Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Tigers Should "86" #11, But Won't As Long As Sparky And Mikey Don't See Eye-to-Eye

When Sparky Anderson was leading the Tigers to the 1984 World Series title, he did so with an axe to grind. In his book, "They Call Me Sparky," the old white-haired manager admitted that much of his motivation was to show his old bosses, the Cincinnati Reds, that they had made a mistake in firing him after the 1978 season. "I wanted to win for all the wrong reasons," Sparky opined.

But what cap is Sparky wearing on his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown?

That Spark decided to be inducted into the Hall as a Red wasn't terribly surprising, considering he didn't want to have much to do with the Tigers at that point, back in 2000. Or now, for that matter. Or ever, as long as Mike Ilitch owns the team. For a while it looked like the Reds, not the Tigers, would be the franchise in Sparky's doghouse. But Anderson so obviously dissed Ilitch in his book, and you wonder if the bridge can ever be repaired.

I'm not exactly sure what caused the friction between Sparky and Mikey, but I have a hunch it has something to do with the manager's stand against the possibility of replacement players during spring training, 1995. Sparky was against it as adamantly and as publicly as any manager at the time, maybe the most. He all but dared Ilitch to fire him, flatly refusing to manage major league impostors. The notion of playing with replacements was real back in '95, because baseball was still coming out of its labor woes that wiped out the 1994 World Series. It could go on, Sparky said, but it would go on without him. And that was pretty much the last straw for Sparky in Detroit. Buddy Bell took over in 1996.

Sparky's ill will actually began shortly after Ilitch bought the club in 1992, when one of the new owner's moves was to fire Anderson's friend Bo Schembechler, oddly cast as the team's president. Bo was the lightning rod during the Ernie Harwell fiasco in late 1990, punctuated by Ernie's famous December press conference, where he announced he'd been told 1991 would be his last season as the team's radio announcer. Firing Bo Schembechler, at the time, was as guaranteed for garnering good P.R. as announcing that all kids attending Tigers games would receive free puppies. Ilitch, in Sparky Anderson's mind, pandered to the populist viewpoint at the expense of his buddy Bo.

So whenever you see ole Spark around the team, as he was in spring training in 2003, it's strictly for his "boys" -- Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish. It sure as hell isn't for Mike Ilitch.

This is all a shame, because the Tigers should retire #11 -- Sparky's old number. But it's also a shame because there is another big reason #11 should join 16 (Hal Newhouser), 6 (Al Kaline), 5 (Hank Greenberg), 2 (Charlie Gehringer) and 23 (Willie Horton) as rafters-dwelling numbers: Bill Freehan.

Because of Sparky and Ilitch's feud, Freehan (right) gets slighted

Since 1963, only two men have worn #11 in Detroit: Sparky and Freehan. It would be wonderful to finally officially put #11 to bed. To the Tigers' -- and Ilitch's -- credit, no one has worn 11 since Sparky left the team. And frankly, nobody probably ever will. So why not have a ceremony and frame Freehan's and Sparky's names around a big encircled #11?

Freehan, a man chiseled by God to be a catcher, did the number proud from '63-'76. He still, to my knowledge, holds the all-time A.L. record for best fielding percentage by a catcher. His block of the plate against Lou Brock in the fifth game of the 1968 World Series should be among the top five greatest plays in Detroit's sports history, if you ask me. Horton, by the way, made the throw that nipped Brock at the plate and turned the Series around. How fitting, then, for Freehan, a local boy like Horton (born in Detroit and schooled at U-M), to join Willie with a retired number.

But alas, this is unlikely to ever happen as long as there is the chasm between Sparky and Mike Ilitch. You'd might as well start giving the number out again to be worn; it would be retired in our minds only.

It seems silly, in a way, to allow what seems to be an outdated, petty feud prevent what should be a joyous and festive occasion from happening at Comerica Park. But it is there, for all to see: never will #11 get its just desserts as long as Mike Ilitch owns the Tigers. And not just Bill Freehan should be sad about that.

What do YOU think? I'm eager to hear from you. Post a comment or email me at to chime in.

1 comment:

Ian C. said...

Great thoughts, Greg.

I haven't read Sparky's book yet, but the apparent animosity between Sparky and the Tigers (and Mike Ilitch) saddens me, since Sparky was "my" manager throughout my Tiger-loving childhood.

At the time, it bothered me that Sparky went into the Hall with a Reds cap, though I understand his feelings now.

But the Tigers should absolutely bury this and have a day for Sparky at Comerica Park. His #11 belongs on that wall with the other honored numbers.

It's borderline criminal for the organization not to honor the man who was probably its most popular manager, and was an icon in the community while he was here. And it would be more special to have the ceremony while three of his former players are on the Tigers coaching staff.