Sparky Anderson began to manage the Cincinnati Reds at exact time that I began to follow my hometown team: 1970. I was 9, and Sparky was 36–both of us youngsters, in our own way. And so were most of the players on his first team–no position starter was older than 30, and three–Johnny Bench, Bernie Carbo, and Davey Concepcion–were just 22 that season. Sparky and his team grew up together–and I along with them.
Sitting on the deck at our house on Ellenwood, or sneaking my transistor under my pillow so I could listen to Al Michaels (and later Marty Brennaman) after Mom turned off the lights, I rooted for my team, with its prematurely white-haired manager and its collection of sluggers and speedsters. (I cherished my Tommy Helms model baseball glove, even though he was neither slugger nor speedster, purchased three years later with my own money, earned from delivering the Dayton Daily News each afternoon.) Listening to the games on WLW, I was too young to understand the import of Sparky’s approach to handling his pitching staff–not only was I 9, but a left fielder to boot–but as I got older I came to see that his “Captain Hook” persona was simply his way of making the best out of a generally league-average pitching staff. And that approach helped make guys like Pedro Borbon, Rawly Eastwick, and local hero Will McEnaney stars in our eyes–young players bailing out “old” guys like Jack Billingham and Fred Norman (told you–“average”).
Sparky would walk from the dugout to the mound, head down, hands stuffed into the back pockets of his pants, or the pockets of his shiny red warmup jacket, depending on the temperature, taking small steps and being extra careful not to step on the first-base line–bad luck and all–then, on reaching the mound, take the ball from the pitcher and touch an arm to signal to the bullpen for yet another reliever. Seemed like this scene played out two or three times every night–sometimes, every inning–and yet I didn’t mind the delays that inevitably ensued. I knew Sparky was trying to get another win by squeezing every bit of talent out of his pitching staff–and it worked.
The Reds won at least 95 games in six of Sparky’s first seven years. Four NL championships. Two World Series.
And all of it done by a short, white-haired, constantly tanned, malaprop-prone little genius.
I was none of those — but Sparky was my guy.
God bless you, Sparky. And thanks.