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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reaction to the Sparky Anderson tribute

Sunday could not have been scripted better.

When the Detroit Tigers organization announced at TigerFest this winter that it would posthumously honor Hall of Fame former manager Sparky Anderson by retiring his number in late June, there's no way anyone could have predicted it would turn out so perfectly.

Oh, it was purposely scheduled for a date when the Arizona Diamondbacks — led by two of Sparky's most prominent players, manager Kirk Gibson and bench coach Alan Trammell — were in town. And the organization surely labored long and hard making arrangements to ensure that not only would Sparky's three kids — sons Lee and Albert and daughter Shirlee Engelbrecht — be on hand, but so would as many members of the 1984 World Champion Tigers squad as humanly possible.

Dan Dickerson, the radio play-by-play voice of the franchise, moved the ceremony right along. The video montage was well done. The commemorative print given to each of the 41,036 fans was tasteful.

Shoot, it was even one of the few days this summer when the sun shone, start to finish.

The moment itself was everything all involved hoped it would be.

"It’ll be pretty powerful," Gibson admitted two days beforehand, while insisting that he planned to go about his business like any other game.

Larry Herndon, the left fielder from 1984, called it "goosebump territory" after it happened.

Not everyone was satisfied, however.

To a man, every single one of the former Tigers voiced the thought that it was disappointing that Sparky himself was not here to see it. Anderson died last November, of complications from dementia.

"I wish he was here, but unfortunately, he won’t be," Gibson said before the series began.

"It’s unfortunate — I think the one thing that Gibby and I would both say was that we wish he was here. We wish he was alive. That would be the best," Trammell said. "Unfortunately, that’s not the case, but we will honor him, and smile, and then we’ll have to go battle, as he would want. That’s part of our job."

"Well, I'm thinking, kind of like a lot of other people, I kind of wish he'd been here," said Milt Wilcox, a member of the pitching staff from 1984.

That's the rub that a lot of people can't get over. The Tigers had 15 years to get something together, but inexplicably dragged their feet.

Anderson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000 — he went in as a Red, a tough choice for him, according to his son Lee — and into the Cincinnati Reds' Hall of Fame that same year. Five years later, the Reds retired his No. 10 jersey. A year after that, his number was retired by the Fort Worth Cats, a minor league team he'd played for in 1955.

It took the Tigers five more years to get around to it.

I can't disagree with the thought that it simply took too long for this day to come.

It would have been tragic had the Tigers waited until the last few years of Anderson's life — when he was clearly and visibly altered by the dementia he was struggling with — but it was almost as tragic that they waited until after his passing.

His family, however, did not have a bad word to say about the timing.

His eldest son, Lee, was asked twice about whether he thought it was too late in coming.

"Anytime is a good time. He made memories, great ones for himself and great ones for the rest of the world," Lee Anderson said.

But wouldn't it have been better if he'd been honored when he was here to appreciate it?

"He had so many honors while he was here. He was honored every day, in every way," Lee Anderson replied, coming across as the spitting image of his father in action and demeanor, as well as merely in appearance.

If they don't have a problem with it, then I probably don't have one, either.

But at least I understand that complaint.

The one I've heard since then, that carries absolutely no weight, is the criticism that Trammell and Gibson somehow wrecked the ceremony by staying in the Diamondbacks dugout, and watching from the top step.

That argument is abject stupidity, if you ask me.

Both Trammell and Gibson — who took the high road when they were relieved of their duties with the Tigers in 2005 — said they were honored to be part of the proceedings. Neither said anything at any point that indicated they did not want to be included.

The standing ovation they got from the sellout crowd was one of the best moments of the day. Both men acknowledged it with a wave, Gibson's dismissive wave aimed toward his former teammates who were seated on the field seemed to indicate a tone of "No, I'm OK right here. You do what you've got to do out there, and I'll watch."

And none of their former teammates took it as a snub, either.

"Wonderful," 1984 alumnus Dan Petry said of the ovation," and of course I thought their response was great, too. We were all hoping they'd come out and join us, but they did it really, really nice. They stood right there and waved to everybody. Same guys, same Tram you always knew. 'Hey, you guys go on. We don't need to be out there. This is Sparky's day. Don't put the attention on the two of us. Just go.' I thought they handled that very well."

Petry said their intent didn't occur on him until after the ceremony.

"I thought they were going to be sitting out there, but as I was sitting here talking to you guys, it just dawned on me, we hoped that they would come out, but I think they kind of realized that 'You know what? It's Sparky's day, and we don't want the attention to be on us. We're just going to stay right here. We're a part of it,'" Petry continued. "We got to see them before the game and after the ceremony. That's the big thing; we just love seeing one another, but as it turns out, it looks like it was just a classy act on their part."

I can't disagree with that, either.

Whether there's bitterness or not from the fans about when the ceremony took place, there's none from Sparky's family. And none of the former Tigers feel slighted about Gibby and Trammell not sitting in folding chairs on the infield.

At least they were able to be in the building, where they belonged.


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