Via the Star-Ledger two days ago -
Sparky Lyle pulled off his Somerset Patriots cap, ran a hand through his long silver hair and eyed the lineup card.
The everyday perks — microwavable cheese macaroni, a Milky Way bar and a pack of Winston cigarettes — are sprawled out in front of him like a hand of cards on his desk. A jug of Tito’s Vodka sits in the closet.
Baseball great Sparky Lyle talks about managing the Somerset Patriots and nearing 1,000 wins Baseball great Sparky Lyle talks about managing the Somerset Patriots and nearing 1,000 wins Cy Young winner Sparky Lyle, the only manager the Somerset Patriots have ever known, is one win away from 1,000 victories in the Atlantic League, a dazzling accomplishment considering many teams — and nearly all players — don’t survive from year to year. His team faced the Sugar Land Skeeters Monday night but were defeated 5-4. Lyle and his team once again face the Skeeters, and will play a Tuesday double-header at their home ballpark in Bridgewater.
What’s missing are arms. One of his pitchers retired, another fled to the Taiwanese league, a third was signed to a Major League farm team and a fourth broke his middle finger playing with his young niece.
Life as a manager in the Atlantic League means making due, but enduring is Sparky Lyle’s strong suit. It has been more than 30 years since the days he played beside Munson and Reggie, and sparred with Steinbrenner. In 1977, he became the first American League reliever to win the Cy Young award. He had a salty look at a time when Yankee players could grow their hair long and go unshaven. He played in the majors for 16 years for five teams and has now managed the Patriots for nearly as long.
Today, in his 15th season as the only manager in Somerset Patriots history, he will go for his 1,000th career victory — a stunning achievement in the Atlantic League, where players are limited to one-year contracts, and eight other franchises have disbanded or switched leagues since the independent Atlantic League was formed in 1998.
Lyle has managed 401 players in Somerset, including the group that will take the field in his 1,881st game today. He has the most wins, the most league championships (five), the most playoff appearances (nine), the most single-season victories (86) and the most trips to the championship round (eight). He is the team’s identity, a constant through the years. His face is plastered all over TD Bank Stadium, and a massive, shaggy canine mascot named Sparkee mugs for photos with young fans and dances on the dugout.
This daily grind, the art of piecing together a group of major league hopefuls and castaways, was never a part of the plan when he finished a 16-year career with the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Phillies and White Sox. Now, it seems to fuel him. Many managers might treat the Atlantic League as a bus stop on the way to a Double-A coaching job. Lyle presses for another win, another title.
He looks like a manager, a life of baseball weathered in his skin and in his bones. He bristled as he tried to figure out how he would deal with a pitching staff depleted by injury and defections.
“We’ve been trying to get a halfway decent lineup all year,” he said. Then, offering up a choice cuss word, with a resigned tone he asked a question to no one in particular. “Where are we right now?”
The baseball man still drawn to the game’s inner workings lives alongside another part of Lyle. He would be just as happy, he said, on a fishing dock near his South Jersey home, 75 miles from the Bridgewater stadium.
“I’m one of these guys that time off actually means that. I don’t have a problem just sittin’ around and doin’ nothing. I’m good at that,” he said.
But there is a man inside the manager, someone who found the game growing up in in DuBois, Pa. He is the son of a carpenter and a seamstress who worked in a coffin factory. He regularly struck out 16 and 17 batters each Saturday at the Legion Post and was discovered by a Baltimore Orioles scout at 20 years old.
After five years in Boston, he landed with the Yankees in 1972. His roots in New Jersey are now deep. He has three grown sons and five grandchildren. Two days ago, Lyle, still an outsized character, turned 68 years old.
Gosh, I love this guy.