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We Called Him Sparky: A Baseball Legend Passes Away a Victim of Dementia

Big Red Machine (L-R) Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, Sparky Anderson, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose

Baseball great Sparky Anderson died today at the age of 76 of complications from dementia a day after being admitted to hospice care in his home in Thousand Oaks California.  The Hall of Fame manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers had been in declining health for a number of years and had spent time in the hospital in February for a Kidney related illness.  He last visited a ballpark in May when he visited Dodgers’ Stadium and visited with managers, coaches and players. At the time the loss in his cognitive abilities were noticed but for a few moments the spark of his old managerial self came out.  In 2009 he was at the reunion of his World Series Champion Detroit Tigers team. It was obvious then that he was slipping even though he was quite animated as seen in this video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJQBKlkrnIw&feature=player_embedded#at=87

Dementia of any kind is one of the cruelest afflictions as it often takes everything from a person. In the end stages it is often something like aspiration of mucus into the lungs as the person loses their gag reflex. The last two years of my dad’s life were difficult because he lost the ability to be himself ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease.  The last time I had any real communication was for a few minutes in May of 2009, after that he didn’t know me. I can only imagine what Sparky’s family went through in the last years of his life.  We don’t know a lot about Sparky’s illness but the signs of his declining health were noticed by his friends. Tommy Lasorda the legendary Dodgers’ manager commented: “He looked bad,” Lasorda said following an appearance at the annual Hall of Fame dinner in August: “He was really down. He was very sickly, and we had to take him off the stage. And then I called him about 10 days ago because I was thinking about him. We spoke, but I didn’t want to speak too long because he sounded exhausted, you know? We talked for maybe eight or 10 minutes, and he thanked me for thinking of him, and that was it.”

In the 1970s my dad loved Sparky Anderson and the Cincinnati Reds, the Big Red Machine. My dad had been a Reds fan as a kid and despite becoming an avid Giants fan always had a soft spot in his heart for the Reds.  I remember my dad’s disappointment when the Reds lost to the Orioles in the 1970 World Series, even though I was secretly rooting for the Orioles because I liked Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Jim Palmer.  However in 1975 when the Reds won 106 games and defeated the Boston Red Sox in a thrilling 7 game World Series I was enthralled by Anderson and his team. When they swept the Yankees in 1976 I was similarly elated and my dad, well, he was about in heaven.  When dad taught me about baseball he used Sparky Anderson and the Reds players as models on how to play the game right.

One of those players was Pete Rose who is still banned from the game for life for betting on games.  Despite that my dad never gave up on Pete and had an autographed picture of Baseball’s most prolific hitter who despite what he did should be in the Hall of Fame. Rose said of Anderson today.

“Baseball lost an ambassador today. Sparky was, by far, the best manager I ever played for. He understood people better than anyone I ever met. His players loved him, he loved his players, and he loved the game of baseball. There isn’t another person in baseball like Sparky Anderson. He gave his whole life to the game.”

Another Reds’ great Joe Morgan said “He was a people person. I don’t think anybody else could have managed that team nearly as well as he did. We had a lot of different personalities. Sparky was able to deal with all of us on an individual basis but also collectively as a team. Because he was close to you and cared about you as a person, you were always willing to do more for him than you were for somebody else. I never thought of him as my manager. I thought of him as part of my family.”

The latter statement by Morgan is something that endeared Anderson to his players. He cared about them and he was totally committed to the game. Anderson overcame a hot temper which had earned him the nickname “Sparky” in the minor leagues In his time as a Major League manager he led the Reds to two World Series titles and one with the Tigers and 5 pennants. He is credited with beginning the pitch count which is now almost universally used in baseball.  He made pitching changes with such regularity in a day when starting pitchers typically threw complete games that he was nicknamed “Captain Hook.” Anderson admitted that it was because of the weakness of his starting pitching and strength of his bullpen. “Captain Hook? Yeah, I used what I had. We weren’t blessed with the Dodgers’ starting pitching, but we had a really deep bullpen. People say I was ahead there, too, five years ahead of the league, you know, having more saves than complete games, but I didn’t do it because it was in some book. I did it because we didn’t have but a couple of guys who could go much past six innings.” He is 6th on the all time wins list for a manager and was beloved by his players.

A saying that he picked up from his father epitomized his view on life and relationships

“Being nice to people is the only thing in life that will never cost you a dime. Treat them nice and they’ll treat you the same.”

