Published January 25, 2017
Kirk Gibson was storming around third base. His arms were pumping, his face the picture of steely determination.
You pitied the catcher if he was going to try to block home plate.
Gibby came right at you, practically bursting off the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. The photo was splashed with the headline “RIP ROARING ROOKIE.”
It was spring training, 1980.
Gibson was the baseball player with the football player’s mentality, forged from his years as a wide receiver at Michigan State.
But in 1980, Gibson was as raw as they come. His baseball years at MSU were not sufficient enough to prepare him for the rigors of big league baseball, where they throw curve balls, for example.
Gibson was talented, sure. Some thought he was a better fit for the angry physicality of pro football. But Gibson chose baseball, citing the less wear and tear on his body—which was ironic because he often played baseball as if he was on the gridiron.
Tigers manager Sparky Anderson factored into the SI cover.
“Gibson can be the next Mickey Mantle,” Sparky crowed to reporters that spring.
It wasn’t the best analogy.
Mantle was a switch-hitter; Gibby batted left. Mantle played center field; Gibson ended up being a corner outfielder.
But both were white men who could run, and both had power.
Still, it was an eye-opening comparison, even by Sparky’s standards. Mantle was one of the best players of his generation, and had he not played virtually his entire career on one good leg, he could’ve been even better, if you can imagine such a thing.
Sparky made it a habit throughout his managing career of touting young players far beyond their true abilities.
He did it in Detroit, several times.
There was Gibson, of course—Sparky’s first example of hyperbole as Tigers manager after being hired in 1979. Gibby was a good player, and a great Tiger, but he was no Mantle (which is no crime).
There was Chris Pittaro, a second baseman who was so good, Sparky told us, that Lou Whitaker was going to move to third base in 1986.
Three years after the Pittaro bluster—which was much ado about nothing—Sparky’s eyes twinkled about a young outfielder who hit .381 in 21 late-season at-bats in 1988.
“There’s nothing that Torey Lovullo can’t do,” Sparky marveled as the tape recorders whirred and the pens were being feverishly wielded.
Lovullo made his big league debut in September of 1988. In his first big league at-bat, Lovullo singled off Yankees righty Rick Rhoden. Lovullo went on to gather seven more hits—including a home run—in his next 20 at-bats.
Big mistake, kid.
Lovullo was the Tigers’ fifth round draft choice in the 1987 amateur draft, following his graduation from UCLA. He was a switch-hitting outfielder /first baseman who had some pop, some speed and a corner outfielder’s arm.
But Lovullo was far from a blue chip prospect.
That didn’t dissuade Sparky, who couldn’t get enough of Lovullo in 1989’s camp. It didn’t help that Lovullo was hotter than a firecracker that spring, feeding into the manager’s aggrandizing.
Then the curtain went up on the 1989 season, and Lovullo was as ready for the majors as a toddler was for his first beer.
Lovullo went 10-for-87 out of the gate in 1989, with 20 strikeouts. Down to the minors he went.
He resurfaced with the Yankees in 1991, and he batted .176 (9-for-51). Two years later he was with the Angels, where he hit his high water mark of .251 in 367 at-bats.
All told, Torey Lovullo—the man who could do it all according to Sparky Anderson—played for six big league teams, and for none of them did he play well. His lifetime numbers show a .224 batting average with a ghoulish OBA of .301.
But Lovullo’s inauspicious big league career made him a prime candidate for one job.
Big league manager.
Most of the successful managers in major league history weren’t exactly household names as players.
The aforementioned Anderson played one forgettable season with the Phillies, batting .215 as the Phils’ second baseman in 1959.
Tony LaRussa’s playing days were pocked with non-success. Tommy Lasorda didn’t even play in the majors. Look up Joe Maddon as a player and see what you find. (Hint: he never advanced past Class A).
And on and on.
There’s great irony when it comes to Torey Lovullo, for he’s being touted as a future managing star, much as how Sparky Anderson raved about him as a player in 1989.
Lovullo became a coach for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011 after piloting several teams in the minors between 2002-2010. By 2013 he was made bench coach of the Red Sox under John Farrell.
Lovullo, even before he filled in for Farrell as manager in 2015 while the latter battled cancer, was being bantied about as a manager in waiting. It was just a matter of time.
Lovullo’s time has come.
Last November the Arizona Diamondbacks, struggling to regain relevance, named Lovullo as their new skipper, replacing the fired Chip Hale.
In a way, the Arizona job is perfect for someone like Lovullo, because the expectations in the desert have rarely been lower.
Unlike when the Tigers hired neophyte Brad Ausmus in 2013 on the heels of three straight division titles.
Lovullo, to hear some experts, is again wearing the “can’t miss” label.
He wore it as a player, thanks to Sparky, and he’s wearing it now as manager of the D-Backs.
Lovullo’s baptism by fire while filling in for Farrell in Boston in 2o15 was met with high praise. Under Lovullo, the Red Sox went 28-21 in a year in which the overall record was 78-84.
Now Lovullo has his own team. He’s not someone’s fill-in.
Lovullo, when introduced in Arizona as manager, became emotional as he thanked those who influenced him.
One of those he thanked was that little white haired man, Sparky Anderson.
Lovullo was asked what Sparky—who passed away in 2010—would say to him, now that he’s a big league manager.
More emotion, then Lovullo answered.
“Torey, my boy, I’m proud of you.”
Maybe Sparky was right, after all—there’s nothing that Torey Lovullo can’t do.
We’ll see, won’t we?