Life's still a ball for Sparky
He talks Tigers, life after the game
August 27, 2006
BY JO-ANN BARNAS
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- It's still dark at 5:35 a.m. in Sparky Anderson's neighborhood.
Streetlights illuminate the bend in the road near his home, casting a glow on the flowers in his yard -- pink and fuchsia climbing geraniums, yellow and orange marigolds. The envy of the block, he will tell you.
The first few minutes after waking up is the only hectic period of Anderson's day. He moves quietly so he won't disturb Carol, his wife of 52 years.
Anderson has kicked off most mornings this way since 1999, four years after retiring from managing the Tigers, when amid his recovery from heart-bypass surgery he embraced a routine that he says has enhanced his life more than baseball ever did.
You know this because at 5:37 a.m., Anderson is standing in his driveway. He unscrews the cap from a bottle filled with iced tea and takes a swig.
"Let's go for a walk," he says.
This is not just a baseball story.
Stories about baseball, certainly any regarding Anderson, would involve more than he could -- or would want -- to contribute at this point in life.
Almost assuredly, fans in Detroit, where the Tigers (81-48 entering Saturday) try to build on their division lead going into today's game against the Cleveland Indians, remember Anderson as the manager who led the Tigers to the 1984 World Series title.
In Cincinnati, he's revered for taking the Big Red Machine to the 1975 and 1976 championships.
Anderson, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, remains the only manager to win a World Series in both the American and National leagues.
He retired in 1995 after 26 seasons with 2,194 victories, ranking him fourth all-time behind Connie Mack, John McGraw and Tony LaRussa.
But when Anderson looks in the mirror, he doesn't see baseball.
He sees a 72-year-old grandfather of 15.
He sees a gardener.
He sees a golfer who likes chatting up new interests -- politics and history -- when he's "cheating with my boys" on the golf course.
He sees a husband fortunate for the chance to assume some of the household chores his wife took care of all those years he was managing. So Anderson happily pushes the grocery cart at Albertson's, where he knows every checker by name.
He sees a college sports fan with the best seat in the house -- the dugout -- for California Lutheran baseball games. The field, recently renamed in his honor, is around the corner from the home the Andersons have owned for 40 years.
And he sees a walker.
Which is where the next part of this story begins.
Skipper is an avid walker
Five days a week at precisely 5:45 a.m., Anderson slides into the front seat of his 10-year-old white Crown Victoria (aka Tank) and drives a quarter-mile to a parking lot at California Lutheran University.
He recently had the car "fixed up a bit," he says. That means duct tape is no longer required to secure his rearview mirror to the windshield, or to hold together a cracked inside door panel on the driver's side of his car.
Anderson has a newer model Crown Vic in his garage but prefers driving Tank because, frankly, it's "got a lot of heart," he says.
In the passenger seat on this day is Dan Ewald, the Tigers' former publicity manager and Anderson's close friend for nearly 30 years. Ewald, 61, of Troy is in Thousand Oaks for the week visiting and helping Anderson around the house. This afternoon's job: clearing ivy from the fence line in back.
By 5:40 a.m., Ewald has already taken care of one of Anderson's rituals before beginning their walk around the university and surrounding neighborhoods. He has run up the morning newspaper from the driveways of Anderson's neighbors and placed them at their front doors.
Funny. When Anderson retired from managing 11 years ago, his wife worried about him.
"I'm an 'A' person," Anderson explains, referring to his competitive and work-obsessed persona he needed in baseball. "She didn't think I could" retire. "And when I did, it hadn't even been two weeks and she said, 'I've seen you change.' "
Anderson, head down, arms pumping, is on his second loop around Alumni Hall on campus. He's wearing white tennis shoes, white socks, blue shorts and a lightweight jacket over a white T-shirt. A beige cap with the words "Soule Park" is atop his thinning white hair.
Between 5:54 and 5:57 a.m., he says, he'll run into another walker, a woman named Shirley. And sure enough, here she comes toward them.
"Shirley's down pat," Anderson says with a smile.
Anderson already has waved to Joe, a campus security guard.
Heading toward a community garden in the lot behind a Lutheran church, Anderson picks up his pace before reaching his first stopping point.
"You have to look down -- you never know where the boys are," he says, referring to rattlesnakes. Anderson wags a finger at rows of vegetables he helped cultivate this summer.
"Here are the cucumbers, Japanese," Anderson says. "And zucchini."
He points to flowers -- yellow marigolds as bright as the sun. "These I plant and they'll stay all summer. Here's cantaloupe and cherry tomatoes. I cleaned them out yesterday. I want to go with the beef tomatoes next year."
Back on the sidewalk, Anderson and Ewald are a few minutes from meeting up with Mary Imsland, 70, and Elaine Eickmeyer, 73, who also live in Thousand Oaks.
Anderson credits the retired schoolteachers, whom he fondly calls "my girls," for getting him hooked on walking.
He noticed the two women walking by his kitchen window when he was recuperating from heart surgery. His street was on their route.
When he was well enough, he began walking on his own and bumped into Imsland and Eickmeyer. He asked if he could join them. They didn't know who Anderson was at first.
He liked that.
Although Anderson was hospitalized two years ago with a rheumatoid-related illness, he proclaims himself in good health now after a recent physical. Blood pressure: 126/70. Cholesterol: 126.
Weight: 143 -- "same as I weighed in high school," he says.
He believes walking in the morning gives him energy for the rest of the day. Plus, Anderson just feels better.
"Baseball to me now was like a toy you play with," he says. "It was fun. That's all it is. Fun. But it's not life."
