George Kell, legendary Tigers player and broadcaster, deserves credit for the hiring of Sparky Anderson, but he never really got it.
It was Kell's rabbit ears and intuition that led to the Tigers hiring Sparky, back in 1979.
When the Tigers fired company man Les Moss and hired Anderson in June of '79, it was one of the boldest moves ever made by a franchise that traditionally was buttoned down and conservative.
GM Jim Campbell was anything but a riverboat gambler type. Campbell was an old school baseball man who believed in organ music over pop hits being pumped through the stadium's sound system. He had disdain for beach balls in the center field bleachers—even closing the bleachers for a time because of the beach balls' abundance. Campbell played hard ball with his players when it came to their salaries. He was stodgy, sometimes curt, but a loyal employee who bled Tigers blue and orange.
Campbell wasn't a GM who acted impulsively, as a rule.
But when Kell informed Campbell—via a casual conversation Kell had with California Angels media people—that Anderson, fired by the Cincinnati Reds the year prior, was on the verge of becoming the manager of the Chicago Cubs in 1980, the Tigers GM got some ideas.
Sparky was doing some TV work for the Angels in 1979, so he could stay in baseball and still be close to his California residence. When Kell heard about Sparky and the Cubs, the Tigers broadcaster practically ran to Campbell.
"Sparky is going to manage next year, with the Cubs," Kell told Campbell.
At the time, Sparky's future was unknown to the media. Fired after the '78 season following nine years as Reds manager and two world championships, Anderson was arguably the hottest managerial candidate available at the time. Kell's casual conversation before a Tigers game in Anaheim was a big scoop.
Campbell made some phone calls and urged Sparky to forget the Cubs in 1980 and come to the Tigers immediately.
It wasn't a carefree decision for the Tigers GM, because it would mean the cashiering of Moss, barely 50 games into his first season as Tigers manager after skippering for several years in the organization's minor league system.
But Campbell was principled. He had to fire Moss forthwith.
"There was no way that I could look Les Moss in the eye, knowing that I'd be firing him after the season," Campbell told Sparky, as noted in the latter's autobiography. That's why Campbell wanted Sparky to come to Detroit ASAP.
Campbell's firing of Les Moss and hiring of Sparky Anderson gets lost in the shuffle when discussing bold front office moves in Detroit sports history.
For my money, Pistons GM Jack McCloskey's trading of Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre late in the 1988-89 season is still the boldest move in Detroit. But Moss-for-Sparky is right up there, mainly because it was so out of character for the franchise.
Campbell did hire Billy Martin once (who didn't?), but that was in the off-season and it was painfully obvious that the Tigers needed a fiery skipper after the team quit on Mayo Smith in 1970.
The Sparky hire was something else.
Campbell's surprising aggressiveness in June of 1979 comes to the mind of this know-it-all blogger in the wake of the Tigers' collapse in the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles.
Ron Gardenhire is no Sparky Anderson, at least not in terms of success, if you choose to measure your managers solely on world championships won.
Gardenhire, the erstwhile manager of the Minnesota Twins, was let go by the team last week, following yet another losing season. He guided the Twins for 13 years.
But Gardenhire's lack of winning in recent years hasn't really been a referendum on his abilities as a manager, by those who know better. Casey Stengel wasn't so good with the New York Mets, after all.
Gardenhire's Twins, in the first half of the 2000s, ruled the AL Central, just as the Tigers are doing now. His teams were disciplined, fundamentally sound and rarely beat themselves.
But the Twins rarely were at the table when free agency season came around—one of those "small market" teams that didn't spend a whole lot of money. And that caught up to them. The team got young, green and the Twins tumbled.
Eventually, so did Gardenhire, who actually welcomed the firing.
"Sometimes people need to hear a different voice," he said at the press conference announcing his dismissal. The words of choice are convenient ones, used over and over by teams who fire their coach. In this case, the coach himself uttered them.
Gardenhire is available. His name will no doubt be linked to managerial jobs throughout the winter. He is one who isn't likely to worry about from where his next paycheck will come.
Gardenhire is respected throughout MLB and he doesn't have to take the first offer that comes his way. Maybe he'll take a break from managing. There's always a TV studio looking for ex-managers and players.
But it says here that if there was ever a time for the Tigers to show some Jim Campbell-like moxie, it's now.
