DETROIT -- The word is out, and if you believe the whispers, so is Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson.
There has been speculation all season that this is his last hurrah, that, in his 26th year as a major-league manager, he pushed the wrong button and opened a trapdoor that will drop him into retirement.
Remember his principled stand against managing replacement
players? Remember how he came to camp last spring just long enough to label management's strikebreaker plan a farce, then went home to wait out the strike as a Major League Baseball Players Association hero?
The club didn't fire him then, but now that the Tigers have fallen through the floor in the American League East, it just might be too easy. Everyone assumes that he won't be back. Everyone but Anderson, who has no intention of walking away voluntarily and no intention of retiring if he is fired after the 1995 season.
"I have no intention of ever stopping," Anderson said last week. "The only thing that would stop me -- other than health -- is if nobody wants me."
The Tigers aren't saying anything on the subject right now. They'll wait until their season ends two weeks from now to decide if it is time to go in another direction. Almost everyone assumes that Anderson will go, even his longtime friend, broadcaster Ernie Harwell.
"I think the street wisdom is that he won't be back," Harwell said. "I think most people think that this will be his last year here, but there has been no real information on that."
Anderson, 61, said he doesn't know what's going to happen. He just knows that they'll have to tear the uniform off his back to get him out of the game. The trouble is, he may have burned more than one bridge when he chose his side during the labor dispute.
Almost all of baseball's 28 owners endorsed the decision to open spring training camps with replacement players, so there may be others who might balk at hiring Anderson if he were dismissed by Detroit. There is only one certain exception, in fact -- the one owner who actively tried to block the replacement scheme.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos was even more rigid in his stand against replacements, which would figure to make Anderson a candidate the next time the club searches for a new manager, even if he is considered an old one.
This is his 26th year, but he is not the oldest manager in the majors. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda is 67, and he was considered by some to be a candidate for the Orioles' job last winter.
"I was very impressed with the stand that he took," Angelos said of Anderson last week, "but that wouldn't be a factor in our selection of a manager . . . if we were looking for a new manager . . . which we're not."
Anderson apparently hasn't lost any of his enthusiasm, even in ++ the midst of another disappointing season. Though the Tigers are 19 games under .500 and have had two winning seasons since 1988, their manager still appears to be enjoying himself. The Tigers were in the midst of a five-game winning streak, which may have had something to do with his rosy outlook.
"I love managing," he said. "I was just telling my wife, I don't think people understand how much I love it. I love the war. There are a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of pain, but it's the greatest satisfaction in the world. . . . My wife says my biggest problem is that I think I can go on forever. It isn't the money. It's your life."
It is a profession in which few have had more success. Anderson presided over the Big Red Machine in the 1970s, finishing first in the National League West five times in seven years, and $H managed in four World Series. He won two world titles and finished lower than second place once in nine years with the Reds.
He moved to the American League in 1979 and has finished first or second in the tough AL East five times, winning the world championship with another dominating club in 1984 and going to the playoffs with a much less imposing group three years later.
"My favorite year was 1987," Anderson said. "The teams in
Cincinnati and the '84 team, they were just great teams, but that '87 club should have finished fourth or fifth, talent-wise. They won 98 games and won the division. That's the best I ever saw a team get every ounce out of themselves. I had even picked us fifth."
For all of that success, Anderson said last week that he never felt totally secure until after he made the decision to walk away from replacement camp. He went home not knowing whether the club would call him back, but quickly came to grips with the notion that he someday would be home for good.
"My whole life, I have always had the same thing every other human being has -- fear," Anderson said. "I've always had fear about what I would do if I wasn't in the game. That's something that drives you. When I was home, about three weeks after I came home [from spring training], it just hit me. I asked my wife, 'Would you like me to call them and tell them I'm not coming back?' Because I was no longer afraid. That did a lot for me. That has totally taken the burden off me. Nobody scares me anymore."
The only thing that still bothers him is losing, which the Tigers have done a lot of. They enjoyed a surprisingly successful first half, but turned cold just as the wild-card race was heating up.
"People think that because I don't say anything, it doesn't bother me," Anderson said, "but it hurts. It hurts to lose. The last seven years have been very hard on me, but I still wouldn't trade them. There's just something about the thrill of the unknown. I think it's an addiction. My wife just thinks I'm a glutton for punishment."
If he went home tomorrow, he would be a certain Hall of Famer. Anderson is the third-winningest manager of all time, and ranks among the top 10 in career winning percentage and virtually every relevant postseason category.
"He's the best manager I have ever known," said Harwell, who has known a few. "He has the respect of the players. That's the main thing."
Anderson also is a great storyteller, and he related one that capsulized his outlook as the Tigers play out the season. Early in the season, he was approached by Texas and former Orioles coach Jerry Narron, who had been appointed interim manager of the Rangers while Johnny Oates attended to a family emergency.
"Jerry, who I think will be a major-league manager someday, came up to me and said, 'Can I ask you a question?' " Anderson recalled. "He said: 'When I was managing, I was so nervous. When do you get over that?' I started laughing, and he asked me what I was laughing about.
"I said, 'This is my 26th year, and I'm as nervous in the ninth inning in my 26th year as I was in my first. If you ever lose that, don't stay in the game, because you've lost the most important thing you can have as a manager.' I've never lost that. Maybe I will someday. Then it will be time to go."
The Anderson file
Name: George Lee Anderson
Born: Bridgewater, S.D.
Height: 5 feet 9
* First manager to win 100 or more games in a season with two different teams.
* First manager to win a World Series in both leagues (Cincinnati, 1975, 1976; Detroit, 1984).
* Led 1984 Tigers to a club-record 104 victories.
* First on Tigers' all-time managers list with 1,327 victories and 2,567 games.
* Only manager to guide different teams to sweeps of the League Championship Series.
* Named Manager of the Year in American (1984, 1987) and National leagues (1972, 1975).
* First major-league manager to win 800 games with two different teams.
* Third-winningest manager in history.
* Only manager to lead two franchises in victories (Detroit, 1,327; Cincinnati, 863).