Sparky Anderson poked his head from the Fenway Park clubhouse runway into the dugout and peered around as if he wanted to sneak up on someone. He spotted his victim sitting on the end of the bench staring into the bright Boston sunshine: Lance Parrish, Anderson's catcher.
At 24, Parrish is one of the talented young players who make up the nucleus of the Detroit Tigers, considered by many to be baseball's rising team.
Now, Parrish was sulking. Anderson, baseball's white-haired wise man, strolled over, slapped a hand on one of the tree trunks Parrish uses for legs and began talking quietly.
Parrish nodded as the manager spoke. About his pitch-calling. About his jumping at pitches when at bat. For 10 minutes Anderson talked. Parrish listened, then went off to take batting practice.
"Half the time they don't hear," Anderson said, squinting at the sun. "Everyday it's someone else. We've still got a ways to go with this team."
Later that day, while the Tigers were losing their fourth straight game, 8-4, to the Red Sox, Parrish caused an error by failing to back up first base. Later, he dropped a throw at the plate that would have nailed a runner. b
He hadn't heard Anderson. The Tigers still have a ways to go.
Alan Trammell. Steve Kemp. Kirk Gibson. Lou Whitaker. Parrish. Mention any one of these five players to a baseball man and his eyes will light up. Kemp, at 25, is the oldest. All except Gibson already have been all-stars. They are the reason people say the Tigers will be pennant contenders for years to come.
Anderson isn't so sure.
"There's no questioning the talent of those guys. We have five outstanding young players," he said. "We also have some young pitchers who have great potential.
"Now, though, we're reaching the point where they have to live up to that potential. It's one thing to come into the major leagues and have people say, 'He's going to be great.' It's another thing to reach the point where it's time to do it. Not everyone does it."
Example: Whitaker. Two years ago, at 21, he was American League rookie of the year. He hit .285 and they called him "Sweet Lou." He and Trammell were considered the finest young double-play combination to hit the big leagues since Larry Bowa and Denny Doyle at Philadelphia in the late 1960s. In 1979 Whitaker hit .286. He was cruising, ready to reach stardom. 1
Now it is 1980. Whitaker is hitting .217. He is platooning with journeyman Stan Papi. Sweet Lou has turned sour.Anderson has no solution to his proble ms.
At the other end of the spectrum is Trammell. He lived in Whitaker's shadow his first two seasons while doing a very solid job at shortstop. Now, at 22, he is hitting .310 and suddenly people are noticing that he is one of the best at his position.
"The best thing about Trammell is that he's the same every day whether he's gone four for four or oh for four," Anderson said. "When he walks out the clubhouse door he leaves it all behind him.
"Some of these other guys, they're always upset. They're always fighting themselves. We need more guys like Trammell. You can never get a team that's all Trammells. But the more the better. The strong carry the weak."
The Tigers' strong hitters have spent a lot of time carrying weak pitchers the last two seasons. The loss of Mark Fidrych has hurt in more places than the box office.
The Tigers are batting .274 -- a very respectable average. They have a team ERA of 4.30. Not that respectable. With the five youngters and veterans such as Richie Hebner (70 hits, 63 RBI), Al Cowens and John Wockenfuss, the Tigers are going to score runs. With a pitching staff anchored by Jack Morris (4.48 ERA); Dave Rozema (5.03 ERA) and Milt Wilcox (3.69 ERA), they are also going to give up runs.
"The difference in June when we were 19-6 was the pitching," said Hebner, who has found a home in Tiger Stadium with its hitters' heaven known as right field. "We were going complete games almost every night. When the pitchers are on, this team can play with anyone."
Wilcox has been the Tigers' best pitcher the last three seasons. He first came up in 1970 at Cincinnati under Anderson. Now, at 30, having battled back from arm trouble, he watches Anderson work with this young team after nine years with veterans in Cincinnati.
"I think in some ways this is better for Sparky," said Wilcox. "He loves to teach. A lot of that was stifled in Cincinnati.
"He took over here in midseason last year and I think he just used last season to become familiar with the club. Now, this year, he's really made it his club. We do things the Sparky way now. I think the more we do things that way, the better we'll be."
The sparky way maintains that players should be well-groomed, dress neatly on road trips, keep their hats on during batting practice and listen to Anderson and no one but Anderson on the subject of baseball.
"I wouldn't call him a disciplinarian," Parrish said. "But he definitely has his set way of doing things. He likes to run. I don't think we're a running ball club. But we run anyway. I think we run too much. But he's the boss. So we run."
The Tigers won 85 games last season. Anderson's goal this season is 90. He knows and the Tigers know that 90 games will not win the American League East. It probably won't be good enough for second. But it will be good enough for the Tigers.
"We're not at the point where we can consider ourselves a contender yet," Anderson said. "We won nine in a row in June. We played very well. Then we turn around and lose four in a row. We can't win in Boston (3-17 the last three seasons) or Kansas City (3-15). Until we do that, we're not a contender.
"The best teams are the consistent teams, the ones that do things right everyday. These guys go four days and are great, then go four and are terrible. We're not there yet."
Push Anderson's players into a corner and they'll agree with him, although they also say repeatedly, "We haven't given up on this year yet."
"You have to be realistic," Hebner said. "The Yankees are losing once a week. It's going to be tough for anyone to catch them the way they're playing.
"But when you look at this team you have to like the future. This year can be like a building block leading into next year."
"We play the Yankees eight times in September," Kemp pointed out. "Even if we're not in a position to catch them in those games, if we can play them tough then I think that can be the kind of thing that will carry over into next year. I think next year when September rolls around this team should be there. That doesn't mean you win it all because there's always luck involved. tIt just means you're a genuine threat."
The Tigers started miserably this season, losing eight of nine. "Never saw a team play so poorly in my life," Anderson said. Then, in June, the pitching came together, led by Wilcox, who had six straight complete games.
Yet the hot streak did not cause pennant fever. This team is young, but filled with realists.
"We know we're in the toughest division in baseball," Trammell said. "Maybe if we were in the West we would be thinking (pennant). But in this division we can't afford to think that way. All we can do is go out each day and try to win that day."
But they play 41 of their last 66 games in Tiger Stadium and they should be able to gain some ground toward Anderson's 90-victory goal.
"If we get 90 wins I'll be satisfied no matter where that puts us in the standings," Anderson said. "It'll show me that we're making progress. It'll mean we're being more consistent. This can be an excellent team. They need time, they need teaching and they need to be patient with themselves.
"Right now we've got a bunch of idealistic youngsters. They're living in a dream world. They think winning is right around the corner. I hope they're right. I hope reality never sets in."