These days, Detroit expects an occasional title run. These days, the city expects to dress up the Spirit of the City statue in a local team's jersey and hope for a parade down Woodward Avenue. These days, Detroit fans sleep well at night knowing there's more than three hours of highway between the Motor City and Cleveland.
But back when Sparky Anderson came to town, it wasn't like that. Not at all.
Back in the late '70s and early '80s, Detroit teams weren't even mediocre. The Red Wings were the ''Dead Things,'' winners of only one playoff series between 1967 and 1983. The Hockeytown label was far in the future, and things were so bad that the team had to entice fans with a chance to win a new car during intermissions. The Pistons were still scuffling in the Silverdome in suburban Pontiac and had not come close to a championship since they arrived from Fort Wayne in 1957. Between 1977 and 1983, the Pistons didn't even make the playoffs. And then there were the Lions, who had not won a single playoff game in the Super Bowl era.
So in the decade and a half after the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 1968, its pro teams won a grand total of 14 playoff games.
That's how bad it was in Detroit.
Looking back now, from a city fat with titles, it seems like the '84 Tigers were a foregone conclusion. They won 92 games the year before and finished second to the eventual champion Baltimore Orioles. They started 35-5, still the best start in major league history. They blitzed to 104 wins and crushed the Royals to win the pennant in three games.
But at the time, in Michigan, there was disbelief. Fans wondered: Is this team really that good? The team went 6-12 during one stretch over the summer and that set off a mild panic in Detroit. The team was still young and mostly unproven, and the city had nowhere to turn for reassurance or hope.
Nowhere, that is, except for Sparky Anderson.
Not only had he won before, but he acted like he had won before. His smile became not only iconic but sustaining. He tinkered a bit with the lineup, but he trotted out mostly the same guys every day – the same pitcher every fifth day – and well, the city figured, he must know what he's doing. The only consistency most sports fans knew back then was the consistency of losing. Sparky had a different consistency – a consistency of knowing. That inspired a belief, a devotion and the underpinning of the ''Bless You Boys'' motto that became a catchy song with the cocksure proclamation, ''This is the year.'' (One fan brought a sign to Tiger Stadium that read, ''G-d loved us so much he gave us our own Parrish.'')
Sparky didn't just manage the team that year. He managed the town. He would never want credit for what the team did on the field, but he sure deserves credit for an unspoken leadership that every Michigander felt from him. He wasn't flatline like Bobby Cox or Joe Torre. He was Sparky – sometimes gabby, sometimes irascible, always alive.
One of the most memorable moments from the 1984 postseason came in the last game of the World Series, when Padres manager Dick Williams went to the mound to talk to Goose Gossage about pitching to Kirk Gibson. The Tigers had a one-run lead in the eighth and men on second and third. Williams wanted to walk Gibson to load the bases. Gossage talked him out of it. Gibson sauntered over to the Tigers dugout and Sparky got his attention. ''He don't want to walk you!'' Sparky yelled. For effect, he said it again, ''He don't want to walk you!'' Sparky then swung an imaginary bat, and he looked like he wanted to go out there himself and take a cut.
Sparky's eyes were bright at that moment. The city fretted, and Tiger Stadium seemed cold with worry. But Sparky knew Gossage was making a mistake. He knew the moment was at hand for something special. He knew.
Gibson homered to right, in what is still the most magical moment in almost any Tiger fan's memory. When that ball sailed into the upper deck, Detroit became a championship town again. And it remains a championship town.
This year has been difficult for Detroit. The city lost Ernie Harwell, Bob Probert and now Sparky Anderson. They were so different from each other – the saint, the sometimes-sinner, and the skipper. But to sports fans in a still-bruised city, they represent the same thing. They all nourished a sports identity in a city that had none since the days of Joe Louis and Gordie Howe and Bobby Layne. They reminded Detroit that it is cobbled together by decent people from the south, tough people from the north and scrappy people from the Plains. They were worth the city's time, even when their teams were not. They made Detroit deeply proud at times when it was deeply insecure.
And what they helped build and rebuild still stands, even though they are gone.