The passing of Sparky Anderson gives me yet another chance (like I needed one) to remember many great things about my own Dad. James V. Mallon grew up in Philadelphia, PA, a life-long, die-hard, long-suffering Phillie fan. It was an affection he burnished into each of his children, even though we were, in many ways, a West Coast family. We traveled back to Philadelphia frequently -- every other summer, in fact -- and learned to love our erstwhile town and our downtrodden team, enough so that I can say with certainty that each of the Mallon kids still calls that city home and that team our own. Sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and grandkids are all being raised to feel the same even as I type these words.
Years ago, and for many years, my Dad was put to the test physically. He had a weak ticker. When I was a kid I recall that Dad had a tough time walking down to the corner of our block without distress. Ultimately, he underwent bypass surgery -- more than once, truth be told -- and, there's no other way to put it, he was profoundly affected by the experience.
My Dad thought the help that he received, the care by the nurses and doctors who helped restore him to good health, was so profound, so exemplary, and so life-changing, that he took early retirement, from what had been a good, but mostly mundane career, a "government job," as it were, to go back to school and learn the gentle, caring craft of nursing. He was the perfect man to give -- and to whom to give -- the gift of life.
While he was in his nursing classes, he made acquaintances with a young woman who shared his passion for helping others, a lady who also found joy in caring for the sick. Her name was Sarah Anderson, and her father-in-law just so happened to be George Lee "Sparky" Anderson.
Well, that was a profound and remarkable coincidence, to be sure, because James V. Mallon, when he was a kid back there in Philadelphia, PA, grew up a long-suffering Philadelphia Phillie baseball fan. Meanwhile, George Lee "Sparky" Anderson, born just about a year to the day later, grew up playing baseball first in rural South Dakota and later in Los Angeles, California. He was better than most at the game for sure, to the point where eventually he was called up to the Big Leagues.
And it just so happens that Sparky Anderson's one season playing in the "Bigs" took place in Philadelphia, PA, starting at 2nd base for the Phillies. And it just so happens that his season coincided quite nicely with my own Dad's Phillie fandom. They were two young guys who both loved baseball. So when these two men met, all those many years later, at Sarah Anderson's invitation, my Dad knew a thing or two about Sparky Anderson's baseball career. Dad knew about the .218 batting average, the single season in the major leagues, the career in the minors, but he was also able to recall a particular Big League play, a sparkling one (if you will), and one that Sparky too recalled, and the two men made quick friends. They traded baseball stories and shared a certain pride in Sarah, Sparky as only a father can and my Dad as a friend and confidant and colleague.
It was always, to me, a remarkable twist of fate that the man who taught me to love baseball as a metaphor for life would ultimately come to know one of the legendary men who made baseball a metaphor for life.
I can still remember the year the Tigers started the season 35-5. It was 1984. I was in my senior year at UCSB, far removed from childhood and innocence, but still a baseball fan, thanks to my Dad, and still an aficionado of records and streaks and glory. The Tigers won the World Series that year. Sparky Anderson was their manager. It was well before James V. Mallon ever met George Lee Anderson, well before either man knew the other, but I, of course, knew them both, and each of them carried greatness.