Last week was the 79th anniversary of Sparky Anderson’s birth, and though the great manager died more than two years ago, his legacy lives on in a meaningful way through the people he influenced.
Maybe no other player was more impacted by Sparky than Alan Trammell, who played for Sparky every year that the grey-haired skipper led the Tigers in Detroit, from June of 1979 through the end of the 1995 season. After spending three years as the manager of the Tigers himself, Trammell is now a coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and in that capacity, he is passing on the wisdom he learned from Anderson in their 17 years together.
“What I’ve been coaching is from what Sparky taught us,”" Trammell told MLB Network in 2010 after Anderson passed away in California. As a coach under former Tigers teammate Kirk Gibson, who now manages the D-Backs, the two former Detroit stars have lots of chances to continue the legacy of The Spark. Once again this spring the two are in Arizona with their team, meeting new young players who can benefit from what they learned at the knee of Anderson so many years ago.
“When we talk baseball, it’s because of how we were taught from him,” Trammell remembers. According to Trammell, he and Gibby don’t even have to mention Sparky’s name, but every time they talk about the game, it’s coming from the place where they learned it first – under Anderson in Detroit.
Gibson and Trammell are just two of the Sparky disciples who are currently still in baseball at the big league level. Bob Melvin, Rusty Kuntz, Larry Pashnick, and several others who played under Sparky are also still coaching at the highest level. Almost the entire ’84 World Championship club owed a lot to Sparky, who came along at the right time to shape a young group of talented players.
“Lou Whitaker and I played for him from day one until the end,” Trammell remembers, “We were both young, impressionable players, along with Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris and others. [Sparky] made a huge impression, and I’m proud to say that he was our mentor.”
According to Trammell, the key to the Tigers success in the 1980s all started with Sparky.
“He took a group of young players and he molded us, we bought into it.”
In 1980, as a 22-year old shortstop, Trammell made his first All-Star Game, and within a few seasons, Whitaker, Parrish, and Morris were also All-Stars. The 1983 Tigers won 92 games but finished second behind the Baltimore Orioles. Even though they failed to reach the goal Sparky had set for them – to win it all – they knew they were a great team.
“We went home after that season and knew we were the best team,” Trammell said. “In ’84 we weren’t going to let Baltimore or anyone else get out in front of us.”
The Tigers won their first nine game in 1984, 16 of their first 17, 26 of their first 30, and 35 of their first 40. It was the hottest start in baseball history. The team, built around the core of Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish, Morris, and Gibson, rolled to the pennant. It was all guided deftly by the little grey-haired man in the dugout with the big smile. Sparky was always at the center of it. But his impact when well beyond the game of baseball.
“I learned how to be a big leaguer and how to be a man from Sparky,” Trammell says.
Those lessons didn’t come from just anywhere, they are a set of tools that have been living on for decades and generations in the National Pastime. As a young boy, Sparky learned from the famed Rod Dedeaux, coach of the USC Trojans, who had been trained “The Dodger Way” as a pro ballplayer. Sparky was drafted by Brooklyn and learned The Dodger way himself from crafty managers like George Scherger and Walter Alston. When he was hired by the Cincinnati Reds in 1970 at the age of 36, Sparky brought those methods with him, and naturally he passed them on to those players under him in Cincy and Detroit.
Now Trammell and Gibson pass along those philosophies to a new generation of ballplayers, some of them born just a few years before Sparky managed his last game. There’s comfort in knowing that through Trammell, Sparky lives on.