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BASEBALL PLUS

Knuckling Down

Sparks Rejuvenates Career With an Untrustworthy Pitch

September 03, 2000|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is courage in the knuckleball. Trace amounts of spin. A little strategy. Some luck.

Mostly, though, there is courage.

By the guy throwing it. By the guy giving him the ball. By the guy signing the paycheck.

"You ride 'em when they're hot," Detroit General Manager Randy Smith said.

And then you put them in your bullpen, put them in your minor leagues, or just send them away. Nobody really trusts a knuckleball, including, if pressed on the subject, the men who throw it.

Take Steve Sparks. Family man. Thirty-five years old. Former pitcher. Current knuckleballer for the Tigers.

"I realized seven or eight years ago that my stuff wasn't going to get me to the big leagues," Sparks said. "Once I committed myself to realizing the only opportunity I had was with this pitch, because of a lack of talent, that maybe mentally I could overcome some hurdles and not get frustrated and commit to that pitch behind in the count, stuff like that. That's the toughest part, having enough confidence and walking a few guys, knowing you're only one knuckleball--one good knuckleball--away from a double play and getting out of some situations."

He has resisted the urge to just throw a fastball, then a slider, like the pitcher he once was.

"I've done that enough times and failed," Sparks said, laughing, "to know that it doesn't work."

Sometimes he will stand on a big-league mound, facing big-league hitters, and he will throw a pitch whose velocity is 55 mph. Catchers throw it back harder. The new ball arrives from the umpire faster. Baseballs come out of the Wrigley Field bleachers with more on them.

That's all OK with Sparks, who pitched the past two seasons with the Angels and, if the schedule holds, will start against them Thursday in Detroit.

He is 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA for the Tigers in 13 games, eight of them starts. He has won five consecutive starts. He is 5-1 with a 2.40 ERA since the All-Star break and was 5-0 in August, when his 1.69 ERA was lowest among American League pitchers.

Sparks shut out Seattle on Aug. 15, becoming the oldest pitcher to throw his first shutout since Hoyt Wilhelm, 12 days older, threw a no-hitter in 1958. Wilhelm, a Hall of Famer, is considered the most distinguished of knuckleball pitchers.

"Well, to be honest, I'm really trying not to concentrate on that, and trying to do the same things in my bullpen work, prepare well, so that I can duplicate things," Sparks said. "I've always felt I'm more consistent when I know what I'm going to be doing. That's not to say I've learned how to do both, as far as relief and starting, but just being on a routine and doing things the same way all the time, having some success, breeds confidence. When you're not out there having to think of mechanics or if I'm going to start my next game, that's kind of comforting."

Sparks sees how fleeting his pitch can be. Tim Wakefield, Boston's knuckleballer, recently lost his place in the rotation. Tom Candiotti was cut by the Angels in spring training and has retired. Sparks was released by Philadelphia in spring training, and only found a job in Toledo, site of Detroit's triple-A franchise.

He was 5-7 with a 3.77 ERA in 16 appearances for the Mud Hens and was promoted to the Tigers in late June. Since then, the pitcher and the team have been surprisingly good. Once among the league's biggest disappointments, the Tigers are two games over .500, four games back in the wild-card race.

Sparks traces his turnaround to a conversation he had with noted knuckleballer Phil Niekro four years ago.

"When I was in triple A I made a concerted effort," he said. "If I was going to be there, and I didn't know what length of time I was going to be there, I was going to really work on changing speeds as much as possible. I've always thrown mine a little firmer than most guys. I felt like I really needed to work on my slow one, and changing speeds. I remember Phil Niekro told me that he really turned the corner once he started changing speeds. That's where I'm at right now. I feel like I'm changing speeds a lot better."

Half a career later, Sparks got around to following Niekro's advice.

"It was always in the back of my mind," he said. "I had to get comfortable throwing the knuckleball, and I've always been in a situation where I didn't have an opportunity to really work on things. I had to get guys out, especially when I came back off [ligament replacement surgery in 1997] and got to the Angels; I was in a position where every game I felt I was fighting for the job. I felt like I had to do whatever I could to get guys out and go from there. In that respect, going down to triple A this year was kind of nice. I got the work in and it's paid off."

Sparks went from the bullpen to the rotation when Hideo Nomo was injured, and stayed when Dave Mlicki went to the disabled list. Though Mlicki is due off any day, Sparks will maintain his place in the rotation.

"He's earned it," Smith said. "Sparky's job is solidified for the time being. You just want to keep riding it. He certainly has helped us because he's been pitching deep into the game. It gives our bullpen a chance to catch their breath on the days that he pitches, which is a real benefit. Hopefully, he stays hot and we stay hot."

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