the potential to be worse!! That mix could be a case of two sides looking at one another as "perfect"...until it's actually happening and they're together.

In both cases, it'd be fascinating to watch and great to write about.

I was on with Sal at the Sportsfan Buzz yesterday talking about the World Series; free agency (Derek Jeter, Cliff Lee, et al). You can listen directly here; or download it from I-Tunes on Sal's site here.


She-Fan said...

I always thought Sparky Anderson did get a lot of recognition as a great manager, but I thought you gave him a nice tribute with this post. Very sad to read about his decline.

Brooklyn Trolley Blogger said...

You no doubt know he past away today after your posting. Rest well Sparky. You were one of the best of all time.

Walt Terrell was a damn solid pitcher. He was part of the turn around in Shea. Too bad he couldn't stick around for the championship. I always felt bad for Ed Lynch in that respect also.