Alan Trammel, Bench Coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks said today “I’m happy to say that Gibby (Kirk Gibson) and I are going to be able to pass along his legacy because we teach what we were taught. Being a good baseball player and person went hand in hand with him. He wanted us to put our dirty clothes in the bin so that the clubhouse guys didn’t have to pick up after us.”

Tiger’s pitcher Jim Morris said:  “Wow. He died way too young. I got a lot of phone calls yesterday about the hospice and the dementia, neither of which I knew about. I wasn’t prepared for this. I don’t know what to say. I’m kind of shocked, he was a big part of my life, for sure. He had a lot to do with molding me professionally and taught me a lot about perseverance.”

He demonstrated that care in his community.  In 1987 Anderson founded “CATCH”, which raises money for sick and at-risk patients of Children’s Hospital of Michigan and Henry Ford Hospital. Sparky became a man of faith late in life when managing in Detroit when he was baptized as a Catholic.

One of Sparky’s quotes sticks with me and sums up what I feel about life is this: “People who live in the past generally are afraid to compete in the present. I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.”

Sparky died too young. May he rest in peace.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Roster Moves: No Game, Series or Season in Baseball or Life Goes Without Them

046Norfolk Tides Manager Gary Allenson making a Slight Adjustment to the Outfield with 1 Out in the 9th Inning

Larry: Who’s this? Who are you?
Crash Davis: I’m the player to be named later.

From Bull Durham

Sometimes I feel like the player to be named later.  I am amazed at the changes on a baseball team’s roster during the course of a season.  At the same time being in the military for almost 28 years I have some understanding of them in daily life.  This season with the Norfolk Tides and my place of work at a Major Naval Medical Center has been a perfect example of how no roster survives intact.

Now this is nothing new, as long as there have been baseball teams and militaries there have been personnel changes.  In baseball as in the military there is constant moves of personnel as people are transferred, promoted, demoted, are injured or retire from either the service or the game.  Sometimes roster moves are part of a natural process as an organization decides how it wants to chart its future. Other times they are dictated by a need that occurs that has not been anticipated such as injuries, trades, transfers, retirements or personnel or budget constraints, either expected or unexpected.

In the Minor Leagues the Minor League affiliates exist to supply their Major League organization with young talent, player development, rehabilitation and depth to meet the demands of a long season.  It is similar in the military where support and training organizations exist to meet the needs of the operating forces.  This is true regardless of military branch of service.   When the Major League Team or the operating forces are stretched, experience losses or suffer setbacks it is common for them to draw upon the support and training organizations to fill the holes and meet the needs of the larger organization.

I have watched this close up in two worlds this year both where I work and where I watch the Tides play ball.  At work this has occurred where due to retirements and transfers our department has lost a lot of people who have not yet been replaced, creating a lot of pressure on those who remain, likewise we are tasked with more missions to support the operating forces.  The same is true of the rest of the Medical Center where many physicians, nurses, corpsmen and other sailors have been deployed to meet the demands of the expanding war in Afghanistan while still supporting other worldwide commitments and our own home town mission.  While this is going on other needs have come up in caring for returning warriors, wounded warriors and their families as well as the rest of the military community that depends on us for their primary and specialized medical care.  I have seen more colleagues and friends than I can count be deployed from what is supposedly a pretty safe “non-deploying” shore billet to support the operating forces, Navy, Marines and Joint or NATO.  I have watched the organization adapt to the call ups by moving people around as well as finding people to fill the void, even if they are only on contract.

Our Norfolk Tides began the season with a very solid roster and within two months the big club, the Baltimore Orioles had called up several pitchers as well as the heart of the batting order, Outfielder Nolan Reimold, Catcher Matt Wieters and Infielder Oscar Salazar.  Meanwhile the Tides lost several players to injuries which forced Manager Gary Allenson and the Orioles organization to fins personnel both within and outside of the organization to fill the gaps created by call ups to the big team and injuries.  To do this they brought up players from AA Bowie, moved players down from Baltimore and found and traded for players outside of the Orioles system.  At first the adjustment was difficult but now the new players and those who were left are coming together to keep the team, at least for now in first place in the International League South.   Yet with every move the organization has to decide how to best utilize the players that it has.  In the case of the Tides this comes down to Manager Gary Allenson and his coaches working together with the rest of the Orioles organization.

Even in the midst of a game there are roster changes, sometimes for pitchers, sometimes hitter and sometimes even for running or defense.  Some of the changes are for injuries, or situational based on statistics of what you have empirical evidence to show that one course of action is better than another.  Thus you have relief pitchers and pinch hitters or runners.  No at bat or even pitch is the same, which is like life, nothing remains the same so you must make the adjustments on every play.

