In the wacky and whimsical world of Sparky Anderson, the truth is meant to be bent. Fabrication is a useful managerial tool, same as a stolen base or a suicide squeeze. If a little white-haired lie can somehow make his boys play better baseball, or even give the public a little amusement, well, where's the harm? It won't make his nose grow as large as Pinocchio's, or Cyrano de Bergerac's, or Steve Martin's.
The trick, of course, is figuring out when Sparky is sincere. He would hate to become the manager who cried wolf, hate to believe that nobody believes a word he is saying, ever. As far as he is concerned, it is simply part of the game. "I'll say anything," he says.
He will tell you, and through you tell the world, that the Detroit Tigers are going to do this, or do that. He will state that he is about to bench an everyday player, just so tomorrow's headlines will read "X to Be Benched," whereupon X will come to the ballpark, all steamed, only to find his name on the lineup card as part of the manager's last-second change of heart. Then, pow, 3 for 4. "That'll teach that old coot to think of benching me," X says.
Sparky Anderson uses fibs as motivation and exaggeration as a confidence builder. As a certain military officer told a Congressional panel last week, there are lies and there are lies . Some of them, in Sparky's eyes, are worth the bother of keeping your fingers crossed. This is the man who once imposed a "48-hour rule," reserving the right to take back anything he might have said during the previous two days.
There is an undeniable honesty in some of his bull. How many other major league managers admit that half the time they argue with umpires, jaw to jaw, bulging eyes to bulging eyes, they are doing so only because the players and fans expect it? More than once, that toothy old Tiger has been out there asking the umpire what he had for lunch this afternoon.
During that championship season of 1984, Sparky was in rare form. When the Tigers won their season opener and the game after that, the manager wore a blue T-shirt beneath his jersey that advertised the team owner's pizza company. It bore a slogan, "The Hot Ones," that seemed appropriate, so superstitious Sparky said he would wear the shirt every day, never washing it, until the Tigers lost. Next thing you knew, their record was 9-0. Poor Sparky, you figured.
Turned out that the shirt was getting a nice, fresh laundering, every single day. Sparky just laughed and said, "Gave you something to write about," and got away with it, naturally. Came away smelling like lilacs.
It was later that same season, in a light-hearted mood just before the playoffs, that Sparky modeled his dugout stances for those who chose to take note. "This one's during the season," he said, looking impassively toward an imaginary diamond. "This one's when the TV camera's on me," he said, crossing his arms and looking intense. "And this one's during the World Series," he said, leaning forward and cupping his chin with his hand, as if the bases were full with Johnny Bench at bat.
Where Sparky Anderson is at his best is when he becomes the gypsy fortune teller, predicting the future. There is always some obscure Carl Willis who is about to become the next Rollie Fingers, or a young Cuban singles slapper with the lyrical name of Barbaro Garbey who reminds his manager of a young Roberto Clemente. And who can forget Chris Pittaro, the Cooperstown-bound infielder? Can't-misses, every one of them. Believe you me, it is torture for Sparky to resist the temptation to sell prospects the way Lee Iacocca sells cars. He would love to equip them all with five-year, 5,000 at-bat guarantees.
Oh, then, the predicament he had this spring. In camp, the Tigers had a whole batch of catchers, all of whom had applied for the position that free agent Lance Parrish had vacated. There was the wild-eyed veteran, Mike Heath, and the religious young Southerner, Dwight Lowry, and the versatile Californian, Brian Harper.
And, there was Matt Nokes.
Nokes was a kid out of San Diego who was 23 years old and had 24 at-bats to show for it. He had come to Detroit in a trade that, at face value, had sent the Tigers' most promising catcher, Bob Melvin, to the San Francisco Giants, in return for some pitching help, Dave LaPoint and Eric King. Except to his friends back at Patrick Henry High School and to some scouts, Nokes was nobody.
But Sparky Anderson thought he saw something. He saw a hitter who never took a bad swing. He saw a hitter who could make Detroit forgive Lance (Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death) Parrish for defecting to Philadelphia. And, he was eager to shout it to the world.
He waited, though. Didn't want to put pressure on the kid. So, slowly, and quietly for a change, a Sparky star was born. Wade Boggs came up to the Tiger manager in spring training and pointed to Nokes and said, "That kid can hit." Don Mattingly did the same thing.