"Why does it take retirement to realize that?" he is asked.
"Why did it take me to get ill?" Anderson says with a smile. "The biggest thing that young people can only learn is, do the best you can at what you do, and then when you're through with it, don't try to live it again. I don't live baseball anymore."
"You're more fulfilled," Ewald says.
"It's not even close," Anderson says. "Hey, there's Mary on the left, Ike on the right -- 6:15."
Nine minutes later, two more walkers join the group. Anderson, walking ahead, passes the Thousand Oaks Health Care Center, where a green sports car is parked at the curb out front.
"We call him Green Man," Anderson says. "He brings a little gift everyday for his wife. He comes and stays -- I guess, Mary, he stays for about four hours?"
"I imagine," she says.
"He's a little old man with a rod for a car," Anderson continues. "But his wife, she's been here about 15, 16 months and he comes to see her everyday. Can you imagine that?"
Talking Tigers baseball
The group heads toward another neighborhood. Anderson has been walking for about an hour now.
He's asked about the 1984 Tigers, if he hears from his former players often.
"Not much," he says. "Dan Petry -- which I always look forward to -- Danny always calls me at Christmastime. He's such a good kid. I will never leave the game as far as the friendships, and what the game has done for so many people."
Has he spoken lately to Jim Leyland, the Tigers manager?
"No, no, Jimmy and me, I would hope, are friends," Anderson says. "There are friends and there are personal friends, and it's totally different. But that doesn't mean a guy running a ball club wants -- I call them green flies -- he doesn't need green flies coming around. He has work to do."
Is it easier or harder to manage when things are going well?
"At times it can be harder for this reason," Anderson says, bringing up this year's Tigers. "At this point right now, with the lead they have, just imagine if you lose it? That's the way I always looked at it. Like in '84, I told the coaches, 'Boys, I have news for you. If we don't win this, look at centerfield, on that flagpole. The flag won't be there, it will be me.' It's true. I don't care who you are. You don't take anything for granted when you're in it. I look at Detroit right now and say, 'Can't lose.'
"But I'm an outsider. It's an easy thing for me to say.' "
Anderson doesn't own a computer. He follows the game the time-tested way: He reads the box scores in his morning newspaper.
"I like to look for young players that I never heard of," he says. "I start to feel like I can get in touch with them, begin to know them, by reading their stats. With some of the Tigers, if they're healthy and don't lose the noggin on their head, ooh, they're gonna be good.
"I love their shortstop (Carlos Guillen) -- he's what you call a player. I love their centerfielder (Curtis Granderson)."
He's asked about Alan Trammell, star shortstop on that 1984 World Series team. Trammell was fired as Tigers manager after last season.
"I talked with Alan about six weeks ago," Anderson says. "He sounds good. I can tell you something that really sounds crazy: I love him. I've never been around a young man that knew how to be a professional like he was.
"I encouraged him to sit for a year. I said, 'Why come out with something that you feel bad about?' Just like me now -- seven, eight years ago I was totally different. Now I look at everything clearer." Anderson returns to Michigan a couple of times a year, mostly for his golf tournament for a children's charity and speaking engagements. But he hasn't been to Comerica Park since the year the stadium opened, he said.
"It's been awhile," he says. "But that's the way it should be."
Finished with their walk -- total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes -- Anderson and Ewald head back to the parking lot. Anderson fires up Tank.
Time for breakfast
On the way to a restaurant, Anderson spots a neighbor washing his car in the driveway. Anderson stops in front of the house, rolls down his window, and yells: "I have a writer here from Detroit. She wants to do a big profile on you. Do you have 20 seconds?"
He laughs, rolls up the window and speeds away.
At the restaurant, Anderson and Ewald choose a booth away from the door. A waitress -- her name tag reads Bryonna -- arrives at their table.
"Are you from France?" Anderson asks.
"No, I'm not," she replies.
"That's too bad," Anderson says. "I wanted to practice ordering in French."
He discusses some of the household duties he has inherited since he retired, such as gardening and sending out the Christmas cards.
Back when he managed, he says, Carol mailed almost 500 a year. Two years ago, Anderson cut the list down to 160 and started his own tradition: He sent the cards out after Christmas because he can buy them at half price.
But Anderson goofed last year. "I missed the sale," he says, "and didn't send them out."
Don't let Anderson's seemingly frugal ways throw you off, Ewald says. His friend is a generous man.
Anderson takes his children and their spouses -- Ewald, too -- on a cruise every year. When he heard that a woman -- an acquaintance of the family -- lived in a rented garage, he bought carpeting and furniture after visiting her and had it delivered to her home.
Anderson still says "thank you" when he's asked for an autograph. Asked why, Anderson replies: "I'm from Bridgewater, S.D. Six hundred people lived in my town, and I'm the only person from there in the Hall of Fame. For that, I say, 'Thank you.' "
Anderson orders corned beef hash -- "No eggs," he says -- and raisin toast and fruit. He pours cream into his coffee. The waitress returns and refills his ice water.
"I drink water all the time," Anderson says.
His right hand trembles slightly as he spreads grape jelly on a piece of toast.
"Somebody said to me, 'You don't hurry no more,' " he says. "I said, 'I'll tell you why: I don't want to go there too quick."
Anderson nods toward the ground. You get the point.
"I asked Dan the other day, 'How does this all go on without us?'
"That's the one thing: You don't go on forever."
Contact JO-ANN BARNAS at 313-222-2037 or firstname.lastname@example.org