At the personal level changes affects everyone in the organization even if their job in the organization does not change.  At the minimum the changes affect the dynamics of the work environment, the chemistry between teams and the concern for friends who have left the organization with whom we have invested significant amounts of time and emotional energy.  Thus when Oscar Salazar was called up by Baltimore it left a huge hole in the team because Salazar was not only a leading contributor on the field but his tremendously positive attitude off the field in energizing the team and working with younger players.  Individual losses while seemingly statistically insignificant can be magnified by the intangibles of what a person brings to the team.  Some who seem to have all the right stuff may not be missed, while others who maybe don’t have the same talent level as others might be more sorely missed.  Since a team depends on the efforts of everyone, especially in baseball where the game is both immensely individual and absolutely interdependent personnel changes must be weighed carefully in the overall mission of the team or organization.  The Tides are fortunate to be with Baltimore as the organization is not only scouting talent for the O’s but their Minor League affiliates.  I met a Baltimore Scout at a Tides game over the weekend who said they were out seeking hitters for Norfolk due to call ups to the O’s and injuries to members of the Tides.  The larger organization, though a work in progress recognizes that its future lies in its Minor League system.  Thus over the past couple of weeks they have picked up Michael Aubrey from the Cleveland organization and Victor Diaz, a former Tides Outfielder when they were in the Mets organization and who later played in New York, Texas and the Houston organization before playing with the Hanwha Eagles in South Korea before being signed by the Orioles and assisted to the Tides.  A good organization not only looks to the situation they are currently facing u to the future.  A bad organization does not plan for the future but only concentrates on the present.  In the case of the Tides we are prospering under Baltimore but suffered for almost 20 years under the Mets, who have continued to neglect and abuse their farm system, especially their AAA affiliates.  The fans in Buffalo despise the relationship.

On the personal level this also means that individuals can be moved around to meet the needs of the organization.  This does not always make players happy be they ball players or military personnel.  There have been times in my career that I did not like what was happening to me in the organization, not so in the Navy but definitely in hte first part of my Army career. Such unhappiness when left unchecked can lead to blow ups.  The movie Bull Durham has a great example where Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner complains about his reassignment from an AAA team back to a single A team.

Crash Davis: You don’t want a ballplayer; you want a stable pony.
Skip: Nah.
Crash Davis: Well, my triple-A contract gets bought out so I can hold some flavor-of-the-month’s dick in the bus leagues, is that it? Well, f— this f—ing game!
[pause]
Crash Davis: I quit, all right? I f—ing quit.
[Crash exits the office and stands in the clubhouse for a minute before sticking his head back through the door]
Crash Davis: Who we play tomorrow?
Skip: Winston-Salem. Batting practice at 11:30.

I cannot say that in my Navy career I have ever felt like Crash Davis,  in fact I have even when doing a lot of “relief” work and been moved around sometimes faster than I wanted to be because I was needed to put out a fire. At the same time I have  always been dealt with well.  I have not been sent back down in the organization, but have been moved up or laterally to do different jobs, like I said often on short notice like the time when two different chaplains were fired and I went from one job to the next and ended up nine or ten weeks at 29 Palms prior to a 7 month deployment in two different battalions. Those were stressful, but not bad and the organization treated me well.  Some people don’t have that experience however and roster moves on short notice can be a source of consternation, anger and discord if not handled well by the team manager or the command.

However I did come into the Navy at a lower rank than I left the Army in 1999 just to get back in the show that was the cost of getting back in the game full time, something I am amazed that I got the chance to do and every grateful to the Navy, my Bishop and the Deity Herself.   In my current billet I love what I do and who I do it with, but the organization will be making some changes as we graduate our current residents, gain new residents, gain and lose other personnel and adjust to meet an ever changing and increasing mission.  While we do this we seek to set the standard of professional competency not only in the Navy but the civilian world.  For me this will involve changes, changes that on one level I resist, but on another level completely understand and agree with as the way to help the organization move forward.  Come September those changes will be made.  I can say that I don’t feel like Crash because this involves things that I have always wanted to do but unless I am adaptable will not be able to do, unless the Deity Herself creates a couple extra days to the week and makes every day a 32 hour day.  Thus I will adjust as will the rest of the organization as we collectively work together to ensure that we are taking care of those that God has given us.

