Sparky Anderson, arms open and smiling nervously, turned to greet the parade of men in Cincinnati uniforms as they walked toward him at the Reds' spring training complex in Tampa. The former manager had been awake since 4 a.m., too anxious to sleep, wondering how he would feel and what it would be like to face his old players again. What it was like, happily, was a family reunion.
One by one he greeted them. Grabbing Manny Sarmiento's hand, he cried, "Oh, Manny, you look nice." Seeing Dave Concepcion, he held him by the shoulders. "David, my son." He put an arm around Joe Morgan—"Joe, how are ya?"—and then he took Johnny Bench aside. "I thought baseball was stealing," said Sparky Anderson. "This work is criminal."
Well, almost. Anderson, fired last fall after nine years as manager of the Reds, was visiting the team in his role as a commentator for a Los Angeles TV station. The stop in Tampa was just another on his itinerary, but easily the most bizarre. Here was the man who last year was the winningest active manager in baseball, dressed in lime pants and white patent leather shoes, nodding and pointing a microphone at the nose of the man who had replaced him, John McNamara, who has never won so much as a divisional title in the major leagues. Twenty feet away stood the man who had fired Anderson, Dick Wagner. Spotting him, Anderson yelled, "Daddy Wags!" and ran over to shake his hand. All that was missing to make it Old Home Week was Pete Rose.
Managers are fired all the time, dropping in the fall like leaves, but no dismissal quite matches that of Anderson. After six seasons in which they won five divisional titles, four National League pennants and two World Series, the Reds spent the next two years struggling and floundering, and failing to win the National League West. In 1978, badly hampered by injuries to Morgan, Tom Seaver, Bench, Dan Driessen and Bill Bonham, they finished second to the Dodgers for the second straight year.
March 26, 1979
"I felt we lost our aggressiveness both offensively and defensively," Wagner says, explaining his decision to replace Anderson, who is second to Joe McCarthy in modern lifetime winning percentage. "We were careless, lackadaisical—things like not hitting the cut-off man, just not having the dash that goes with a club like the Reds. A manager can't play for his fellows, but he's got to work with his coaches and the players that lead the team to get the job done. I felt if we didn't do something we could have a disaster."
Wagner broke the news to Anderson on a November morning at the Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles, telling him, "I'm going to do the toughest thing I ever had to do in my life. We're not bringing you back." And as the clincher, Sparky's successor was to be his old friend McNamara.
The Sparky Anderson era had ended. And on came the amiable, soft-spoken McNamara, a 46-year-old former minor league catcher who had been managing in the minors or majors since 1959. He first came to the big leagues in 1969, replacing Hank Bauer at Oakland late in the season, and led the A's to a second-place finish in 1970. Charlie Finley then dismissed him. He coached at San Francisco for three seasons, then took over as manager of San Diego. In three full seasons under McNamara, the Padres never finished better than fourth, but Wagner felt that he had done a good job. "San Diego was an expansion team," Wagner says. "A very tough assignment." Ironically, in a poll of managers, Sparky Anderson picked him as the best manager in the league.
In changing managers, Wagner was letting go a personable, gregarious skipper for one who managed much like Bob Lemon—in the key of utter low. But there were stylistic similarities between McNamara and Anderson. "John's no different from Sparky," says Reggie Jackson, who played under McNamara at Oakland. "Same mold, same type of guy. He was always letting you be your own guy, your own man. I liked him very much." McNamara says of himself that he is an open-door, come-in-at-any-time communicator.
One of the first things he communicated was the news to 26-year-old Ray Knight that he would be taking over for Rose at third base. "Somebody has to move over there," Knight says. "It's a great opportunity for me. It's something you dream of and hope for."
For Knight it has been eight years coming. He spent six years in the minors, four of them with Cincinnati's Triple A club in Indianapolis. In 1975, Knight's best year at Indianapolis, he hit .272, with 48 RBIs. He came to Cincinnati in 1977 as Rose's intended replacement, but was used only sparingly at various positions. In two full years Knight has 157 major league at bats; the first season he had 24 hits in 92 at bats (.261)and 13 RBIs. Last season he batted only 65 times, hitting .200 with four RBIs. Who knows?
If anything, his glove should keep him around. "A fine fielder, a better fielder than Rose," says Chief Bender, the Reds' vice-president in charge of player personnel. "He's quicker, has more range and a better arm." The Reds are not counting heavily on Knight's bat. "You don't replace Rose," Bender says. "We don't expect Knight to. Now it's up to Dan Driessen, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey and Cesar Geronimo to pick up the slack and give us what they didn't give us last year."
Which was running, hitting and enough runs to give Los Angeles a real challenge. The Dodgers' final margin, 2½ games, is illusory. The Reds were 7½ back on Sept. 25. It appears now that last year's walking wounded are healthy again, but the questions linger. Can Driessen correct his swing and make it back from a .250 to a .300 year? Can Geronimo recover from his .226 disaster to hit .300 again? Griffey slumped last year. What of him? How long can a worn Bench wear? How vital was Rose to the Reds' winning—not so much at the plate, where the statistics speak for themselves, but in hustle and pizzazz? The pitching, outside of Seaver, is problematical. Bonham is coming off elbow surgery. Fred Norman started 31 games last year and didn't finish a single one.
As the season nears, it does appear that the Reds will have their running game back. Morgan, who has had three 60-steal years, suffered a pulled abdominal muscle last spring and had only 19 stolen bases for the year. His batting average dropped to .236, from .280 and .320 the two years before. He has had no pain so far this spring. "I'll be running," he says.
Morgan himself raises a larger question. Where is this franchise going? Morgan is the heart of it, the prime mover of the Reds. The fortunes of the team have risen and fallen with his. In Morgan's two most successful years—1975, .327, 107 runs, 94 RBIs and 67 stolen bases; 1976, .320, 113 runs, 111 RBIs and 60 steals—the Reds won the championship, the pennant, the World Series, everything. But he will be 36 in September. Seaver, the only starter they can count on, will be 35 in November. Bench, who has been catching in the majors since he was 19, has caught 1,500 games. At 31 he's an old catcher.
The Reds are a team on the wane, in part because of their refusal to recognize changes in the way the game is now played off the field. In the first two years of the re-entry draft, they disdainfully declined to draft anyone, much less sign anyone. They viewed the draft as the ruination of baseball. Pitcher Don Gullett left the Reds through free-agentry. Last year they drafted Tommy John but didn't get him—though he actually preferred Cincinnati to New York—because the Reds wouldn't guarantee his contract.
Lee Lacy, who played for L.A. last year, was chosen by Cincinnati in the reentry draft but the Reds couldn't sign him and he ended up in Pittsburgh. They've still signed no one from the reentry draft. And they have lost Pete Rose.
But Sparky Anderson doesn't have to worry about all these things anymore. These days he just has to smile and stick a mike in front of baseball players' faces. Sometimes very familiar faces. It's a funny world.