Richard Lally Spends Five Minutes With…Sparky Anderson
In 26 seasons as manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers, George “Sparky” Anderson won 2,194 games, good for third place on the all-time list of winning managers. He also skippered teams that won three World Series, five pennants and seven division titles. He was the first manager to lead teams to World Series championships in both leagues. The following interview represents a collection of portions from three dialogues Richard Lally conducted with Mr. Anderson between 1982 and 2003
What is the most important skill a manager can possess?
You must know your people thoroughly. Not only what they can do, but what they can’t. Never ask anyone to do something that is beyond his ability. For instance, let’s say I’m managing a team in the ninth inning of a 2-2 tie. We have men on first and second, nobody out. Nine times out of ten your next hitter is bunting, giving himself hup to move the runners into scoring position.
But if I have someone like Cecil Fielder coming up, I’m not asking him to bunt. It’s not something Cecil does well. So I will let him do his thing, swing away, to try to drive in that winning run. If he hits into a double play, I’ll take the heat. It was my call.
If a lefthanded junkballer is on the mound, and you send up a pinch-hitter who has difficulty with slow stuff, whose fault is when he makes an out? That’s your out because you asked him to do something he couldn’t do.
Understanding your personnel goes beyond just assessing their skills, right?
Oh sure, Dick. It also means you have to know their insides. And managers should ever make the mistake of thinking that the people you manage have to adjust to your personality. It’s always the other way around. You have to adjust to them. You have to find out what inspires them and what turns them off. Be able to read your people so that you will know when something is bothering without anyone telling you. And you have to make an effort and never accept what you’ve heard about a player because it might not apply once you get to know him. You know you read a lot of negative things about Albert Belle, but I like Albert Belle. I never managed him, but we get along fine.
So you don’t agree with managers who say they treat everyone the same?
Oh, you know yourself, Dick, that that’s not possible. Tell me, are you like me? Are you like Joe (Morgan)? Are you like your friends? We’re all different and to say you have to treat everyone as if they aren’t different just isn’t how life is…everyone on your team is different, and they must be treated as individuals.
How do you learn about a player’s “insides?”
By taking the time to talk to them. Not just about baseball or business, but about their families, their hobbies, the basketball game they watched the night before. Anything. If you listen closely, you are going to come away with information, clues about what this person is about.
You should develop enough of a feel for your players that you can sense if something is off just by walking through the clubhouse. This means you have to be able to read a player’s face and body language, the whole person, so that you can head off a problem before it threatens the team.
You consistently had strong benches when you managed, utility players who knew their roles and were content to help the team as part-timers…
Well, I don’t know about that content part. You hear about those utility players who play very little but are content their role on the club. I love those guys—as long as they’re on someone else’s club. I never wanted anyone on my roster who was happy about not playing. You think Darrell Chaney was happy sitting behind (Davy) Concepcion and Joe (Morgan)? Or that Bill Plummer liked behind stuck behind Bench? You want guys who want to be out on the field, so that when you give them a chance, they’re going to bring some fire to the lineup. I want Darrell Chaney going out when he starts determined to prove I’m wrong for not starting him or trying to show some other teams that he can start for them.
But you don’t want your bench too unhappy…
You have to keep your bench and your regular starters fresh by weaving players in and out of the lineup all season. In 1976, the Reds had a tremendous starting lineup; we won the pennant by 10 games and were 7-0 in the playoffs and World Series. Our eight regulars each had over 500 plate appearances, but we played them as a unit only 57 times during the season. We gave everyone a chance to contribute.
And once again you have to know what they can do. I rarely picked pinch-hitters on a strict platoon basis. Instead, I looked at how they matched up against he pitcher’s stuff. If there was a hard-throwing righthander on the mound and I had a lefty whose bat wasn’t that quick and a righthanded hitter who loved to hit the fastball, the righthanded hitter is going up to the plate. I was more interested in what kind of pitches you could handle than what side of the batter’s box you stood in.
When I brought in relievers, I applied the same thinking, only in reverse. If I knew a batter hated the breaking ball, I was bringing in a curveballer, even if it meant bringing in a lefty to face a righty.
What are your priorities if you were putting together a winning team from scratch? Where do you start?
Pitching, defense, speed and power, in that order. Power is marvelous, don’t get me wrong, but when you put up eight runs and the other team puts up nine, it can be draining. When you have great pitching, you stop the other team from moving. You can create enough runs without using the long ball all the time. On defense, if you give the other team only 27 outs, you have a chance. Give them 28 or 30 outs or more and you’re handing their big sluggers extra at-bats to beat you.
And I’ve always loved speed. When I came up to the majors, the Cardinals all could run and I saw right away how they would pull (opposing) infielders out of position as soon as they got on base. When you have speed, you can drive the other team crazy. I’m not just talking about stolen bases here. I mean going from first to third, pulling the hit-and-run, faking steals, doing anything that injects movement into the game. When you do that, it’s hard for the opposition to get set defensively. I always liked playing against teams that could only slug. If you took away their long balls, you had them. But teams that are always on the go can beat you so many different ways.