So far as the story goes tonight, the one constant in the season is change, teamwork and adjustment to change. As Sparky Anderson once said “If a team is in a positive frame of mind, it will have a good attitude. If it has a good attitude, it will make a commitment to playing the game right. If it plays the game right, it will win—unless, of course, it doesn’t have enough talent to win, and no manager can make goose-liver pate out of goose feathers, so why worry?”  Thankfully, our leadership seems to be rising to the task and and we have the talent, so why worry?

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, leadership, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, philosophy

Crossing the Mendoza Line: It’s not All about the Lifetime Batting Average

Hammock Grand SlamRobby Hammock Crossing the Plate after his Grand Slam in the Bottom of the 6th against Charlotte

When I was playing baseball I hit somewhere around the Mendoza line.  I was never much of a hitter but I made up for my lack of hitting by being pretty solid defensively, a pretty versatile utility player and hustling on every play.  Likewise I would be the guy encouraging other players.   On two different teams in two different sports I was named the “Most Inspirational Player” by my teammates.  Being the most inspirational player does not mean that you are a particularly good ballplayer but rather that you add something else to the team dynamic.  In fact you may not be admired for how well you play, but rather how hard you try and how you get along with your team mates.  I was talking to my dad who is now in a nursing home with end stage Alzheimer’s disease on my last visit.  In a rare moment I had him back talking baseball I thanked him for how he helped me learn to love the game, pitch and field, especially fielding.  I said to him, the only thing that you didn’t do was teach me to hit.  He looked up at me and said “Son, there are a lot of people who can’t hit, it’s a gift.”  So I guess I was doomed to be a Mendoza Line player.

Mario Mendoza played for the Pirates and Mariners.  To be kind he was an amazing defensive shortstop but he as my dad would have said” Couldn’t hit his way out of a wet paper bag.”  His career average was .215 although he often flitted and flirted with the .180 – .200 level. He never played in an All Star game or World Series.  He never hit more than two home runs in a season, in fact one was an inside the park job playing for the Mariners and he hit below .200 in five of his nine major league seasons.   However, despite that Mario Mendoza lives on in baseball, his name forever associated with a low batting average.  In modern baseball parlance the Mendoza line is considered a batting average of .200.  Credit for who coined the term goes depending on your source to either George Brett, the All-Star Third Baseman of the Kansas City Royals or fellow Seattle Mariners Tom Paciorek or Bruce Bochte from whom Brett may have heard the term.  Either way the term stuck after ESPN commentator Chris Berman who used the term in 1988 to describe the hitting struggles of a star power hitter.  Once Berman made the comment it became a pretty standard way of denoting guys who struggle at the plate.  Mexican sportscaster Oscar Soria corroborates the Paciorek and Bochte version referencing a conversation with Mario Mendoza while Mendoza was managing the Obregon Yaquis in the Mexican Pacific League who stated that Mendoza said “that Tom Paciorek was the first to mention the phrase “Mendoza Line” when he read the Sunday paper” and that “then George Brett heard about that.”  Soria then discussed how Mendoza was initially angered by Berman’s use of the term but now “he enjoys the fame of the phrase Mendoza line.”  For a really good discussion of the Mendoza Line see the article in the Baseball Almanac at: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/books/mendozas_heroes_book.shtml, from which the information above is gleaned.

Now my buddy Elliott the Usher and I have frequent discussions about the game discussing pitching, hitting, fielding, base running, prospects, scouting and strategy.  Elloitt is one of those gems of Baseball knowledge, his love and knowledge of the game shows in the way he deals with people including Major League Scouts, players from the Tides and visiting team who are charting the game and others.  I really think that he should be hired as a commentator or color man on some baseball broadcast.  This season we have enjoyed a lot of laughs as well as had a lot great talks amid the joys and sorrows of the season.  One of our frequent subjects of discussion is players on our team as well as the visiting teams who are hitting near or below the Mendoza Line.  We have a few on the Tides who are hovering at or below the Mendoza line.  A couple of these players are former Major Leaguers and a couple career minor league guys.  Last night I decided to venture out for the first time in two days since I was now getting a case of “cabin fever” and my cocktail of Vicodin, Motrin and Amoxicillin seemed to have my pain and swelling a bit more under control.  Judy said my cheek still looks “like a squirrel’s” but at least I wasn’t in too bad of pain, though when I got up in the morning and until 2 or 3 PM I was still pretty sore and tired.  At least for the majority of the game the pain was manageable and of course as soon as I got home I dumped a butt load of meds down me and went to sleep.

