There is perhaps only one thing more humbling to a big league hitter than being retired by a pitcher who throws 50 mph, and that's being retired by a pitcher who throws 50 mph, sat out all of last year with an injury, had an 0-8 record in the minors this season before being called up and enjoys whistling show tunes. If you believe everything you read, Angels righthander Steve Sparks is just such a pitcher.
His victims—and he's had plenty lately—can relax. Sparks doesn't really whistle show tunes. He had a little fun with a media-guide questionnaire when he played for the Brewers in 1996 and listed whistling show tunes as one of his hobbies. In fact, fooling with questionnaires is his hobby: He altered Milwaukee teammate Mark Kiefer's bio, and the result, according to the '96 media guide, is that Kiefer once swam from San Francisco to Alcatraz in less than three hours.
Everything else about the 33-year-old Sparks is true, though. He sat out last season after elbow surgery, he went 0-8 at Double A Midland and Triple A Vancouver before Anaheim called him up in mid-June, and his knuckleballs wouldn't get a speeding ticket on the Santa Ana Freeway. "You have to be a little goofy to throw a 50-mile-per-hour pitch to these guys," Sparks says.
Sparks pitched in the Brewers organization for four years without getting past Double A, so in 1991 the team suggested that he learn the knuckler. "I was a little disappointed," he says. "I thought my stuff was good enough. But looking back, it probably wasn't."
Learning the knuckler isn't easy, because few coaches can teach it. So one of the first things Sparks did was call Dodgers flutterballer Tom Candiotti, who had been a teammate of Chris Bando, Sparks's manager at Class A Stockton. "There's a knuckleball fraternity," says Candiotti, who now pitches for the A's. "Everybody is free to call on everyone else." He and Sparks talked a few times on the phone, and Sparks went to a Dodgers-Astros game in Houston to learn more.
Sparks might have stuck with Milwaukee in 1994, but a few weeks before camp broke, the team was visited by a group of motivational speakers. "They were bending iron bars and ripping phone books in half," recalls Sparks. The next day he and a few teammates tried the phone-book trick on the Phoenix Yellow Pages. Sparks had the book almost torn in half when he dislocated his left shoulder. He didn't get out of Triple A that year.
Sparks finally reached the majors in '95, but he suffered another fluke injury during a '97 spring training game. He was about to gun down a runner at the plate when he realized it was too late and tried to hold up his throw. The sudden stopping tore ligaments in his elbow.
He caught on with the Angels as a free agent this season, and when Ken Hill went down with bone spurs in his elbow in June, Sparks got his chance. In four starts through Sunday he had gone 3-0 with a 3.29 ERA, pitching into the seventh in each start. (A between-starts appearance out of the bullpen won't be repeated soon; he gave up five runs in four innings.)
Sparks joined the Angels a year to the day after his surgery. For nine months he went through six hours of physical therapy five or six days a week, which probably explains why he's savoring every moment in the bigs. "I thought that might wear off," says Sparks, who is as affable as he is goofy. "But it hasn't."