It was with a bit of sadness and great memories that brought about a smile that I read of the passing of George 'Sparky' Anderson. It's widely known that Sparky Anderson was the manager for baseball's Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers during the 1970's to the mid-1990's. Growing up in Toronto, Ontario, we had the great fortune of living in close proximity to Detroit, Michigan, where the Toronto Blue Jays enjoyed a fierce rivalry with their divisional rival Tigers. This of course, led to many visits to Toronto by the Tigers, then managed by Sparky. By sheer default, I ended up following the Tigers as well as the Blue Jays. It was a great time to be a baseball fan in both cities, as both teams were doing well. The Tigers had won the World Series in 1984, and the Blue Jays were always competing for the playoffs, eventually to win back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and 1993.
I always looked forward to seeing the Tigers. The big reason was that it was an opportunity to see Sparky Anderson. There are not too many genuine heroes in life, especially these days. For me, Sparky was one of my heroes. I admired the way he would stand up for his players, no matter how bad their slump was. I admired how proud he was of his players accomplishments. I admired how he would always take the time for the fans and how well respected he was among his peers. Meeting him and getting his autograph on a baseball in 1985 at Tiger Stadium, was one of the big moments of my young life at that time. He was a true gentleman who was in love with the game of baseball. It was a brief meeting, but 25 years later, the memory sits like it happened yesterday.
I was in my mid-20's in 1996 and I had the great fortune of working in the security department at the SkyDome (now known as the Rogers Centre) in Toronto. The SkyDome/Rogers Centre is the home of the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. It was a phone call from my overnight colleagues in the middle of the night that woke up the house saying that I was late for my 2:00am shift. I thought the shift was the next night. They said not to worry, nothing has started yet, so I could still get down to work. I immediately hopped in the shower, and 45 minutes after the phone call, I was walking in the door to start work. My duties for this shift, which was a film shoot for the Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts, was to make sure everything was running smoothly for the crew and that no one would harass the celebrity. That celebrity, as it would turn out, was Sparky Anderson.
As the hours wore on during that early morning shift, it was time for the film crew to call a break. I was standing on the steps by the entrance to the visitors dugout, taking in the film shoot, not really believing that I was watching my hero at work. When the break was called, Sparky walked over to the visitors dugout and sat on the bench. He took out his pipe, filled it with some tobacco, and as he was lighting his pipe, he said "So, how're you doin' today?" I looked around and I'm the only one in the dugout. "Um, I'm not doing to bad this morning sir, how are you?", was my stunned reply. "Oh I'm doing good, it's a little early, but I'm having fun." And so it began, the half hour-plus conversation I had with Sparky Anderson in the visitors dugout at the home of the Toronto Blue Jays. After a few minutes, I found myself sitting on the bench beside Sparky, listening to his stories and participating where I could. We talked about the Tigers, the Blue Jays, his night spent at the White House when the Clintons were the occupants. It felt like I was sitting next to a grandfather, just listening to his experiences in life. That conversation took place 13 years ago and again, the memory remains like it happened yesterday. With Sparky's passing, the importance of that moment in my life becomes that much bigger. I would have worked that day for free. To say I'm fortunate is an understatement. Not everyone gets to share that kind of quality time with one of their heroes. I got that chance.
The baseball world has lost one of its greatest ambassadors, personalities and gentleman. Sparky Anderson is the true embodiment of the sports professional. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be the same type of people that you had at a time when Sparky Anderson was in the game. To be fair, there are a lot of great players and professionals in all sports, but I think you guys know where I'm going here. That certain intangible seems to be missing. A lot of the professional athletes of today would do well to take a look at how Sparky Anderson treated people and recognized his contribution to a team. I will always treasure the two moments in time I had with a true legend and hero.
God bless you, Sparky.
For some great articles and videos on the life and times of Sparky Anderson, please click on the link to ESPN. Be sure to pick up Sparky's book on the 1984 Detroit Tigers season, in which they won the World Series, "Bless You Boys" at your favorite book store.