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Baseball : Despite the Loss of Gibson, Sparky Says Tigers Will Survive

February 02, 1988|Ross Newhan

While Kirk Gibson, the newest Dodger, was attending a press conference at Dodger Stadium Monday, his former Detroit Tiger manager, Sparky Anderson, was playing golf at Los Robles Country Club near his Thousand Oaks home.

The loss of Gibson, Sparky said before hitting his first tee shot, won't change his perspective. He'll continue to see only green fairways.

"I've never been a whiner and I'm not going to start now," he said. "I have this theory. Babe Ruth was the greatest player who ever lived, right? Then Babe died, but the game has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger.

"I mean, I've always believed that one player doesn't make that much difference. It has nothing to do with the individual, it's just the way it is."

How else should he look at it?

His contract as manager of the Tigers was recently extended for three years.

Is he to throw up his hands and consider it a death sentence? How much whiter can his hair get, anyway?

After all, it was only a year ago that Sparky's All-Star catcher, Lance Parrish, also departed as a free agent, signing with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Sparky and the Tigers survived very nicely. Matt Nokes, Parrish's anonymous successor, hit 32 home runs and drove in 87 runs as the Tigers won a major league-high 98 games and an American League East championship.

"The oddsmakers might be courteous and pick us to finish fifth again, but I'd expect that they'd lower us a notch now," Sparky said.

"New York and Toronto will be the teams to beat, and they'll probably move Milwaukee, Boston and maybe even Baltimore or Cleveland ahead of us, and that's all right.

"Last year we lost Parrish and everyone thought we were finished. Then the kid (Nokes) stepped in and did a terrific job. It'll be a challenge again, but that adds to the fun. It gets everyone geared up. And I learned one thing last year, that I don't have to worry about the character of my people. I've never been prouder of a team. I've never been around a better group."

Character, of course, is an important factor, but not something you can write on a lineup card. Is there another Nokes available? How often can you replace a Parrish and Gibson?

"I can't worry about what I don't have," Sparky said. "It's like losing a guy with an injury. You never hear me talking about it because nobody else cares. We didn't have (Alan) Trammell or Gibson for our first six games with the Yankees last year and lost five of them. Do you think the Yankees cared who we had out there?"

There is nothing wrong with the philosophy, but it doesn't address the question of a replacement for Gibson, who was set to play left field again, with ex-Angel Gary Pettis in center and Chet Lemon in right.

More importantly for the Tigers, who privately may feel they are better off without Gibson in the field, it doesn't address the question of who's going to bat third and replace Gibson's power and speed.

"We can't replace him with a star or big name," Sparky said. "We don't have that type player, but we do have some people who are usable. I can still do a lot of things. I can platoon if I want.

"You lose a player and people tend to look at that position and give it a zero. But if I use two people to platoon there, I don't think they represent a zero."

Sparky said his first thought is to platoon Larry Herndon, who was going to be the designated hitter because of a suspect knee that was recently operated on, with Pat Sheridan or Billy Bean or Scott Lusader.

Maybe that doesn't represent a zero, but consider this: Herndon, Sheridan, Bean, Lusader and Pettis hit a total of 17 homers in 1,153 at-bats last year. Gibson hit 24 in 487.

The Tigers could also move Lemon to left and platoon Sheridan and catcher Mike Heath in right, or switch Nokes to left and use Heath behind the plate.

They are also said to be considering the signing of one of three left-handed-hitting veterans--Cecil Cooper, Mike Easler or Rupert Jones. All have been released by their former teams this winter and all are at a point where their reaction to the fastball makes it appear more like a heat-seeking missile.

Is it any wonder that some Detroit fans and members of the media, disturbed by the departure of Parrish and Gibson, are lobbying for more involvement by owner Tom Monaghan, who has tended to treat the Tigers simply as an advertising tool for his Domino's Pizza?

Sparky, of course, would prefer to have to wedge out of a bunker than address that sensitive subject. He was asked to talk about Gibson and demurred on that, too.

"That's for them," he said, alluding to the Dodgers. "They signed him. They have the full book on him. He's theirs now."

If that seemed cold, if it seemed to suggest there was a problem with Gibson, Sparky added:

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