George "Sparky" Anderson passed today. It's a bit hard to explain the connection that Michiganders have with Sparky; it's not like losing a family member, but it's close, an odd way. The only real way I can relate to it is through my own experiences.
Baseball was a huge part of growing up. My father played a lot; high school, college, semi-professionally after that. I was, notoriously, at a ball field weeks after my birth. My summers were spent playing or watching my dad play, keeping the books, running the scoreboard, pigging out on concession-stand candy and popcorn. When I wasn't at a game physically, baseball was on the television or, even more ubiquitously, the radio. And, aside from the strong voice of Ernie Harwell, there was one name that always popped on the radio, the one name that was consistant from season to season.
I can even hear Ernie pronouncing his name; "Spahrkeeh". Sparky was The Coach. And to baseball players, Coach was where the bucked stopped. When Sparky made a change in the lineup, pulled Morris, or (even better) stormed the field, conversation stopped and ears craned to the radio.
When I think back to those endless summers on the diamonds, Tigers' baseball meant two things: Ernie's voice and Sparky's face. Sparky Anderson was, to me and so many others, the face of summer. In my Junior year of college, I sat silently with dozens of other young men and women watching ESPN Classic, mouths open as Game 5 played out from our youths. Goose Gossage stood firm against his manager, Kirk Gibson looked over to the dugout, and Sparky mouthed (now, said, thanks to edited footage) "he wants to pitch to you." He chuckled as Gibby paced around the plate, the chuckle of someone who knew more than anyone else at the park that he'd already won the Series. I want to believe I remember that moment from my childhood, but I don't. But I happily layer that cold night in Kalamazoo over a slightly warmer night in October to remember a definitive moment.
Every Tigers fan, fair-weather fans included, have similar stories. Sparky factors into many of them. He was Tigers baseball; hell, he will be for some of us for years to come. But those times are passing. An era has passed.
Sparky, I wish I'd had a chance to meet you. May you rest in peace.