For what's good in baseball and what's bad, we turn this morning to Sparky Anderson. Sparky Anderson is a joy. In two years, the Tigers' manager said, the Tigers will play in the World Series. They're kids now, but they're coming. No great teams anymore, not like his '76 Reds, Sparky will explain in a minute. Now he's saying Graig Nettles is beautiful.
"One in a million," Anderson said. "What he does, God taught him."
Nettles is the Yankees' flying third baseman, always stretched flat out in a Superman pose, streaking through the air on another impossible mission. Steve Garvey's line drive in Game 1 of this World series was past Nettles.
"I've seen that line drive 100 times," Anserson said, "and the third baseman dives for it 100 times -- and 100 times the ball bounces off the left field wall. Nettles caught it after it was by him."
A second look at the pictures confirms that Anderson, as usual, saw it the way it happened. Nettles isn't diving toward third base; he is flying back toward the outfield grass, his glove catching up with the ball from behind.
Then, remarkable thing, the Yankee Stadium crowd of nearly 60,000 stood and applauded a defensive play. They stood so long, cheered so loudly, that finally Craig Nettles acknowledged the ovation.
Kind of. He raised both hands to chest level in an aw-shucks-cut-it-out gesture. No tip of the hat. No bowing to all corners. No kissing the lovely leather of his Louisville Slugger glove. If this weren't the I-love-me generation of baseball players, you would have thought Nettles was embarrassed by the standing ovation.
As it happens, he was embarrassed.
"Standing ovations, curtain calls, I don't know what to do when that happens," Nettles said. "Younger players are used to it. But us older guys (he is 37) are afraid it's going to come off like we're showing up the other team. When Lou Piniella hit the home run against Milwaukee last week, the fans kept cheering 'Looooo, Loooo.' Lou left the dugout and went into the clubhouse."
Such reticence is as appealing as it is rare. Sparky Anderson knows it. For every Craig Nettles who sells baseball softly, for every Nettles who sells only his gifts without asking us to buy his ego, too -- for each aw-shucks guy, baseball has a dozen Bobby Browns.
Bobby Brown is a Yankee outfielder. A Yankee fan in the right field bleachers called out to Brown before Game 1. "Win it for us, Bobby," the fan shouted.
"We're going to win it for ourselves," Brown said, tapping his chest.
"How many games, Bobby? Five?"
"Four," Brown said. "We don't work overtime."
Someone repeated this dialogue to Sparky Anderson, who said, "How stupid can you get? That's exactly what I'm talking about. If you don't care about winning for the fans, baseball is going downhill. And we are going downhill. We've been hurting ourselves for a long time before this strike."
A child of the Depression, Anderson is a baseball traditionalist. He thinks free agency has torn away the very fabric of the game. He thinks that because of free agency, good players will not stay together long enough to produce a great team. He believes the movement of stars makes it impossible for a city's people to take a team to heart.
Numbers on attendance/TV ratings/revenues are all increased with free agency. Not only is free agency the right thing constitutionally, it has given baseball new life. Anderson's song is romantic nostalgia, but he sings it sweetly.
"There won't be any more great teams, and it's because of the money," Anderson said. "Look at Steve Garvey. We don't know what Steve Garvey is going to do. But he's talking about maybe leaving the Dodgers. Can you imagine that?"
"No more," someone said, "than Pete Rose leaving the Reds."
"If Rose was a sixth-year player now, he'd have left the Reds before we ever became a great team," Anderson said. "You have to if somebody offers you a million dollars. And we'd never have kept all those great players together long enough to be a great team. We won 115 games in '76, including payoffs. We beat the Phillies three straight in the league playoffs and we beat the Yankees four straight in the Series. Nobody's going to do that anymore."
"Isn't it good to spread the talent around so everybody can be good? The way the football people keep everybody competitive?"
"It's good, and it's bad," Anderson said. "I think people like to see a really great team. Our '76 team could beat you any way you wanted to get beat. Pitching, speed, defense, power. These aren't great teams in this World Series. The Yankees got pitching and defense, but where's their hitting? If you take Fernando Valenzuela away, the Dodgers' pitching isn't that good.
"So you can't have any great teams. And it's bad another way, too. Let's say there's an 8-year-old kid in St. Louis who thinks Sam Doakes is the greatest player in the world. By the time that 8-year-old kid is 15 and able to buy tickets, Sam Doakes is gone to another team. Is that fair to that kid? The fans must have a team and stars to identify with. The players today, too many of them, are thinking like Bobby Brown, only about themselves.
"Without the fans," Sparky Anderson said, "We're nothing."