Last night the Tides swept a double header from the Charlotte Knights who are the AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.  Since the game was rain delayed after a series of severe storms raked the area in the two hours prior to the first pitch it was not well attended.  Because of this I was able to flit between my buddies Barry down in section 102 and Elliott.   It was good to be able in a fairly relaxed atmosphere to talk about the game.  The Tides had lost the last game prior to the All Star Break in Durham and then the first game back from the break.  In those two games their hitting died and they were outscored 16-3.  Last night Chris Tillman was throwing an outstanding game having given up just one run in the first inning.  It wasn’t until the 6th inning until the Tides scored their first run with one out when Michael Aubry doubled to score Justin Turner to tie the game 1-1.  The Tides then loaded the bases and Brandon Pinkney struck out for the second out.  At this point with the bases loaded, Elliott and I gave a mutual groan.  One of our “below the Mendoza Line” batters, catcher Robby Hammock was coming to the plate.  Robby is a good defensive catcher and while playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks caught Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2003.  However this year has seen Robby really struggle at the plate.  The count went to two and from the way Robby had been swinging the bat tonight Elliott turned to me and said “I can’t look.”  Robby then fouled off the next pitch.  I said “Elliott he’s dragging this out.” Then I yelled “Hey Mendoza! Get a hit!”   At this point Robby who is currently hitting .190 stood back into the batter’s box.  The pitch from Knight’s reliever John Link was a slider that didn’t cut and Robby planted it in the picnic area in Left Center for a Grand Slam home run.  Elliott and I rejoiced, Robby had maybe gotten the hit that would re-ignite the team for the second half of the season.  This blew the game open and the Tides went on to win 5-1.  Robby was quoted in the Virginia Pilot today about the hit “I closed my eyes and put my bat in the spot” and “I felt decent today, I just got lucky and that’s all there was to it.”  Tides fans are not complaining even if it was lucky, I’m happy for you Robby, you helped get us back on track enjoy the moment and keep hanging in there.

The hitting surge continued in the second game.  Jeff Fiorentino and Michael Aubrey, who are .300 hitters, Fiorentino about .325 right now and way above the Mendoza Line each had 2 hits and drove in two runs while our other way below the Mendoza Line players had a good night. Infielder Carlos Rojas was in at Third due to injuries that forced Manager Gary Allenson to reshuffle the line up.  Carlos is a pretty good defensive player with pretty good range.  However he was only hitting .156 going into the game but went 2-3 with two singles in what I think was his first multi-hit game of the season.  Catcher Chad Moeller who has struggled at the plate since coming down from Baltimore when Matt Wieters was called up also doubled and scored a run as the Tides took the second game 5-1 with Chris Waters getting the win.

All in all it was not a bad night for our guys living below the Mendoza line; hopefully they will all get themselves up above it.  As a member of the Mendoza Line club myself I hope that they all do well and that last night is a harbinger of things to come.  Today my mouth feels a bit better than yesterday though I woke up in some pain.  I plan on seeing tonight’s game with Judy as the Tides hopefully will extend their International League South Division lead over the Durham Bulls by defeating the Knights here again.

Coming back to the Mendoza Line itself the way that guys like Mendoza make their mark is by the intangibles that they bring to the game.  Some of the “Mendoza’s” went on in other ways to make a difference in the game through coaching, managing, scouting at the Major or Minor League level, as well as in sports media, announcing or writing.  Some would include guys like Tony LaRussa career .199 average in 10 seasons, Charlie Manuel .198 in 6 seasons, Bob Uecker career .200 in 6 Major League seasons, Sparky Anderson who hit .218 in one season in the Majors and once said “I led the league in “Go get ’em next time.” Tommy Lasorda was a pitcher and had a 0-4 record and 6.48 ERA in three major league seasons as well as Earl Weaver who never made it to the Majors.  All made lasting marks on the game and all were way below the Mendoza line.

The application to baseball players and non-ball players alike when you find yourself at the Mendoza Line is to make the most out of what you have.  Play to your strengths and know that if you do this you will make a mark, even if it is not at the plate.  I figure as a somewhat well trained and experienced theologian, historian, military officer and Priest that the Deity Herself understands bad days, and lackluster careers and still helps us get through life.  So anyway, as a Mendoza Line alumnus I say to all those hovering around the line, find a way to make your mark and do well, I’m cheering for you as are all the other Mendoza’s among the Saints in Heaven.

Peace, Steve+

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