“‘My way or the highway’ was the early Sparky mantra in Detroit. It was more than just words.”
If there was any trip that was about as one-way as it gets, it was a venture into Sparky Anderson’s dog house.
It was baseball’s Bermuda Triangle.
Maybe that’s playing it a little heavy, but if Sparky didn’t want you on his team, you weren’t on it. Period.
It happened in Cincinnati, and it damn sure happened in Detroit, too.
For as good as the Tigers were for most of the 1980s, there’s no telling how much better they could have been, had Sparky not run some of the more talented ones out of town.
Sparky became Tigers manager in June 1979, and it didn’t take long for him to decide that the team had some ne’er-do-wells on it, and that they should soon be ex-Tigers.
“My way or the highway” was the early Sparky mantra in Detroit.
It was more than just words.
About a month before Sparky joined the Tigers, DH Rusty Staub had just finished staging a holdout that extended from spring training all the way to early May. The Tigers, traditionally one of baseball’s misers, led by GM Jim Campbell, balked at Rusty’s demands. So Rusty went back to his restaurant business and kept himself in shape, just in case.
Staub finally broke down and re-joined the team. But Sparky read the papers. He kept up on the game, even as an unemployed manager. He knew, when he took the Detroit job, that Rusty Staub had been petulant. A bad boy.
Ron LeFlore was the team’s center fielder. And an ex-con. But not an ex-rule breaker. LeFlore didn’t take too well to Sparky’s demand that the team be ship shape. There were reports that LeFlore broke Sparky’s rules, just as he had broken Ralph Houk’s and Les Moss’s before Anderson.
Within a couple years, Staub, LeFlore, first baseman Jason Thompson and outfielder Steve Kemp were ex-Tigers. In some cases, the Tigers were rooked in the deals, but they were gone, and that’s what Sparky wanted. Campbell obliged.
The purging of talent continued as the 1980s continued.
Glenn Wilson, also not a favorite of Sparky’s, was included in the Dave Bergman-Willie Hernandez trade. The winter after winning the World Series, third baseman Howard Johnson, who didn’t get along with Sparky all that well either, was traded to the Mets, for pitcher Walt Terrell.
That’s a lot of good and mostly young talent that Sparky ordered to be removed from Detroit.
Again, it’s not like those players were given away.
The Tigers got Chet Lemon for Kemp. The Wilson trade was excellent.
But Wilson and, especially, Howard Johnson, had terrific years after leaving the Tigers. HoJo was a Mets superstar for a few years. Terrell was, on the other hand, mostly average.
The Tigers traded Thompson to California for Al Cowens, who was past his prime. Thompson went on to have some good years in Pittsburgh.
Just before Sparky came to Detroit, the Tigers acquired John “Champ” Summers from the Reds.
Summers was another who rubbed Sparky the wrong way, and vice versa.
But Sparky kept Summers, and Champ had some good years in Detroit.
Sparky had the tendency, on the other hand, to anoint unknown youngsters as the Second Coming. He did that almost as much as he got rid of those who annoyed him.
Remember Chris Pittaro? Torey Lovullo?
Oh, and Sparky was right about LeFlore, by the way. Ronnie was out of baseball just a couple years after being traded by the Tigers. He tried to get back into baseball a few years later. As an umpire.
I couldn’t make that up.