Fandom and Family
The sporting Sperlings
by Jeff Mortimer
From the March, 2014 issue
When a theatergoing friend and I finally made it to a production of Detroit's celebrated Mosaic Youth Theatre, I had an ulterior motive: I hoped we might run into Rick Sperling, Mosaic's founder and director. I wondered if he'd recall the time I took him and his dad, Larry, to a Tigers game.
I was hazy about the details, and figured he might be, too--it had been more than thirty years earlier, when he was in his early teens. But the memory stayed with me, in part because it represented a rare overlap between my passions for baseball and the arts.
At intermission, I was scanning the crowd in hopes of a sighting when I saw someone trotting toward us out of the corner of my eye. "Jeff! Jeff! It's Rick Sperling!" he cried, shaking my hand as vigorously as if he wanted my vote. "I still remember going to the Tiger game with you."
I hadn't even had to ask. But his vivid recollection fit the picture he later limned of the hold sports have had on him and his family.
Like many kids who grew up in Ann Arbor, the children of Larry and Doris Sperling are far-flung now. Mike, the oldest, is an attorney in Milwaukee. Gene, the second-oldest, whom Rick refers to as "my now-famous brother," is director of the National Economic Council under President Obama, a position he also held in the Clinton administration. Anne, the only daughter, is an immunologist in Chicago. Rick is the youngest and the least-flung geographically.
But their collective fervor for the Tigers, Lions, Pistons, and U-M sports has kept them more closely knit than their locations would suggest. "What's really been meaningful about sports in my life has been the connections that you develop with your family and friends around these things," says Rick.
That insight came to him all too vividly in 1984, when he was studying acting in New York while the Tigers marched to a world championship.
to a Yankees game alone. He went to a Mets game alone. It wasn't the same. "That was the first time it really clicked for me that there's an incredible amount of dead time in a baseball game, and you go with your father or brother or a friend, because you're sitting in that chair with nowhere to go for two and a half, three hours, and you have to talk."
Perversely, the Tigers' triumph was even harder to handle. "I watched the Tigers win the World Series on a giant screen in the middle of Times Square," he says. "And after we won, I called my father, I called my brother, and I couldn't get through, and then I had to go to class.
"I think I had always thought winning a World Series would make all the years of suffering as a fan worthwhile, yet when I finally got to the dream, it was kind of an empty experience because I wasn't sharing it with my family. That's when it clicked for me how sports connects you with people."
It remains his one surefire connection with his brother Gene. "He's very hard to get a hold of these days, but every big Michigan game or Detroit game, I'll get a text or call," he says. "Otherwise, it takes weeks."
One of the family's favorite stories is about the time Gene called from Beijing for updates on a Michigan football game while he was involved in high-level trade negotiations. "Every fifty minutes, they'd take a ten-minute break, and he'd use it to call and find out what was happening," Rick recalls.
"People in the arts don't understand," he says. "It really is drama. It's not just watching the game, but you get to know the players and their stories. The story of [U-M quarterback] Denard Robinson was very compelling to me as a person. When I got a chance to meet him, one of the things I said to him was 'Thank you for enriching my life. You brought me a lot of joy.'"
And I had been a part of one of those joyous occasions. I was covering the Tigers for Booth Newspapers, in 1979 or '80, and the long-gone Black Sheep Theater in Manchester held an auction to raise money. One of the prizes was attending a game with me, with a locker room visit part of the bargain. I introduced Rick and Larry to Sparky Anderson, Steve Kemp, Alan Trammell, and Rick's favorite player in those days, Champ Summers. "I remember my father said he was 'one big muscle,' " he says.
"The only two things I remember about it are deciding to bid for you in that auction for Rick, and how you kept on complaining about people getting up and down during the game," says Larry Sperling. "It was a very unusual thing for me to do--I don't think I ever bid in an auction before --but it was a great thing for Rick."
Rick still has the column I wrote about the experience in his scrapbook, along with the pictures his dad took that night ("the only Tiger pictures I have"), a drawing Rick made of former Michigan football star Harlan Huckleby that Huckleby autographed, and a legion of other Wolverine-cum-Sperling artifacts.
"To me, sports is like experiencing this catharsis that you get when you see a great play," Rick says. "You may cry when you lose or feel on top of the world when you win, but at the end of the day it doesn't make any difference. It's not life and death."
But it is a tie that binds. "When Michigan loses a big game, calling and talking it over with the family is part of the mourning process," Rick says. "And yet it's still something that brings us together."
[Originally published in March, 2014.]
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