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 CNS Story:

NEWSMAKER-SPARKY Aug-30-1996 xxxn


By Mark Pattison

ANAHEIM, Calif. (CNS) -- It's 4 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon at Anaheim Stadium, home of the California Angels. In the nearly empty stadium, the home team is getting in its pre-game workouts -- hitting, fielding, running, stretching.

Above it all in a television broadcast booth is Sparky Anderson, who now does color commentary for Angels home games on a regional cable channel.

Sparky is above it all in another sense. After 26 seasons as a major-league manager, nine with the Cincinnati Reds and 17 with the Detroit Tigers, he's seen just about everything he can see in baseball.

With the third-most wins of any manager in big-league history, Sparky is a lock for the Hall of Fame.

His story is almost as circuitous as the stories he tells about the game, complete with the most tangled syntax this side of Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra.

If Sparky had had more talent, he would have played more than one season in the majors. Because he didn't, he spent the better part of two decades in the minors, first as a player and then as a manager.

And were it not for his extended stay in the minors, Sparky Anderson might not be Catholic today.

"I was a Methodist. And the Methodist church (service) starts at 11 o'clock. And we always played doubleheaders on Sunday -- in those days. Always. I never could go to church," Anderson told Catholic News Service in an interview from a TV booth overlooking home plate in Anaheim.

"But my roommates, it seemed like every roommate I had was Catholic. I would go to church with them. I'd just go to church with them. God, I did that for at least eight, nine years. And then when I was in Toronto, Father (Charles) Prance -- I got the lessons from Father Prance. I'd go over in the evenings. And he baptized me in Toronto, in 1964," Anderson said.

From there, Sparky has been not only an ambassador for baseball, he's also been an ambassador for the Catholic Church and for Christian service.

He established a foundation nine years ago to assure continued funding for Children's Hospital of Detroit which pulled in the support of players from all of Detroit's pro teams. This past summer he did something he never could do while in uniform -- take a vacation in mid-July -- to return to Detroit to spearhead a golf tournament for the charity, Caring Athletes Team for Children's Hospital, known as CATCH.

"I lived in that city and took a lot of money out of that city over the years. I felt like I kinda owed them something. Certainly the children. I think you owe children something. Especially the ones who don't have anything," Anderson said.

Nine years ago, he met Pope John Paul II when the pontiff was visiting Detroit. "I shook his hand, and he said, 'Bless you, my son.' And that's probably one of the most memorable things that I'll ever remember," Anderson said.

That afternoon, the Tigers beat the Milwaukee Brewers; the game-day crowd was considerably less than the throng assembled to greet the pope in the predominantly Polish suburban enclave of Hamtramck, Mich.

A couple of years ago, Anderson got a baseball autographed by the pope. "Which is really something," he said. "I don't believe that anybody has ever had a ball signed by a pope -- to my knowledge."

But don't look for religion on the diamond, he warns. "It's a job. That's the same as working on the Ford assembly line. There ain't going to be no religion on that assembly line."

That accounts, he says, for some of the salty language used on the field. "Who you meet out there won't be the same guy you meet in his house. That's a mean business. You gotta be mean. Because if you ain't mean, you won't survive. You can't be a nice person," Anderson said.

Sparky has a few ideas for the game.

On the designated hitter: "I'd like to see 'em get rid of the DH. And I think we would see more the way baseball was." If necessary, "put it up to a vote" of the fans, he says. "If one person votes more for the DH, we have him. But if one votes less, we don't have him. I think the DH goes."

On the three-division setup and wild-card playoff: "I think it's great because it's going to allow us to be able to get extra teams in there. One day, they're going to win it. One day it'll happen, where the wild card wins."

On the possibility of interleague play as early as next year: "I don't like it, because to me it takes away from the World Series. The World Series to me is the greatest event we have. What if those two teams played each other during the season? What have we got to sell at the World Series? I just don't like it."

On the dearth of quality pitching: "I think they play too long. They pitch in Little League and they're throwing curve balls and all these things. I just don't think any more kids throw hard. An odd guy every now and then who throws the ball hard. Everybody gets excited when they see a guy throw hard. They used to all throw hard."

On the campaign to ban snuff and chewing tobacco from dugouts and clubhouses: "I hate to think that we start legislating a human being's life. Unless I'm mistaken, God gave everyone a free will. If we take that free will from him then we've went against God."

He even has some ideas on what he would do differently if he returned to managing -- not that he will, he says: Cut down on pre- game batting practice, limit infield practice to three times a week, ban players from arriving in the clubhouse until 4 p.m. for night games.

And if he were managing -- not that he will, he says -- he'd ride the team bus with his players, and have conversations with at least five players every day.

Anderson also debunked a few myths that sprang up over the course of a quarter-century in the big leagues.

The most recent dealt with his nickname, given him by a radio announcer in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1955 for no apparent reason.

"What I said was, really, now that I am no longer in baseball, I would prefer to go back to 'George.' That's my real name. Then they made a big thing out of it -- that I didn't want to be called Sparky -- I never said I didn't want to be called Sparky, just that I preferred to be called George," Anderson said.

Another was his departure from the Tigers during the middle of the 1989 season. At the time, the press reported he was suffering from exhaustion, but today, Anderson says, it was "a personal thing. Jim Campbell, who was my dear friend, the (Tigers') president, said, 'We will call it exhaustion'.... Jim went to his grave knowing what it was, and I know what it was. But it was not exhaustion."

But perhaps the most celebrated misconception was the leave of absence he took during spring training in 1995. It wasn't because Anderson wouldn't manage replacement players as was popularly believed.

"It had nothing to do with replacement players. It had to do with only one thing: Are we going to continue to make a joke out of the game of baseball? And here was the joke. I knew and they knew that they would never open the season with replacements. Which they did not," Anderson said.

"Now, I am going to sit there and accept that? Then I'm part of the joke. I'm not a joke. I managed 25 years at that time in the major leagues, and I was no joke. I wasn't going to be part of a joke. That was the biggest travesty I have ever seen in my career."

Anderson said he got a lot more praise than criticism for his stand. "If I had wanted, I could have accepted about 10 awards from different unions" over the replacement-player issue, he said.

He is quick to point out that when pitcher Mike Christopher, a spring training replacement player, got called up to the Tigers last summer, Anderson told his team, "If you got any class at all, which I think you do, you will greet him."

"Which they did," he recalled.

Anderson's biggest thrill in baseball thus far was when Reds catcher Johnny Bench launched an opposite-field home run in the ninth inning of the deciding game of the 1972 National League playoffs against the Pittsburgh Pirates to tie a game the Reds would eventually win.

But bigger than that would be enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "It would be the very biggest thrill that I could ever have for all of my family, my grandchildren, everyone. It would be the biggest moment in our lives," he said.

"Because they will be able to cherish that forever. And their children, and their children. It's an eternity."


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