Richard Lally Spends Five Minutes WithÖSparky Anderson
In 26 seasons as manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers, George ďSparkyĒ 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 canít. Never ask anyone to do something that is beyond his ability. For instance, letís say Iím 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, Iím not asking him to bunt. Itís 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, Iíll 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? Thatís your out because you asked him to do something he couldnít 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. Itís 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 youíve 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 donít agree with managers who say they treat everyone the same?
Oh, you know yourself, Dick, that thatís not possible. Tell me, are you like me? Are you like Joe (Morgan)? Are you like your friends? Weíre all different and to say you have to treat everyone as if they arenít different just isnít how life isÖeveryone on your team is different, and they must be treated as individuals.
How do you learn about a playerís ďinsides?Ē
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 playerís 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-timersÖ
Well, I donít 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 guysóas long as theyíre on someone elseís 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, theyíre going to bring some fire to the lineup. I want Darrell Chaney going out when he starts determined to prove Iím wrong for not starting him or trying to show some other teams that he can start for them.
But you donít want your bench too unhappyÖ
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 pitcherís stuff. If there was a hard-throwing righthander on the mound and I had a lefty whose bat wasnít 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 batterís 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, donít 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 youíre handing their big sluggers extra at-bats to beat you.
And Iíve 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. Iím 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, itís 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 heís not fast, necessarily. You know Pete (Rose) didnít steal a lot and he wasnít 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, donít get the idea I donít 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 didnít want to play anymore. So weíd 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 donít want to get into a war with those guys because nine times or more out of ten, youíll 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 donít 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 canít do that, youíre stuck.
Now when I say stealing bases, I donít 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 Iím 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 Aís 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 youíre 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 anyoneís 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, donít say a word, especially in public. In 26 years, I never questioned my third base coachesí decisions. Once when a coach tried to apologize for sending a runner who was thrown out, I said, ďHey, Iím glad youíre out there and not me.Ē That should be your attitude. You also shouldnít think that just because youíre the manager, youíre 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, theyíll know right away and youíre never going to be able to rebuild the trust you need, especially when you have to give them bad news. Thatís the hardest part of managing, letting a player know he canít do it anymore. The star player doesnít 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 canít?
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, ďHave I ever lied to you?Ē Once he said no, I would say ďThen Iím not going to start nowÖĒ and I would give him my honest evaluation. Of course this only works if youíve 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 doesnít 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 didnít 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 thatís how you should manage. No one ever wins anything by playing it safe.
You had your one moment of controversy after beating Billyís Yankees in the 1976 World Series, the Thurman Munson incidentÖ
Well, you know, Dick, that was all blown out of proportion, a total misunderstanding. Letís get this straight. I never meant to insult Thurman Munson when I said you canít compare any player to Johnny Bench. Because I meant just that. Any player, not just Thurman. My goodness, who wouldnít 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 Ďs 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, weíd have to find Thurman another position , because there wasnít any catcher who could do all the things Bench could do in his prime. Not any catcher ever. Period.