Sparky Anderson: Simply Special
Anderson had white hair at an early age so he always had a mature look about him and sometimes seemed older than his years.
But on this occasion, a news conference at Comerica Park, his face seemed even more lined and leathery than ever before, a vestige of working for decades under the summer sun along with all the stress that goes into his occupation.
Anderson had a way of smiling and winking at individual people, even when talking to a large group. It made you feel special and important, as if only the two of you were in on a little secret for your mutual amusement.
I can't recall much of what he said in the news conference -- but I do remember the wink and the nod. And I will never forget the ending. As Anderson got up to leave, the reporters in the room gave him a long and loud ovation.
Reporters are not supposed to do that. There is "no cheering in the press box'' and other media headquarters. But everyone in that room knew it just felt right that day. In the back of our minds, we may have suspected it was the last time we would ever see him.
Anderson died Thursday in California. He was 76 years old. The cause was reported as "complications from dementia.'' It was the second recent departure of a Tigers legend. Earlier this year, Ernie Harwell, the radio broadcaster, died of cancer.
Anderson was one of those few people in sports known by just a nickname. Few called him by his last name and even fewer by his first name -- George.
In just the way Michigan football coach Glenn Schembechler was always known as "Bo," Anderson seemed like the sort of leader that any fan could approach and chat with on a first-name -- make that nickname -- basis.
The Detroit area is not for pretentious people and Anderson seemed in sync with the sensibility. This is not to say he was without ego. After the Tigers beat San Diego in the 1984 Series, I remember spending a long time in Anderson's office and being surprised at his mood.
Instead of exuberance -- his normal default setting -- Anderson was a little peevish. What would his critics say now, he kept asking, about how he won with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s as a push-button manager who had so many Hall-of-Fame players?
What did they think, he kept asking, about him winning a Series in the American League as well as the National League? He had pride -- legitimately so -- and it came out that day.
Anderson's later years in Detroit were not so grand. He had to take a leave of absence for exhaustion. It came at the same time as the investigation of Pete Rose for gambling.
Rose was one of Anderson's favorites. When Rose moved up into managing, he talked a lot on the phone with Anderson. Of course, it was about baseball.
Of course, Anderson did not know that Rose was betting on baseball. I was never sure if the two circumstances were related, but I often wondered if Anderson's emotional problems came in part from his being used and betrayed by a friend.
But for those of us who covered Anderson in his Tigers' era, the memories are mostly cheerful. Unlike most contemporary managers, Anderson did not limit access to the media.
Many of them now hold formal news conferences before games. They last maybe 15 minutes. Anderson's news conferences had no beginning and, sometimes, no ending.
He had an office near the front of the Tiger Stadium clubhouse and he kept his door open. Reporters would drift in and out, chatting about baseball and anything else on their minds.
Anderson would delight us with mangled syntax, anecdotes, opinions. It was a Casey Stengel routine and, even if it was sometimes an act, it was a great act.
Now, like Bo, Sparky is gone. Perhaps baseball now has or will have in the future managers who are friendlier, funnier, smarter and more welcoming.
But it is hard to imagine such a person. Those of us who had the delight of covering him will long remember the little pleasures and day-to-day delight of knowing Sparky.
The quiet ripple you hear across the Internet is a standing ovation from the reporters who had the joy of covering one of the great sports in sports.