DETROIT -- Three years ago, Sparky Anderson was talking about retirement, about going back to his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., working in his garden and staying close to baseball only through television and occasional trips to Dodger Stadium.

Why not? He'd spent 31 years in a uniform, and after the sting and embarrassment of being fired by the Cincinnati Reds eight years earlier, his 1984 Detroit Tigers were about "to take that monkey off my back" with a World Series championship.

He said, too, that 1984 "was my worst year personally. I knew we had a chance to win it all, and I became obsessed by it. I felt every loss was on me. We'd lose a game and I'd sit in the office and stare at the wall. One of the coaches would come in and say, 'Let's go have dinner.' I wouldn't go. I thought because we lost I couldn't even go eat.

"That goes back to what happened in Cincinnati. I've got as big an ego as the next guy and felt I just had to win it with another team. You win it in one place and maybe you'll get some credit. You win it in two places and it's yours, baby. But it was tough, and I remember telling Carol, 'If we win this thing, that may have to be it.' "

His wife advised him to wait a bit before announcing anything, and when he did he came back to her with some less-than-stunning news: He didn't want to quit.

"I don't think I ever will," he said. "But I did promise myself that nothing would ever eat at me like that season did. But, in the end, I didn't want to quit. This is my life. Now, they may call and tell me to go home tomorrow. Fine, let them do that. But quit? No."

So let's hit the fast-forward button to a clear summer afternoon in 1987, and Sparky Anderson hasn't yet retired. He's still the manager of the Detroit Tigers and, as he sits in a small neat office at Tiger Stadium before the all-star break, he's drinking coffee, tapping some sweet-smelling tobacco into his pipe and considering John McGraw and 2,840 victories as a manager.

"Connie Mack has {3,776}," Anderson said, "and that's out of reach. But McGraw . . . 2,800. That's possible. You know what I'd really like to do is win 3,000 games. That's a goal of mine."

He has figured all of this before and does so again. He began this season with 1,513 victories and, if he wins 95 this season, would need 16 more 87-victory seasons to reach 3,000.

A conservative man, he said, "You're looking at 17 seasons."

Are you looking at 17 more seasons?

He smiles.

"That's my goal."

These are the best of times for silver-haired George Lee Anderson, the times when he can remind people that only 11 men ever have managed teams to more major league victories and that there may be many more to come.

He has survived a game in which the burnout and firing index is high and, at 53, not only seems eager to get to the park "by 2 p.m. at least," but perfectly comfortable being one of baseball's few still-active living legends.

"It ain't the money," he said. "I don't spend much money, and what I have never changed me, anyway. I was raised in a poor family and was 35 before I made $30,000. My life style is about what it always was."

He lives in the same Thousand Oaks home he and the former Carol Valle bought in 1966 "because we couldn't afford anything in the {San Fernando} Valley." He drives a midsized American-made car, and his hobbies consist mostly of late-night television and early-morning walks.

A conversation with him is still a romp through anecdotes, philosophies, double negatives and misplaced metaphors. If he isn't yet Casey Stengel, he's at least close, particularly the moment last year when he said shortstop Alan Trammell would have to play through a shoulder problem because, "Pain don't hurt."

He admits that, yes, he sometimes gets a little too excited about games or players, such as the time two years ago when he abruptly moved all-star second baseman Lou Whitaker to third because rookie second baseman Chris Pittaro "is the best prospect I've ever seen." A couple of days later, after Pittaro began to look like something less than the next Jackie Robinson, Whitaker was quietly moved back to second and Pittaro eventually was traded.

"The worst mistake I ever made," he now says.

And there was the time in 1979 when he moved reliable starter Milt Wilcox to the bullpen, explaining that, "We're going to build this team around {Steve} Baker."

Wilcox asked, "Baker? You mean the one that's here now?" That plan eventually was scrapped, too.

He admits to all of it, to wanting to make stars of Pittaro, Rod Allen, Rusty Kuntz and Howard Johnson before their times.

"I am," he said, "obsessed with youth a little bit."

But if he does get carried away now and then, he has at least retained his enthusiasm, his love of the game and his ability to persevere where others have grown tired, bored and cynical.

"Yeah, I don't let it bother me like I used to," he said. "We lose, 10-0, and people say, 'What are you going to do?' Well, what do you think? We're going to come back tomorrow and try again. Now, don't get me wrong. I do get upset. There's always going to be some idiot {player} walking through that door trying to ruin your day."

