Mike Gardiner will always be thankful for the 15 days in 1994 that Sparky Anderson made him a big league closer.
With ninth-inning fixture Mike Henneman on the disabled list, the Tigers venerable manager called the Sarnia, Ont., native into his office to tell him he would be the interim closer.
“Sparky told me not to change my approach, because I was pitching well at the time,” reflected Gardiner. “He told me that I deserved the opportunity.”
The Canadian right-hander told his esteemed skipper that he was looking forward to the challenge and got up to leave the office, but as he was walking out, Anderson offered more wisdom.
“He said, “You got this and he pointed to his brain, and you got this and he pointed to his stomach, but your fastball is not the best. Don’t get hurt with it,” recalled Gardiner, who was not a hard-thrower, with a chuckle.
Gardiner, who grew up in Courtright, Ont. and now runs a highly regarded non-profit youth program called Stealth Baseball in Charlotte, N.C., pitched parts of three seasons with the Tigers under Anderson.
“He was a player’s manager,” said Gardiner of his former skipper. “He didn’t overmanage. He didn’t try to do too much or say too much, but when he did speak, you listened.”
But it couldn’t have been easy being a reliever for a manager who was dubbed “Captain Hook” for his constant pitching changes.
“Sparky went with the hot hand and he was successful with that strategy, and you can’t blame him for that. He had a lot of success,” said Gardiner. “You knew there was an opportunity to pitch every night. And if you were going well, he would use you quite often.”
After big league stints with the Mariners, Red Sox and Expos, Gardiner landed with the Tigers, the team he grew up cheering for, in August 1993, after being placed on waivers by Montreal. He was flattered to learn that it was Anderson, himself, who wanted him on the staff.
“I had a choice between going to Colorado and Detroit,” recalled Gardiner. “In Colorado in 1993, balls were flying out of there left and right. I decided I would rather play close to home with a Hall of Fame manager.”
Over his three seasons with the Tigers, Gardiner learned a lot from his iconic skipper.
“I liked the low maintenance aspect of the way he managed his players,” said Gardiner. “He said, ‘Here is what we’re going to do: we’re going to keep it simple and we’re going to play hard and we’re going to play smart.”
Saddened by Anderson’s death, Gardiner says he holds nothing but fond memories of his former manager.
“Sparky was a kind, classy guy who had a great passion for the game,” he said. “He just loved to go to the ballpark every day, and I feel like I’m similar. He’s been very influential in my philosophy of coaching . . . I’m very thankful that he was part of my life for awhile.”
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