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Thanks for the memories, Sparky

Submitted by on Thursday, 4 November 2010 No Comment

He was the greatest handler of egos ever.

He was an innovator whose weird ways changed his profession.

He was the poster child for upper management ineptitude.

Everything I ever needed to know about management I learned from this guy. I was just too young to realize it.

George “Sparky” Anderson, manager of the Cincinnati Big Red Machine, died today in a hospice in California. He was one of the great ones.

He was an odd choice when the Reds hired him in 1969. He was only 35 but already totally gray. He’d spent hardly any time in the majors as either a coach or player. Sparky Who? That was the reaction in Cincinnati.

They weren’t saying that by the next fall, when he led the Reds to the World Series.

Management Lesson No. 1: Don’t be afraid of the outrageous personnel choice, because it is indeed possible that you’ve found yourself a prodigy.

He was actually one of four Georges on the Reds’ 1977 roster – if you can’t name the other three, you no longer qualify to be a Reds fan – which was the year that was the beginning of the end.

The Reds were coming off back-to-back world championships, but they now were without first baseman Tony Perez after an off-season trade. It was a moronic move that Sparky recognized only in retrospect. Many times since, he’s lamented the mistake, calling Perez the heart and soul of the team. Without “The Big Doggy’s” ability to bridge the ethnic cliques, it all fell apart.

It was one of the few mistakes Sparky made during the Big Red Machine era. Not that it was his mistake – General Manager Bob Howsam actually pulled the trigger, but Sparky didn’t kick as much as he later wished he had.

With Perez, though, Cincinnati was the team of the 70s and one of the greatest of all time.

Pitching? Well, that was questionable before Sparky started questioning the ancient baseball strategy of going with a pitcher until his arm fell off. Because of his tendency to quickly yank a starter who was struggling, Sparky became known as “Captain Hook.” He also became the father of modern baseball bullpen strategy.

That was Management Lesson No. 2: Don’t be afraid to try something new, even if the rest of the world thinks you’re stark-raving loony. It might just work.

Once the pitching matter was settled, everything clicked in Cincinnati.

Offense? Check. The 1976  No. 8 hitter’s season average was .281, and that was well before the era of small parks and juiced balls.

Defense? Four Gold Gloves.

Egos? Oh, yes. Start with three of the All-Stars – there were actually five on the team. Pete Rose was called a hot dog, Joe Morgan was labeled conceited, Johnny Bench had a rep as arrogant and aloof.

“I laugh at anyone that says they could have managed those Reds teams,” Reds announcer Marty Brennaman said today. “The hell they could. There were a lot of egos in that clubhouse. They had to find a way to make it work before they got on the field.”

Sparky did. Consistently.

His MO: Praise loudly in public. Patiently teach in private. Downplay your own role and give credit to those in the field. That was Management Lesson No. 3.

“There’s a difference between a good manager and a great one,” Bench told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “The good one will tell you there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The great manager will convince the cat it’s necessary. Sparky had the cats carrying the knives to him.”

It also was Sparky’s downfall in Cincinnati. It seemed that those above him began to buy into his “shucks, I just fill out the lineup card” act. Two years later, he was fired. He’d won 88 games in 1977 and 92 in 1978. Let that sink in: He got the boot after winning 92 games. Only four teams in all of baseball won more than that this year.

He was let go in part because General Manager Dick Wagner wanted Anderson to fire his coaches, and Anderson wouldn’t do it. Wagner later admitted that he’d made a mistake.

“I think there was conflict between the manager and general manager,” the Big Red Machine’s George Foster recalled. “Dick Wagner didn’t want Sparky to be bigger than him.”

It was Management Lessons No. 4 and 5.

No. 4: Be loyal to people, and people will be loyal to you. Except, of course, for weasels like Wagner. There’s no accounting for or protection from folks like that.

No. 5: Sometimes personalities count way more than they should, even more than performance does. No one, by an objective standard, could say that Sparky wasn’t doing the job. Sometimes bad things happen, a weasel gets into the hen house. You take your lumps and move on. Sparky moved on to another World Series ring in Detroit.

Fortunately, history is treating Sparky a lot more kindly than Wagner did. Sparky’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, where his plaque depicts a Reds’ cap.

Rest in peace, Sparky. Thanks for the memories and the lessons.

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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