When players from the 1984 World Series champion Tigers gathered at Comerica Park for a 25-year reunion last year, many wondered if it would be the last time they'd see their beloved manager. It's one reason why so many showed up. They wanted to be there when he heard one more ovation from a crowd and a city that loved him.
"It was a journey of a life experience for a lot of us," former Tigers right-hander Jack Morris said at the time. "We came up as young kids out of high school and college who had a dream but didn't know how to put that dream together. Sparky was kind of the bond that knew how to put it together. He taught us how to play the game, how to win. We ultimately did that, and now we get to share the memories."
Even then, Anderson was not in good health, notably frail. He was having trouble getting around when he visited the team on its trip to Dodger Stadium last May, which ended up being his final time at a ballpark. More recently, he suffered complications resulting from dementia, a condition he had been battling for a while.
"I had a couple of calls [Wednesday] when it was reported that he went in this hospice," Morris told MLB.com Thursday, "and I just didn't even know how to react to that. I knew he was slowly deteriorating mentally, but I didn't realize that it was going to be that rapid. I just saw him two years ago. And then I got a call today that he passed and I was like, 'Wait a minute, it's not supposed to happen that quick.' And it did."
Current Tigers coach and former first baseman Tom Brookens had much the same feeling.
"I knew his health had been failing, but it kind of catches me a little bit by surprise, him passing this soon," Brookens said. "Just a great man, a good baseball man."
It brought a sad end to a life that saw Anderson remain active and vibrant for well over a decade after parting ways with the Tigers in 1995.
"Sparky was one of the most respected people in the game, and I was fortunate in getting to know him through the years," Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said in a statement. "There is so much to admire about Sparky, the manager, and the person. He exuded a spirit of inspiration for the game and life. It's great sadness for everyone that's ever known him, and for the baseball world to lose him."
In many ways, Anderson's active life after managing reflected his personality while he wore the uniform. Born George Lee Anderson in Bridgewater, S.D., and raised in Los Angeles, he picked up his more recognizable nickname as a Minor League player from a radio announcer, as legend has it, during a heated argument with an umpire.
Anderson won four consecutive pennants with four different teams as a Minor League skipper, and he wasn't about to let growing pains get in the way of his track record once he got his shot in the Majors. He won a National League pennant in his first season managing the Reds, then went on to win another pennant and back-to-back World Series at the helm of the Big Red Machine.
For Detroiters, however, Sparky's legend began after the Reds dismissed him following the 1978 season. The Tigers, budding with young talent, hired Les Moss for '79, but made a switch barely two months in with the team around the .500 mark and Anderson still on the market.
It was a pairing that lasted through 17 seasons, a handful of general managers and three different team owners. Yet Anderson's competitiveness and his personality bridged the generational gap.
"He was always pushing and cracking the whip," former Detroit catcher Lance Parrish said. "He just pushed the right buttons all the time. If there was ever, in my collection of my baseball career, a guy who always seemed to know the buttons to push or things to say, he did it. It's a real tribute to him as a manager, but he seemed to know the personality of everybody on the team and who to delegate what to, when to put the right guy in the right situation. Everything worked out."
It was not an instant transition, but the young Tigers grew to not only accept, but understand Anderson's style. They posted winning seasons from the year he took over, jumped to 92 wins and a second-place finish in 1983, then led wire to wire the next year in what some consider among the greatest single-season teams in recent history.
"It just didn't happen overnight," former Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell said. "The things that Sparky was trying to get across to us, the little things in baseball that you need to be able to do, to be able to execute at certain times, we finally got it. And it helped. In fact, I can tell you that first hand, it helped. It was one of the reasons why we were able to be successful."
Shockingly, he's the only Hall of Famer from that '84 team. Even so, Anderson's players will say he didn't get enough credit. Whether or not they had the greatest collection of players, they had one of the greatest teams.
"He had a good way of helping people know what they needed to accomplish," said current Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who worked with Anderson in Spring Training for a few years during his time in Detroit's farm system. "He was very strong in his convictions. He knew there was a right way and a wrong way to play the game.
"He was a master at handling people, I mean, a master. He knew how to handle the superstar and he knew how to handle the 25th guy on the team. He was just one of those guys who was above the norm."
Anderson was fiery, of course, and his arguments could be memorable. But he could be just as supportive. His former players say he focused on the fundamentals on the field, and was the same in life. He wanted his players to treat people the right way, as they would want to be treated, and to not act entitled.
"That was extremely important for Sparky," Brookens said. "It was important for him that he taught men like myself and Trammell and Morris and [Dan] Petry, that we understand the respect that the game should have and to go about the right way."
For the strong-willed Morris, the pairing was quite a match. They were known for their disagreements on occasion, but the respect between the two was immense.
"He had an open door policy, literally," Morris said. "He would come in and say, 'This door is open any time you players want to come in to discuss anything. Feel free and shut the door.' He said, 'Sometimes you are not going to want to see that door shut and sometimes you will.' What he was referring to was most of these were the situations where you felt you should have been in the lineup and you weren't, and he wanted to make sure you could come in and talk about it. For more than one occasion, I was in there for other reasons and we had some heated discussions."
Anderson and the Tigers got back to baseball's postseason in 1987 before age and free agency caught up with them, but they had a renaissance of sorts in the early 1990s. Cecil Fielder's sudden surge as a power hitter buoyed what had been a lagging team, but so did quality pitching and a new young star in Travis Fryman.
"Later on in his career, he didn't really have the talent to really compete like he wanted to," Parrish said. "But when he first came over and took over the Tigers, he had to kind of change the guard from the old to the new and kind of shape and mold us. I think he knew what he was doing. He would not waver from whatever game plan he had put together prior to coming to Detroit. And it all came together. I honestly am more shocked that we didn't win more than just that one year."
Anderson's retirement came in 1995, but his influence in the game went on long after. Trammell, who was around for Anderson's entire Tigers career, became Detroit's manager himself eight years later. He is now bench coach in Arizona alongside fellow former Tiger and current D-backs manager Kirk Gibson, Trammell's bench coach in Detroit. Brookens is now on the Tigers' staff, a potential managerial candidate himself.
Together, they teach the lessons they learned under Sparky.
"I had enough confidence that within a team concept, I'll get mine," Trammell said. "I don't know when, but I'll get mine. Just let me be part of this, and I'll help you. And that's the mentality that Sparky taught us, and I'm grateful for that."