Bless You, Sparky

Sparky Anderson On a Monday night in third grade in the Catechism classes of St. Rita’s church in Holly, Michigan, Ronnie Haslem — the first boy who’d ever kissed me — opened his chubby fist and I gasped.

It was a piece of notebook paper. It was a little damp — Ronnie had ferreted it away in his palm after dinner; his mother would not allow it out of the house.

It was a piece of paper signed by Sparky Anderson. The lines of the paper, the scratchy black of what had to have been a Bic medium point ballpoint pen cresting and peaking over the hills and valleys formed when he signed the paper against Ronnie’s outstretched hand.

I didn’t kiss Ronnie then — there was a crucifix on the wall behind us, and Father Erpelding was walking the halls, smoking his pipe. But I knew, in that moment, I’d been right to let him put his lips on mine in first grade, even if my mother did find out and chastise me, even if my mother didn’t think it was funny when Ronnie and I glued our hands together with Elmer’s (we removed the orange cap) in protest.

How precious was that paper! We insisted the church secretary, Mrs. Cassar, make a Xerox copy for us; I kept that faux-Sparky autograph for years. It stayed on the dresser next to my bed even after Ronnie moved away (I remember he told me he was switching schools while we shared the strawberries his mother packed in his metal lunchbox), even after the baseball strike, after all my dogs died and I grew my hair long and then cut it short and then left for college.

Sparky, we know, is dying — not in that existential, postmodern sense. He is really dying.

I don’t remember when I realized I’d lost the autograph. But I’m certain I wasn’t sad.

The scrap of paper was a talisman. Once, I hit two triples in a game and saw my name in the local paper the next. I touched the paper again before the next game, and stuck out looking twice.

The scrap of paper was not magic. The name on it was.

It’s because of Sparky Anderson that Jim Leyland wears cleats in the dugout. It’s because of Sparky Anderson that we now have a battery of bullpen pitchers, from Brian Wilson to Joel Zumaya to the nameless workhorses taking the ball in the third inning. It’s because Kirk Gibson sulked into Sparky’s office, intent on kicking his ass after being benched, and got his ass kicked instead, that the Tigers became a team of winners (before becoming a team of losers). It’s because Sparky did this in Game 5 of the 1984 series that I knew, even as an elementary schooler, that his name on paper was precious:

In the Sounds of the Game video, Detroit manager Sparky Anderson was seen in the dugout, yelling at Gibson, “He don’t want to walk you!” and making a bat-swinging motion with his hands, the universal baseball gesture for “swing away.” Gibson got the message, and launched Gossage’s 1-0 fastball deep into Tiger Stadium‘s right field upper deck for a three-run homer, icing the game and the Series for the Tigers.

It’s because Sparky wore batting gloves on his hands when he argued with umpires.

It’s because he insisted that every one of his players was better than Mickey Mantle, or Johnny Bench — it’s because, growing up in the shadow of Sparky’s foot hitched up on the dugout steps, we all thought we could be legends, too.

None of that was on the bit of paper. And none of it, really, can be lost.

2 Responses to “Bless You, Sparky”
  1. Jeanette Giroux says:

    Your article brings back some great memories. Mr. Anderson is a legend who will not be forgotten. I wonder what Ronnie is doing now-a-days?

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