You never forget your first big league manager – no matter where the game of baseball takes you. That’s how Torey Lovullo is choosing to remember the wisdom and guidance former Detroit and Cincinnati manger Sparky Anderson imparted on his pro career. Anderson passed away on Thursday from complications of dementia in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was 76.
“I’m saddened because he was an influential man in so many areas,” said Lovullo, Pawtucket’s manager, when reached early Thursday night.
Anderson became the first major league manager to win World Series crowns in both the American and National League. He piloted the Reds, known throughout baseball as “The Big Red Machine” to titles in 1975 and 1976 and turned the trick with Detroit in 1984. Anderson retired from managing following the 1995 season and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2000.
For Lovullo, Anderson was the first manager to instill confidence in him prior to setting foot on a big league field. It was spring training 1989, and Lovullo, 23 at the time and two years removed from being drafted out of UCLA, was on his way to landing a starting gig with Detroit. One day Anderson had this to say about Lovullo’s potential: “This guy is as good a natural hitter as I've ever seen. If he could run, he’d be a million-dollar player. I’ll die before he comes out of the lineup.”
Said Lovullo about Anderson’s declaration, “It endorsed all the hard work I put in. The dedication I gave to the game was validated by somebody who was important to baseball as Sparky was.”
Lovullo knew he had only one mission, and that was to justify the hype. After all, when a manager of Anderson’s caliber showers you with praise, it’s probably a good idea not to make him look foolish. Lovullo responded by starting the season 0-for-20. He was eventually sent to Triple-A Toledo in mid-May and says the buildup from his Hall of Fame manager was perhaps a factor into him stumbling out of the gates.
“I tried to live up to the expectations and have thought about them often,” said Lovullo. “I felt like I had no room to be anything less than perfect. I put a little too much pressure on myself and obviously we know how it turned out, but I was just to thankful for being validated by what Sparky was saying. He walked the walk and when he spoke, it was a pretty impressive feeling. I knew he wasn’t mincing words and was as good as anyone when it came to evaluating talent.”
The words of Anderson, known as “Captain Hook” for his penchant for removing a starting pitcher at the first sign of fatigue and turning the game over to his bullpen, stuck with Lovullo until retiring in 2000.
“I always felt like I had Sparky’s words to go back to, that he could measure my ability that way,” said Lovullo, a career .224 hitter in eight MLB seasons. “When I felt like I couldn’t go on any further because the game was getting a little too rough for me, I (referred back to Anderson) often. Here’s a baseball icon who was saying I could play this game at a high level. There are moments in this game where you feel sorry for yourself, but you’ve got to pick yourself up and those words helped get me over the hump several times.
“It was very motivational for a lot of reasons,” Lovullo explained. “When somebody would ask me about it I would be like, ‘OK, here we go, the whole story is starting over again.’ But I’m so proud of my relationship with him and what he did for my baseball career. He was the first manager to go out on a limb and call me a big leaguer and am so proud to share in those moments that nobody knows about.”
When Lovullo, who last spoke directly to Anderson two years ago via phone, signed up to become a minor league manager in 2002, he made it a point to reach out to Anderson.
“I always told him that I was going to ask him to come to my first game if I ever got to the point that I was a big league manager. I’m sorry to say that’s not going to happen now,” he said. “I sought out advice on numerous occasions on player-manager relationships. Everything that he was good at and then some, I tried to extort from him.
“He was always crisp and to the point. ‘Torey, my boy, you’ve got to learn how to do it this way and this is what you can expect,’” continued Lovullo.