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Sparky's dramatic exit isn't all it appears to be

LAKELAND, FLA. — LAKELAND, Fla. -- His bags were packed and Sparky Anderson was leaving on a jet plane for California on Sunday. It had been a short spring -- three days to be exact -- and the 60-year-old dean of major-league managers was going home, probably never to return.

It is the price he apparently is willing to pay rather than manage replacement baseball players. But like everything else about this hideous baseball strike, there is as much wrong with Sparky's self-induced exit from the scene as there is right.

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"This is something I have thought about over and over for two months," he said. "And what I thought about was that in 25 years I have done more things and had more good things happen to me because of one thing -- the players. If I go to the Hall of Fame, I will look around and say to myself: 'How did I get here?' The players made me what I am.

"So how am I going to stand up there and talk about credibility? I need 26 wins for third place on the all-time list. There's no way I would want to get them with replacement players. Look at Cal Ripken. There's no one in the game with more character than him. He stands to break the greatest record of all-time, but he's walking tall."

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And so he has taken his stand, a stand no other manager seems likely to follow (although the Yankees' Buck Showalter continues to publicly soul-search). On face value, Sparky emerges as the new conscience of baseball, supplanting Orioles owner Peter Angelos, whose refusal to field a replacement team has made people forget how he tormented manager Johnny Oates last year.

When it comes to class and respect for the game, Peter Angelos is no Sparky Anderson. And yet, the Tigers -- not to mention TC whole lot of other people throughout baseball -- are saying you can't take Sparky's deed at face value. And they may be right. By his own admission, he had pretty much made up his mind two months ago he wasn't going to manage replacement players. Didn't he have an obligation to convey that to his bosses who were paying him throughout the strike?

"You can't pick and choose when you're going to manage," said Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty. "It's like anything else in life. If your boss is paying you to do a certain job, you have to do it, or else you don't take the money."

In walking away, Sparky was careful to say he didn't quit. The Tigers, I suspect, are going to see it differently, which is why this could evolve into another ugly side-effect to this increasingly ugly baseball labor war. It was announced as a separation, but there is no doubt Sparky and the Tigers have filed for divorce. Now comes the fight over money.

"He already took a lot of money since the strike began to decide on the first day of spring training he wasn't going to do it," said Tigers GM Joe Klein.

This divorce had been in the making for quite a while. The Tigers wanted to ease out Sparky last year and bring in a younger manager. Only out of respect did they decide to let him finish the last year of his contract, then gave him a raise to $1.2 million.

In Sparky's mind, the raise didn't assuage his loss of autonomy in the new Tigers organization. A lot of people are wondering if the replacement player issue was simply his means of leaving an organization he no longer wanted to be part of -- on his terms.

"When you talk to Buck, tell him, 'Good luck this year' " were Anderson's last words before he headed home. Earlier, he had joked "there has to be one more fool" who would hire him to manage a baseball team when the strike is settled and real players return.

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Hopefully, there is. It would be a shame if Sparky Anderson never manages again, never gets those 26 wins to stand tall with Connie Mack and John McGraw. As much as he said he can walk tall with his decision, I don't think, deep down, this is the way he wants his career to end.



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