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COMMENTARY : Sparky Not Afraid to Walk Away

June 29, 1995|MIKE LUPICA | NEWSDAY

Maybe it is his last season, and the next time Sparky Anderson walks away from baseball he walks away for good. He will do this with his head high, a big guy to the end, after more than 2,000 victories, after winning the World Series in both leagues, after a career as a manager that puts him with immortals and always will have him talked about with the best.

He is 61 years old, and Anderson says that it has taken this long into his baseball life not to be scared of the one thing that always scared him the most: a life outside baseball.

Anderson walked away from replacement baseball last spring when other managers only talked about doing that. He went home to California and played golf and spent time with his grandchildren and traveled a little bit to Arizona. And Anderson says there was a day in March when he came home and told his wife he could quit the game for good if it came to that. There was still all this talk at the time that he would be fired when the strike ended--if it ever ended. And Anderson always wanted to make sure that he left on his own terms.

"I said to Carol, 'Should I just call them up on the phone and tell them I'm retiring?' " Anderson was saying Monday afternoon, behind his desk in the visitors clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, filling the bowl of his pipe. "And she said, 'Now what brought this on?' And I said to her, 'I realized today I ain't afraid no more.' "

Anderson had the pipe the way he wanted it and now began to work on it with a match. His voice is still gravelly and his hair still is white. When he finally is gone from baseball, it will seem that he always looked old, even when he was the young manager of the Big Red Machine. He is the closest thing baseball has had to Casey Stengel since Stengel himself, his genius never measured in syntax or good grammar. Now Anderson really is old in a young man's game. The manager at the other end of the hall, Buck Showalter of the Yankees, has not reached 40.

"I just wasn't afraid no more," he said. "Even in all the years when I had teams winning all those games, when they were calling me some kind of genius, which is what they'll do when you got the horses, I was only afraid of one thing and that was what I'd do when I couldn't manage my team anymore. What I'd do with myself. But then I walked away and found out that I could survive. I didn't want that to be the end of me in baseball. I didn't want that to be the way I went out. But I knew I could handle it now."

He leaned back in his chair and smoked his pipe. He had come into Yankee Stadium with a 28-28 baseball team, in a season when the Tigers weren't supposed to have a chance to do anything.

"Now I know that baseball can't tell me when I have to quit," he said. "There's a river everybody has to cross at some point in their life, and that river is the one with fear running through it. I crossed it when I refused to manage those replacement players. It was something I had to do, even if it made the hierarchy mad. I just never dreamed when I did it that I'd be ending the fear I'd always carried with me."

He has always talked this way. He has always made everything out to be a great drama. Sometimes he has anointed young ballplayers for Cooperstown right before those ballplayers ended up in triple A. But he came into Yankee Stadium with a .500 team that wasn't supposed to be anywhere close to that this season. He came in with 2,162 victories in the big leagues, third all-time. He has been the greatest baseball manager of his time.

When he walked away from replacement baseball, he seemed more a giant than he had ever been. He had managed nearly a quarter of a century and done too much and seen too much to join this kind of insult to his game. The people who run the Tigers didn't like it. There were other managers who thought it was nothing more than a grandstand play.

But in the end the Tigers did the smart thing, the only right thing, and took him back. Now all baseball finds out that the old man has lost nothing.

"I'm having the most fun I've had in seven years," he said. "And we're going to have more fun before this thing is over. There's going to be some bad times too. But it's going to be a fun year."

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