Ball in his righthand, Milt Wilcox comes to a set and looks to Sparky Anderson. But this isn'tTiger Stadium, and it's not Detroit's championship season of 1984. Crouching onthe end of a dock at the Nautical Mile Festival in Freeport, N.Y., Wilcox has atennis ball in his grip. And Sparky Anderson? Well, that's not his formermanager but his 78-pound black Lab, ready to jump more than 20 feet into a poolto retrieve the ball once it's tossed. Stationed next to the pig races and afew spots down from the inflatable moon bounce, the dog dock-jumping event isthe work of Wilcox's company, Ultimate Air Dogs. "I've turned into a realcarnival guy," Wilcox, 57, says with a laugh.
While relaxing onhis lakefront property in Michigan five years ago, Wilcox, a 16-year majorleaguer who peaked with a 17-8 record for the Tigers in 1984 (he won Game 3 ofthe World Series against the Padres that year), tuned into the Great OutdoorGames on ESPN, saw the burgeoning sport of dog jumping and said to himself, Mydog can do that. Sparky won the second competition he entered, and a year laterWilcox founded Ultimate Air Dogs. In 2004 Sparky became the first dog toqualify for the finals of the Great Outdoor Games, the Super Retriever Seriesand the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge in the same year. His longest jump: 22'7". "He's sort of like I was in my career," says Wilcox, who had alifetime record of 119-113. "I didn't throw the hardest. I didn't have thebest curveball. But I was a competitor."
Wilcox and his31-year-old son, Brian, manage Ultimate Air Dogs, which has three travelingdocks and will stage 35 events this year. "It's the owners who get hookedon it," he says, "but the dogs love doing it." Wilcox also coachesat Tigers fantasy camps and at the Detroit Batting Academy, but when he workswith Sparky it's clear he's found his new passion. "I've been in front of50,000 people with 50 million watching on television," Wilcox says."The thrill I get from dog jumping is the same as when I was playingball."
After helping the Tigers win the '84 Series, Wilcox has hit new heights withhis canine crew.