The Detroit Tigers are finally doing the right thing.
On Saturday, the team announced during its annual TigerFest that Sparky Anderson's number will be retired and that Tigers players will wear an honorary patch during the 2011 season. In addition, the Tigers will hold several events throughout the season in tribute to their former manager, who passed away in November. First among them will be raising a flag bearing Anderson's name at Comerica Park on opening day.
The gestures are fitting accolades for the man who won the most games in Tigers history (1,331), brought a World Series championship to Detroit, and was essentially the face of the franchise during his 17-year tenure in Tiger Stadium's dugout.
Unfortunately, there's also the feeling that these honors are coming too late. As Michael Rosenberg wrote in the Detroit Free Press, the Tigers are doing the right thing at the wrong time.
Anderson retired after the 1995 season. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000 (the same year Comerica Park opened). His 1984 championship team has celebrated its 10th, 20th and 25th anniversaries. Yet on none of those occasions did the team see fit to add Anderson's name and number alongside those of other Tigers greats on their outfield wall.
The Tigers have arguably acknowledged Anderson's contributions before. The team held a day in his honor in 2000 to commemorate that Hall of Fame induction. He threw out out the first pitch before Game 2 of the 2006 World Series. And his number had all but officially been retired already, as no one in a Tigers uniform had worn No. 11 since 1995.
But those gestures felt so passive, like getting a form letter rather than a handshake.
Why did the Tigers wait so long to pay tribute? For years, the rumblings have been that owner Mike Ilitch held a grudge against Anderson for refusing to manage replacement players before the 1995 season.
But the feeling was apparently mutual. Anderson apparently resented Ilitch for firing team chairman Jim Campbell, who hired Sparky when he was general manager. (Anderson later wrote in his memoir that he should've left the Tigers when Ilitch fired Campbell and team president Bo Schembechler in 1992.) Some believe Anderson added to the hard feelings by wearing a Cincinnati Reds cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.
Other longtime Tigers fans argue that Anderson's No. 11 shouldn't be retired solely for him because Bill Freehan, another of the team's all-time greats, also wore the number. But with all due respect to Freehan and an excellent 15-year career, the clamor to retire the No. 11 jersey has been for Sparky.
Perhaps the best (and last) opportunity to properly thank Anderson was during the 2009 season, when the Tigers celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1984 champions. Sparky probably wasn't going to make another trip to Detroit. Anyone who saw how frail he'd become could've told you travel was difficult for him.
Maybe Anderson would've tried to modestly defer, not wanting to take away from a team accomplishment and his former players in attendance. But no one would've had a problem with dedicating that moment to Sparky. The ceremony became a de facto tribute anyway. Those players and fans came to Detroit that night for him.
The Tigers' behavior toward Anderson has been shameful. GM Dave Dombrowski admitted as much on Saturday.
"I know, in a way, it's a shame," Dombrowski said. "It's the same thing when I see someone go into the Hall of Fame. 'Dang, I wish they went in when they were alive."
Dombrowski told The Grand Rapids Press that the team noticed how influential Sparky had been when it heard from so many of his former players after he died. But even if Dombrowski finally convinced Ilitch to get over himself and do what everyone wants to see, that just sounds so disingenuous.
Yes, it's better that the Tigers are honoring Anderson now than not to do so at all. But couldn't this have been done while Sparky was around to enjoy the tribute? It's the very least an iconic figure in Detroit Tigers and baseball history deserved.
First image via @official_tigers on Twitter; second image from AP