The Detroit Tigers are the best team in baseball. They have the gold trophy and the diamond rings and the press clippings to prove it.
George L. (Sparky) Anderson, their manager, is, then, by inference, the best manager in baseball.
For most people, this would be enough. Not for him. Anybody can win a pennant and World Series. Sparky's won lots of them.
What Sparky is, and will tell you, is not only the manager of the best team in all baseball but the best team in all the ages and times of baseball, the best team that ever drew on sanitary socks, the greatest aggregation ever to draw breath, something to rank with Napoleon's artillery and Caesar's legions, to say nothing of the 1927 Yankees.
The ghostly howls you hear in the background are the shades of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, the combined outrage of the Connie Mack Athletics, the Miracle Braves, the 1934 Gas House Gang.
The greatest team of all time doesn't have Babe Ruth on it? Ty Cobb? One or more of the Dean boys?
The greatest team of all time is anchored by Kirk Gibson?
That's right, Anderson insists. Doubters don't bother him. There are those who think this isn't even the greatest Detroit team of all time. There are still people alive, including some members of it, who remember the 1935 aggregation of Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane, Jo-Jo White and Schoolboy Rowe.
There are those who think this isn't even the greatest aggregation ever managed by Sparky Anderson. That accolade may belong to his 1976 Cincinnati Reds
One thing that may make you think the '76 Reds were the greatest is that Sparky said they were. That, of course, was in 1976, when those Reds were preparing to take on the 1976 Yankees in the World Series.
Sparky found it hard to maintain any real interest in that Series. He took it for granted that his Reds were better than that Yankee team.
What intrigued Sparky then was whether his team could have taken the 1927 Yankee team, commonly consented to be the best ever in baseball. Sparky did not debate the subject long. The '76 Reds won, hands down.
But, now, it's 1985 and the '76 Reds have bitten the dust, too.
You have to give Sparky credit. He doesn't duck the tough ones. The 1927 Yankees he disposed of in 1976 consisted of Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt. Not an easy lineup to blow away. Sparky set them down in order.
Now, Anderson has to take the lineup he did that with, the Cincinnati Reds of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, George Foster and Dave Concepcion, and find their weaknesses vis-a-vis his 1985 Detroits.
It's not hard. You see, Sparky's angle is, he doesn't think the modern ballplayer has enough faith in himself. This is where Sparky comes in. He has enough faith for all of them. He has enough faith for the 12 apostles. Snake oil lost a great prospect the day Sparky turned to baseball.
A few years ago, when Sparky took over as Detroit manager, he took a look at a wild-swinging young football player just off the campus of Michigan State and immediately proclaimed that he had found the new Mickey Mantle.
Well, that was five seasons ago, and Gibson is still about 500 home runs behind the old Mickey Mantle, and quite a few behind guys who were never compared to the old Mickey Mantle in the first place.
Never mind. Sparky next turned his attention to the rest of his lineup. His shortstop, he announced, was "the best player in the game right now."
Now, Alan Trammell is good. But, so is Cal Ripken of the Orioles who not only was the league's Most Valuable Player in 1983 but is also a shortstop. Ozzie Smith is still in the game. So is Robin Yount, although a shoulder problem has forced him to move, temporarily, they say, to the outfield. There is some question in some circles not only whether Trammell is the best player in the game but whether he's even the best shortstop.
Sparky has more modest claims for his center fielder. Chet Lemon, he says, is not only "the best center fielder in the game, but the best I've ever seen."
Since Sparky must have seen Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Duke Snider, you have to wonder what they did that Chet Lemon can do better. Or, for that matter, as well. I'll tell you one thing: You won't find it in any cold figures.
There's more. Sparky's double-play combination, Trammell and Lou Whitaker is the best in baseball, he said the other day as he peeled off a shirt in a locker room at Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
Two weeks earlier, he had tried to turn Whitaker into a third baseman to accommodate a rookie named Chris Pittaro, who has never picked up a ground ball in a major league game.
"Pittaro has a chance to be the greatest second baseman who ever lived," Sparky explained.
He also had a chance to be the best second baseman in the Florida State League again while Whitaker returned to second base, in the view of many.