And a player can help you on the bases even if he’s not fast, necessarily. You know Pete (Rose) didn’t steal a lot and he wasn’t the fastest runner in the game, but he knew, he had those great baseball instincts, when to take the extra base. And the extra base gets you into scoring position.
Now, don’t get the idea I don’t like power. During innings one through five, I always wanted to destroy the other team, beat them up so badly they went home crying to Mama that they didn’t want to play anymore. So we’d play for the big inning and try to blow the opposition out of the park. One of the reasons you do that is that almost every club has a big closer, a Mariano Rivera, a Trevor Hoffman. You don’t want to get into a war with those guys because nine times or more out of ten, you’ll lose. Even losing clubs have strong closers. If you bury the other team early, the closer never even gets up. You take him out of the game. But, come the sixth inning, if you don’t have a lead, you have only 12 outs left to get something going. Now you have to grind it out, steal more, sacrifice runners, do all the little things to create some runs. If your team can’t do that, you’re stuck.
Now when I say stealing bases, I don’t just mean being reckless or going after numbers. You want players to pick their spots when a stolen base can make a difference and you want them to get that stolen base most of the time. A runner who gets caught stealing can take the steam out of rally, it really hurts. One of the things I’m proudest of from the 1976 club is that we led the National League in stolen bases with 210 but we only got thrown out 57 times. Only two teams in baseball stole more bases (the Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals) that year and they both got thrown out over 100 times. We had the best stolen base percentage in the majors, by far.
How much delegating did you do with your coaches?
A lot. You have to pick people you believe in, who you know can do the job, then get out of their way. If you’re going to delegate, delegate. My pitching coaches were in charge of the pitchers and I left them alone. Out hitting coaches took care of the hitters and I never looked over anyone’s shoulder. My pitching coach with Cincinnati, Larry Shepard would lace into out pitches so badly, you could hear him down the hall. More than once, I was tempted to go down to prevent what sounded like murder. I never left my chair. Larry knew his pitchers, understood what it took to motivate them. I had to put my faith in that. And it worked. The pitchers respected him and he got the most out of their ability.
Another thing I never did was second guess. Never second guess your coaches. If your third-base coach sends in a runner and (the runner) is thrown out by 20 feet, don’t say a word, especially in public. In 26 years, I never questioned my third base coaches’ decisions. Once when a coach tried to apologize for sending a runner who was thrown out, I said, “Hey, I’m glad you’re out there and not me.” That should be your attitude. You also shouldn’t think that just because you’re the manager, you’re superior to you r coaches. Each of them has an are of the game where they know much more than you ever will. You have to use that knowledge, go to them for advice.
Aside from knowing the game and your players, what other assets should a manager possess?
You have to be honest. Players are like dogs; they can smell you. If you try to put something over on them, they’ll know right away and you’re never going to be able to rebuild the trust you need, especially when you have to give them bad news. That’s the hardest part of managing, letting a player know he can’t do it anymore. The star player doesn’t want to believe it. When a star starts to lose his ability, the first thing you must do is evaluate if he can still contribute in a different role. Maybe this person can still be effective playing in fewer games against certain types of pitchers. You have to look at what you can do to get the maximum out of whatever talent he has left. Then you have to find out if the player will accept a smaller role.
And if they can’t?
Again, it depends on your knowledge of that person. Some players want to hear the bad news straight with no sugar coating. Others want you to break it to them gently. You have to know which approach is appropriate. I would set the scene by asking the player, “Have I ever lied to you?” Once he said no, I would say “Then I’m not going to start now…” and I would give him my honest evaluation. Of course this only works if you’ve built that foundation of trust, which is why you can never lie to your players.
The other thing you want in a manager is someone who doesn’t care about criticism. You know what made Billy Martin one of the all-time great managers? There were some managers who, when you went into town and their teams were losing and they were getting a lot criticism in the press, you know they might be managing a little more cautiously and you could take advantage of that. Billy was absolutely fearless. He would make moves that he knew would bring down a lot of heat from the press and the fans if they backfired, but he didn’t care what they said. If he thought a play would win him a ballgame, he put it on no matter how crazy it looked to everyone else. I see the same thing in Phil Garner. And that’s how you should manage. No one ever wins anything by playing it safe.
You had your one moment of controversy after beating Billy’s Yankees in the 1976 World Series, the Thurman Munson incident…
Well, you know, Dick, that was all blown out of proportion, a total misunderstanding. Let’s get this straight. I never meant to insult Thurman Munson when I said you can’t compare any player to Johnny Bench. Because I meant just that. Any player, not just Thurman. My goodness, who wouldn’t like Thurman Munson as a player? He was a tremendous hitter, a team leader who got his uniform dirty in every game and he only cared about one thing. Winning. That ‘s the kind of player I want on my team. Thurman could play for me. But if he was on my team and Johnny Bench was the catcher, we’d have to find Thurman another position , because there wasn’t any catcher who could do all the things Bench could do in his prime. Not any catcher ever. Period.