He can laugh at all of it now, the firing by the Cincinnati Reds after winning five division championships in nine seasons, the grueling wire-to-wire lead of the 1984 Tigers and the image of Sparky Anderson.

He once saw a reporter leaving one of his news conferences early and yelled, "Don't leave yet. I'm just starting to sling it."

He has a large picture of his granddaughter on his desk, and above his right shoulder another photo with the words, "Wanted for stealing pacifiers."

Next to it is a motto that reads: "Each 24 hours the world turns over on someone who is sitting on top of it."

At the moment, it doesn't appear the world is about to turn over on Sparky Anderson. Since winning that '84 World Series, his Detroit teams have had seasons of 84-77 and 87-75.

This year, picked by many to finish in the bottom half of the American League East, the Tigers are on a pace to win 96 games. It was Anderson who helped introduce players such as Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris to the big leagues in the late '70s, and this year's Tigers include members of another generation, one that will include catcher Matt Nokes and pitchers Jeff Robinson and Mike Henneman.

"I love this team," he said. "I love kids. We don't know how good we're going to be, but it might be better than people think. I wouldn't count us out yet. These kids are hungry, and they haven't been tarnished like some veterans. They want to learn. I'll tell you, I love having kids because, if you raise 'em right, they won't go bad on you. It goes back to the way you talk to 'em and treat 'em. If you see 'em starting to change, you get to 'em right away."

He recalled a Tigers-Reds exhibition game in 1986 and a conversation he had with Dave Concepcion, who had recently criticized Reds Manager Pete Rose for not playing him.

"Listen, you can't believe how good the people were on that Cincinnati team," Anderson said. "I'm talking about Ken Griffey and Johnny Bench and Davey and those guys. I read what Davey had said, and it hit me wrong. When I saw him, I said, 'Come over here. I didn't raise you to act like no amateur.' "

Yet the people who know him best aren't sure why he has succeeded. They say that, as far as strategy goes, he's something less than Gene Mauch. As a friend of the working player, he's not Lou Piniella or Roger Craig. And certainly players don't fear him as, say, the Seattle Mariners fear Dick Williams.

What then?

"I think his strongest point is that he gets together a group of people that get along," first baseman Darrell Evans said. "In the four years I've been here, that's the thing I've noticed. He'll scream occasionally, but not that often. I think his only rule is that he wants us to be on time."

Trammell added, "He's calmed down quite a bit since 1984, but don't let him kid you. The game is still his life. The big thing is that he's a good evaluator of talent. He assembles a team, then doesn't mess it up."

Another of his strengths is flexibility. He broke in just as the game was changing from total control by management to the players' union having more and more of a say. He leaves no doubt he's glad to see the power shifting back to management, but adds:

"There are a lot of things a million-dollar contract isn't going to change. They are still young guys searching for something. You see a guy go bad and it's just like he was a little boy again. Basically, you have to know these are good people. You have a few jerks, but those only mess up your day every once in a while. But think about it: How would the guy on the street react if he was given so much money at an early age? I think I wouldn't have been able to keep my senses, and I think it hurts the players. The one-year contract drives them, and I'm glad we're getting back to that.

"Some guys are still driven. I leave here late every night and guys like Evans and Trammell are still here talking the game. You have a lot of guys who can't wait to get out of here because they've got to go see their agent or their financial adviser or do a deal. That's what has changed. Players used to be clannish, have barbecues at each other's house and all that. Now, one lives in a $600,000 house over here and another over there."

He says now he can even enjoy the travel. "Let me tell you about our trip to Baltimore," he said. "I love that Inner Harbor and, on our day off, I went over there and walked around and drank a beer. That night, I went back for dinner and ended up in Little Italy. Ain't that a great city? I love just sitting there watching people, talking to people. I love every city we visit: Kansas City, Oakland, Seattle, you name it."

A simple man who brags that he's "never read a book, for instance," he has become a creature of habit, especially after games. He says he has probably had 25 postgame beers in his 18 seasons as manager, but that he's addicted to coffee and, recently, "ESPN and CNN. It's great because I never used to enjoy that stuff. I couldn't escape the game, but that has all changed."

He says he has even started enjoying the winters and that he and Carol spend a couple of days a week in Santa Barbara, Calif., "where no one has the phone number except the kids." And this winter, they're taking a cruise to Venezuela, and then spending a week at Disney World's Epcot Center with their granddaughter.

"It's like a whole new world for me," he said. "But I think I've finally learned how to enjoy myself."