Sparky Anderson was miserable.
Sleepless nights. Constant worry. Fear of being strung up on the center field flagpole at Tiger Stadium (no joke). Ghoulish thoughts of bitter disappointment.
Yep, the Tigers’ 1984 World Championship season almost wrecked the team’s manager.
The ‘89 season of 103 losses almost wrecked him too. When Sparky took a few weeks off during the season due to mental exhaustion he said: “I ain’t never lost no 100 games before.”
But 1984? It was nearly poison to him.
It was before a game in Detroit during that wire-to-wire ‘84 campaign when Sparky, speaking candidly to a reporter, pointed to the famous, in-play flagpole in deep center field.
“See that pole? They’ll be hanging me from it if we don’t win this thing.”
The Tigers sprinted out to that legendary 35-5 start in 1984, and by the All-Star break pundits were declaring the AL East race, and maybe the MLB race, over with.
Those kind of expectations made the ‘84 season one of Sparky’s least favorite—indeed, maybe the least favorite, in terms of fun—that he’s ever managed.
He said so in his book, "They Call Me Sparky," which came out in 1998.
The Tigers were in first place from Opening Day until October, and no one really threatened them. The poor Toronto Blue Jays played well over .600 ball for much of the year, but they were constantly eight to 11 games out, it seemed.
That kind of lead, with those kinds of expectations, can drive managers batty.
For the record, Sparky called the 1987 team his favorite.
“They weren’t nearly as talented (as 1984’s team),” Sparky wrote. “That ‘87 team had no business winning anything.”
The ‘87 Tigers—minus catcher Lance Parrish, who fled to Philadelphia as a free agent—started 11-19 and things didn’t look good. But they went 87-45 the rest of the way, which included a thrilling final week to overcome the Blue Jays on the final day of the season.
But the 1984 team vexed Sparky something fierce.
Jim Leyland, manager of today’s Tigers, eluded to the life of a manager recently. The subject came up after the Tigers had blown a team out—a rarity with their popgun offense.
Leyland rebuffed the notion of the “laugher”—the blowout where a team races to a 10-0 lead, as the Tigers had done on the night in question.
The manager’s reasoning?
Much like Sparky’s, but in a microcosm.
What if we blow this 10-0 lead? What if we come from ahead?
Nope, Leyland said, give me a nailbiter any day of the week instead of the ill-named “laugher.”
Later this month, the Tigers will honor that 1984 team—a quarter century, believe it or not, since their year of glory. The 1984 team that never came close to squandering their division lead, never trailed in either postseason series.
Leyland’s team is threatening to make the AL Central race a laugher, that dreaded word.
The lead peaked at seven games last weekend, and is now five-and-a-half. The untrustworthy Minnesota Twins have shaved a game-and-a-half off in less than a week, thanks to the Tigers’ inexplicable three-game sweep at the hands of the slapstick Kansas City Royals.
Leyland, no doubt, is worried that his team might come from ahead and lose the division. And there will be no Wild Card awaiting the second place team in the Central, as it was in 2006 when Leyland’s Tigers gagged and blew the division in the final month to the Twins.
The Tigers might be best served to have given their manager no larger than a two- or three-game lead, instead of this, ahem, laugher that they created upon September’s dawning.
At least there’s no flagpole in center field anymore, from which to hang the manager.
Not that the folks around Detroit won’t find someplace else from which to do the deed.