Sparky walks off baseball memories
BY JO-ANN BARNAS | DETROIT FREE PRESS
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 warm glow on the blanket of flowers in his front yard. The envy of the block, Anderson will tell you later.
The first few minutes after waking up, Anderson 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 Detroit 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," Anderson says.
This is not just a baseball story.
Fans in Detroit, where the Tigers hang on to a division lead after years of dismal records, 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.
Elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, Anderson 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. Not anymore.
He sees a 72-year-old grandfather of 15.
He sees a gardener.
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.
And he sees a walker. Which is where the next part of this story begins.
AN "A" PERSON
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.
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, is in Thousand Oaks visiting and helping Anderson around the house. This afternoon's job: clearing ivy from the fence line around back.
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 do this (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. Between 5:54 a.m. and 5:57 a.m., he says, he'll run into another walker, a woman named Shirley. And sure enough, here she comes walking toward them.
At a community garden in the lot behind a Lutheran church, Anderson 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 Eikemeyer, 73, retired schoolteachers who live in Thousand Oaks.
He noticed the two women walking past 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 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.
''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."
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 Christmas time. 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."
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, he said, since the year the stadium opened.
"It's been a while," he says. "But that's the way it should be."
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.'"
For breakfast, Anderson orders corned beef hash - "No eggs," he says - and raisin toast and fruit. He pours cream into his coffee. 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,'" Anderson 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."