Lakeland, Fla. — Sparky Anderson has no ready explanation of how he emerged as baseball's most successful manager of the last decade, but if you press him a bit on the subject his answers soon tell you all you really need to know.
"I don't know where we'll finish this year, but I know we'll act like we're gonna finish," Anderson sid as he prepared to launch the 1980s in his new role at the helm of the Detroit Tigers. "When people see us hit and take infield, when they see the way we act on and off the field, they're gonna say, "those guys really mean business, don't they?'
"At the end of the season, if we're fourth or fifth, I'm gonna cry. But we're thinking first place -- and you'd better believe we're gonna try to be there!"
Positive thinking is obviously one part of Sparky's formula, while a quiet confidence in his own ability is another.
"I never worry about what I'm going to do on the field," he said. "I'm not saying I don't feel the strain and the tension, but I'm never uncertain about my judgement. People recognize this. I see it in the other managers like Earl Weaver or Gene Mauch, and I know it's much tougher to play against a manager like that who doesn't run scared."
The buzz word for managerial success these days is "communication." Sparky agrees, even though he doesn't have any better definition of it than the rest of us do.
"It's just a certain thing you develop with your players -- and either you have it or you don't," he said.
Anderson certainly had it with the Cincinnati teams he managed to five division titles, four National League pennants, and two world championships in nine seasons. And he says he already has a similar chemistry with this young Tiger team he took over last June.
"I had it when I was here six weeks," he said. "Even by then I could look in their eyes and knowm . And they knew that I knew!"
It was a foregone conclusion that Anderson wouldn't be out of a job long when he was let go in the fall of 1978, and indeed it was just two months into the 1979 season when he was named manager of the Tigers and given a contract that runs through 1984.
Sparky thinks both he and the club benefited enormously from the chance to familiarize themselves with each other.
"I feel as though we've been together for a long time now," he said.
One of Anderson's trademarks has always been well- drilled, well-prepared teams, and the reason is obvious: He really knows how to utilize spring training to the utmost. Even more than most other managers, Sparky seems able to disregard entirely the question of winning or losing these meaningless exhibition games and to concentrate on getting his team ready for the regular season.
Thus rookie center fielder Kirk Gibson is instructed to play very shallow al the time. "A lot of balls are going to be hit over his head," Sparky said. "But this is the time to work on getting the jump, to find out how many of those balls he can get to."
Another example: For the first 10 games or so, any time the Tigers have a man on first and the ball is hit to right, the runner goes to third.
"I don't care what the situation is or what the score is," Sparky said. "And I don't care if he's thrown out by 30 feet. I want these guys to learn that they can make it about 50 percent more often than they think they can."
Anderson has also long been known for his adherence to what are sometimes called old-fashioned values. At Cincinnati, and now in Detroit, his teams have had dress codes, grooming codes, etc., and have been expected to act like professionals both on and off the field. This may not seem like much of an imposition, but similar innocuous rules have led some teams to the brink of mutiny -- and some managers to early dismissals. Sparky sticks by his principles, though, and so far he hasn't had any serious problems.
"I'm not a yeller or a whipper," Anderson said. "In fact I can't believe I have a reputation as a stern disciplinarian when I'm really a very liberal person. But is it wrong to expect them to keep the clubhouse from being a mess by picking up their towels and not throwing dirty uniforms on the floor? Is it wrong to expect them to look and act like professionals?
"I go along with what Bob Howsman used to say when he was general manager of the Reds. He always said we were like a Broadway show -- and he just wouldn't tolerate anything that took away from that image."
Anderson also asks his players to act like grownups in their dealings with the media -- a major request in these days off frequently pouting, sulking, child-like athletes.
"I say to my players, 'Show me you're professionals, and don't go the trainer's room just to avoid the press,'" Sparky said. "I tell them I want to build a ballclub with character."
With Cincinnati, Anderson was known for running a tough training camp, though he's the first to admit that things got looser the last couple of years. And what is it like in his first Tiger camp?
"I'd say we're all the way back to the beginning -- to 1970," he laughed.
Gates Brown, the long-time Detroit pinch-hitting star who is now a coach, agrees.
"This is the best-conditioned camp I've seen here since I've been around -- and that's 20 years," he said. "Sparky runs 'em hard. He really works 'em on the fundamentals, too. Not to say that the others didn't. But Sparky has a way. He takes his time, and he explains what he wants done.
"And the players respond to him. He got 'em when they were young enough. And of course it helps that he's a winner. Anybody can talk about winning, but he's done it. They know that. When he tells them something, they know he's not just talking theory, he's talking fact."
As for himself, Anderson acts and talks these days like a man who knows and understands himself better than he may have before.
"I know now it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he said of his firing. "After nine years, whether you like to admit it or not, you begin to take things for granted.
"So let's blame the right people. When you get fired, it's not somebody else's fault. It's because of you. That doesn't mean I agree with what they did. I'll never agree. But I must have done something to give them the idea -- and you can be sure I'm going to try my best never to give Mr. Campbell [Detroit General Manager Jim Campbell] such thoughts.
"i'm here to do an all-out job," he said. "You want to see me? Just look out there any day when we're taking infield. I'll be right there. Why? Because I know now there's no substitute for being on the job.
"Mr. Campbell knows, and I know, that I can't make a team win. But I can get it prepared to win -- and that's what I'm gonna do."