Sparky Anderson's finest acting moment
The world of sport lost one of its greats when Sparky Anderson passed away Thursday morning. So did the world of acting.
When Sparky retired, he had won more games as a manager than all but John McGraw and Connie Mack. He won the World Series in the National League and in the American League. He won seven division titles, five pennants and three World Series. He won election to the Hall of Fame. And he should have won an Emmy for his December 1979 performance on "WKRP in Cincinnati." (You can watch it here.)
In the episode, WKRP station manager Mr. Carlson hires Sparky -- fired by the Reds the previous season -- to host a sports call-in show, "The Bullpen," hoping the show will catch on and become nationally syndicated. "Welcome to The Bullpen with Sparky Anderson," Sparky says on the first show, "brought to you by Sunluxe Petroleum: makers of gas, heating oil and a crude but hearty wine." He has an indoor soccer player as a guest on that first show but virtually no one calls in, leaving Sparky to make awkward conversation, including a bit about the nice new phone in the Anderson house. In the end, the station is forced to cancel the show, with Sparky griping, "Every time I come to this town, I get fired." It wasn't James Gandolfini in "The Sopranos," but it was pretty damn good for an athlete. And certainly better than this effort from a couple of Sparky's players.
I asked Sparky about that episode before a game 17 or 18 years ago, and though I can't remember what he said, I know he went on for about 20 minutes and had us laughing the entire time. Sparky was a character, one of the last, and pregame chats with him were always a highlight, as Steve Rushin recounted at the end of a brilliant 1993 portrait for Sports Illustrated:
... As Sparky imprudently attempts to moonwalk in his office, one fears he will stumble on the blue carpet, like Carnac the Magnificent, and go crashing through his desk. Sparky is doing a ridiculous impersonation of the slapstick, showboating umpire in the film "The Naked Gun." Because his Tigers strike out so frequently, Sparky perversely appreciates the punch-out techniques of the league's most flamboyant umpires.
"You know what I'm waitin' for?" Sparky asked a moment ago. "Someday we're gonna see the cat really put it in for us, like that guy in the movie, what the hell's his name, Leslie Nielsen. We're gonna see the ump doin' this." And then, his eyes glinting impishly, Sparky stood. On one foot. He started hopping. Backward. With his arms, Sparky began doing what disco instructors once called "rolling the dough" and what NBA officials do to signify a traveling violation. He pirouetted. And, suddenly, the precarious moonwalk attempt. Now Sparky is laughing that wonderfully contagious laugh, the one that sounds like a power sander, and hanks of hair have fallen over his watering eyes.
"Oh, god!" Sparky shouts over the heavy metal. "That's what I'd do if I was umpirin'! I'd be in your dugout!" He presses his face to within inches of a writer's and then punches an invisible speed bag repeatedly with his right fist. "Yooo-oooo-ouurrre OUT!" Sparky trills polysyllabically, and with that he is out the door himself, cackling maniacally in the clubhouse.
Four witnesses exit wheezing before one of them can finally speak. "We are blessed," says a Tiger beat writer, shaking his head. A cynical old scribe like the rest of us in this racket, and he actually says that. By George, "We are blessed."
We were indeed blessed. Rest in peace, Sparky. You are already sorely missed.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @jimcaple.