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Friday, September 07, 2012

SUMMER READING: Sparky Anderson recollective makes weak first impression of legendary manager

(This review still qualifies for the Summer Reading series because I finished before the season, and summer, technically, ended)
"Sparky and Me," released in May and written by long-time Sparky Anderson friend, manager and co-author Dan Ewald, is another reminder Sparky was possibly the greatest human being ever. Kind and generous to everyone from all walks of life. But whoever designed the cover of this book, 336 pages in length, must have missed the memo. Even a static image of the legendary manager sitting in the dugout or one of the dozen or so photos inside the book would've been better.
That's not to say this isn't a good book, but Ewald has written about Sparky several times before and it feels like you're reading a rehashing of the previous works.
The premise is: Ewald and Sparky are best friends. Ewald visits Sparky near the end of Anderson's life in 2010 and recounts a series of stories amassed (and likely retold in other books, though I've never read) over their decades together with and without the Detroit Tigers.
And while this book wasn't the page-turner of my previous reviews of books chronicling Rich Rodriguez's brief tenure at Michigan and the wild life of former Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert, it's a good read. Sparky seemed to live a modest life and cared about everyone as much or more than himself. But that isn't always as exciting as controversy. 
Sparky's blue collar, everyman ethos are something to admire and are likely lost on today's players and some managers. My favorite story about his time with the Tigers was buried in the book and could've been called "Sparky's Last Stand." The tale centers around the three-time World Series manager and eventual hall of famer taking a moral objection into the dugout, refusing to manage replacement players in spring training of the 1995 season, which came on the heels of a strike-shortened '94 campaign.
As the legend goes, Anderson took the ground of baseball preservationist, essentially concluding: "What if one of these also-rans who hasn't played since high school breaks a significant record?"
I had never heard that argument before, but it is an exceptional point -- What if the scabs hired to replace egocentric multi-millionaires outperform their overpaid counterparts?! Here I was, as a pre-teen in the middle of Mike Ilitch's lost decade as Tigers owner, worried that the Tigers' replacements were going to be even worse than the real players!
Sparky was thinking as a baseball purist, not just refusing to cross the picket line out of allegiance to the players. The book says he often wondered why he was the only one with the courage enough to sit out. His determination could have also come from his soured relationship with Ilitch, with whom Anderson had not bothered to enter contract negotiations for the next season.
It's been hypothesized this ethical stand also stood between Anderson and his number retirement, which didn't take place until last summer, nearly a year after his death.
The spring training protest came roughly three years after Ilitch purchased the team and the Tigers' previous owner had jettisoned long-time general manager Jim Campbell and team president Bo Schembechler, who was hard at work turning the Tigers into a powerhouse similar to the one he had left at the University of Michigan.
(Ilitch did rehire legendary Tigers voice Ernie Harwell, whom Schembechler had been scapegoated for "firing.")
Sparky felt he should've left with them, but insisted on finishing his contract.
And that's Sparky in a nutshell. A man unafraid to stand by his convictions. It would have been good for the publisher to take any of this into consideration before shipping an apparently rushed cover. A more astute first impression would've been more befitting of a baseball lifer who gave his life to everyone else.


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