Brad Ausmus is a fine fellow. He's young, bright and not a jerk. For the most part, as Tigers manager he pretty much just played the cards that GM Dave Dombrowski dealt him.
But Ausmus showed his rookie greenness this season. At times, it looked like the job was too big for him. But that is to be expected from someone who'd never managed at any level for any serious length of time.
This isn't even to say that Ausmus is a bad manager, or that he will never be a good manager. Again, he's young.
But just as with Sparky Anderson in 1979, the Tigers might not get an opportunity to hire someone of Gardenhire's pedigree in the foreseeable future.
Gardenhire's Achilles heel was that his teams couldn't win in the playoffs. Usually they were taken down by the New York Yankees. But the Yankees in those days were World Series-caliber teams every year.
The lack of post-season success would no doubt be used against him by fan bases whose teams are considering hiring the man affectionately known as "Gardy."
But tell me, how many world titles has Joe Maddon won? Buck Showalter? Bob Melvin? Clint Hurdle?
All of the above have, at times, been lauded as some of the finest managers in the game. Some were mentioned last year on the fans' wish list in Detroit after Jim Leyland retired.
If you're going to dismiss manager options based on how many World Series they've won, then you're not going to have much of a list, if you're shopping.
Terry Francona isn't available. Bruce Bochy isn't available. Tony LaRussa wears a suit and tie these days.
Ron Gardenhire is available. And the Tigers ought to do something bold and call his agent soon.
It could appear to be unseemly, firing Ausmus after just one season. But that would be dependent upon how the move is orchestrated, and who says the right or wrong things.
Let's face it—it wouldn't be like the Tigers were getting rid of John McGraw or Joe McCarthy.
Ausmus has managed for one year. It didn't work out. His team's playoff run was the shortest, by far, of the four consecutive that the Tigers have made since 2011.
Some of that isn't his fault; that's true.
But if you close your eyes and try to imagine what someone of Gardenhire's experience and wisdom could have done with this Tigers roster, it's hard not to conclude that the outcome might have been different.
Certainly, no worse.
Gardenhire isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread. I get it. But how many guys are?
He knows the division inside and out. He is known for being a deft handler of bullpens and a terrific in-game tactician. His players in Minnesota adored him, even when the team was losing. Joe Mauer spoke glowingly of Gardenhire in the wake of the firing last week.
The Tigers' so-called "window" to win the whole thing, an overused term but also appropriate, isn't getting any wider. There are many decisions to make—many of them involving free agents-to-be. The roster will look markedly different in 2015 from what it looks like now. But it will still be a highly competitive roster.
It would be a roster that someone of Ron Gardenhire's ilk could win with.
Andy Dirks will be back in 2015. So will Jose Iglesias. So will Bruce Rondon.
Can you imagine if the Tigers had those three guys in 2014?
That question may seem to be counterintuitive to this opinion. That's fair to say.
And that, frankly, may go into the likely decision that the Tigers keep Ausmus for at least another year.
But managers are evaluated based on what they had, not what they didn't.
It's impossible to mentally plug in Dirks, Iglesias and Rondon and determine how Ausmus would have made do with those guys.
Besides, Ausmus mostly showed his inexperience when it came to the bullpen, which is often a manager's Waterloo or Valhalla.
Would Gardenhire have allowed David Price to talk him into staying in the game against the White Sox at Comerica Park late in the season?
You can say that Ausmus allowed that because he didn't have confidence in his bullpen. But you could also argue that it's not necessarily good enough to have your starting pitcher tell you that he's OK.
That's cherry picking, I know. But it's an example of how someone like Gardenhire might operate differently.
At this writing, there aren't too many available managers who move the meter of the savvy fan.
You could even say that there is only one—Ron Gardenhire.
He could be had. I think that if the Tigers called, Gardenhire would listen, and listen with great interest.
The Tigers are a franchise with tradition. The passion for baseball extends throughout the state. There's an owner who will spend money. There's urgency to win. The ballpark is packed every night. There's talent, and the promise to gather more if necessary.
It is a situation that most experienced managers would die for.
Gardenhire would like to win the whole enchilada, too.
It's a marriage that would presumably work. It would involve a divorce first, but it doesn't have to be a messy one.
The Tigers aren't likely to do this, but if owner Mike Ilitch deems Ron Gardenhire the guy, then guess what?
Ron Gardenhire is the guy.
That's how the Tigers got Miguel Cabrera, by the way.