By Bill Francis
The brotherhood of big league knuckleball pitchers is relatively small, but one of its former practitioners could be seen floating through the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Monday.
Steve Sparks made a name for himself tossing a baseball with no spin to bewildered hitters during a nine-year big league career spent with the Milwaukee Brewers (1995-96), Anaheim Angels (1998-99), Detroit Tigers (2000-03), Oakland A’s (2003) and Arizona Diamondbacks (2004). The right-hander made the trip from his home outside Houston in Sugar Land, Texas, with his 14-year-old son Blake.
“Blake and I have talked about coming to the Hall of Fame for four or five years now,” Spark said. “He’s going into high school next year and just thought with his schedule this might be our last chance for awhile, so we decided to make the trip this year.
“His sisters are in camp for the month of July so this is a chance for him and me to get out and do something by ourselves.”
This was Sparks’ first trip to the Hall of Fame.
“I’d never been here before, so I was very anxious. It’s a dream come true just seeing all the artifacts. I’ve always been enthralled by the game’s history,” Sparks said. “I grew up reading books about the history of the game, and I work with Fox Sports in Houston doing the pre- and post-game shows for the Houston Astros, so I’ve stayed in it and I’ve always enjoyed it. So for Blake and me to enjoy this together has been a lot of fun.”
Sparks, who turned 45 on July 2, ended his major league with a 59-76 record, highlighted by a 14-9 mark with the 2001 Tigers, and a 4.88 ERA.
“I was in my 40s and I just felt like I was ready to be home with my family,” Sparks said. “And the hitters let me know it was time to get out of the game, too.”
While the Hall of Fame boasts two knuckleball pitchers – Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro – the game has seen at least 250, but fewer than 90 who threw it regularly. This year, only Boston’s Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey of the Mets and Los Angeles Dodger Charlie Haeger are regulars at it.
Sparks was your regular fastball, curveball, slider, changeup pitcher before the Brewers approached him about making a radical change.
“I played professionally for 19 years but my first five or six years I was a conventional pitcher,” Sparks said. “I was kind of stalling out at the Double-A level, and the Milwaukee Brewers, the team I was with in the minor leagues at that point, felt like I might be a good candidate for the knuckleball because being shorter in stature helps (he’s 6-feet tall) and also I had pretty clean mechanics.
“They gave me a three-year plan and I started back over in Single-A, and by the end of that three years I was knocking on the door.”
According to Sparks, it was a lot of trial and error in the beginning, but eventually a coach hooked him up with big league knuckleballer Tom Candiotti.
“I had about five pages worth of questions to ask him over the telephone,” Sparks said. “And then actually got a chance to meet him at the Houston Astrodome at the tail end of one of his seasons with the Dodgers and that was very beneficial. It’s a very close fraternity of knuckleball pitchers, and Candiotti, for myself, was probably the most helpful. He was kind of a hybrid knuckleball pitcher, where he threw a lot of curves and sliders and fastballs, and that’s what I did a lot.
“The biggest luxury for me at the major league level was the bounce back factor. You didn’t have to rely on velocity three or four days after you pitched. You could go out there, and as long as you had good feel and took the spin off the ball you had a chance to be successful.”
And while Sparks played with and against a number of Hall of Famers over the years, he grew up in Tulsa, Okla., with fellow pitcher Tom Seaver as his favorite player.
“In 1969 I was five years old and my father taught me how to read the box scores,” Sparks said. “That was the year the Mets had their miracle season, Tom Seaver was the best player on that team at that time, and that’s who I stuck with.”
Bill Francis is a library associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.