For baseball players not in the postseason, October is dark. Maybe you get surgery if you need it. Otherwise, you lay low, recover from the grind and enjoy the tranquility.
Which made the Yankees October 2004 phone call to Steve Sparks, an active player entering free agency, all the more unusual. How Sparks reacted to that phone call just might have impacted baseball history.
To be clear, the pinstriped call went actually to Barry Meister, the agent for the knuckleballer Sparks, who had just completed his ninth major-league season with a terrible Diamondbacks team. Had the Yankees been inquiring about Sparks’ interest in pitching for them, they would’ve been tampering. Instead, they wanted Sparks to pitch against them, in a manner of speaking.
“They had had some trouble with (Tim) Wakefield,” Sparks, now an Astros radio broadcaster, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “They thought it might be to their advantage to have somebody throw batting practice.
“They asked Barry, ‘Would he be interested in coming to New York or Boston and throwing BP ahead of what games Wakefield may be pitching in? He could name his price. We’ll put him up in a nice hotel.’ Barry said to me, ‘You probably could get $10,000, I would imagine.’”
Yes, this occurred as the Yankees, defending American League champions, prepared to defend their crown against the rival Red Sox, whose veteran knuckleballer Wakefield often gave them fits.
Sparks and Meister never named their price.
“It kind of halted there,” Sparks explained. “I just felt kind of funny about it. I was going to be rooting for Tim in those games anyway, like I always was. If he wasn’t going to be pitching against my team, I was always going to be rooting for him. It didn’t feel right if it wasn’t a team that I was employed by to go out there and do that. It didn’t feel like karma-wise it was a wise move. I didn’t want to spoil the (knuckleballers’) fraternity.”
The Yankees, of course, paid a heavy price for Sparks’ code of honor, even though Wakefield didn’t start any games. The right-hander did give up a pair of runs in an inning of work in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium — in hockey scoring rules, he, not Curt Schilling, would’ve been saddled with the loss — and in the memorable 19-8 Yankees victory in Game 3 at Fenway Park, which gave them a commanding, 3-0 advantage in the series, Wakefield earned his teammates’ respect by eating up 10 outs even as he allowed five runs in garbage time.
Then came Game 5: The Red Sox’s season on the line. A tie game in the 12th inning. Wakefield, throwing to Jason Varitek instead of his usual battery mate Doug Mirabelli, crafted three masterful, shutout innings despite three passed balls by Varitek. The Red Sox prevailed in the bottom of the 14th, and they proceeded to win the two final games back in The Bronx to complete their historic comeback, sending the Yankees into a prolonged funk (for them) in which they didn’t win another playoff series until 2009.
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If Sparks — who pitched only in the minor leagues in 2005 before retiring — had accepted the Yankees’ unconventional offer, could it have made a difference? None other than Sparks thinks so.
In 2013 and 2014, Sparks noted, the Astros asked him to throw knuckleballs to their hitters to prepare them for the Blue Jays’ R.A. Dickey and the Red Sox’s Steven Wright; he felt OK doing this because he was an Astros employee, as opposed to the Yankees’ one-off recruitment.
“Speaking to the players with the Astros, they did feel like they were much better prepared to face Dickey and Steven Wright when I did throw them batting practice,” Sparks said. “They had great games (Dickey allowed five runs in each of his three starts against the Astros during that period). We’re talking very subpar teams with the Astros. So i think it definitely would’ve been an advantage at that point to prepare for somebody.
“And for me, being able to mimic Wakefield, I probably could’ve done it. I threw my knuckleball a little bit harder, but to scale it back and throw it more like him I think it would’ve given (the Yankees) certainly an advantage to stay back on some pitches and maybe recognize some pitches.”
It’s a “What if?” for the ages, emanating from arguably the most painful Yankees loss ever. Oh, and the next couple of years, the Yankees hired their former pitcher Joe Ausanio, who had pitched alongside Wakefield in the Pirates’ minor-league system and had learned a knuckleball, to help them get ready for his former teammate.
(Thanks to my friend Tyler Kepner, who first reported on this unusual Yankees offer in his terrific book “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches.”
— This week’s Pop Quiz question came from Gary Mintz of South Huntington: In a 2019 episode of “Schooled,” a pair of students wear Phillies jerseys with 1990s players’ names on the back. Who are the two players?
— My late friend Phil Pepe wrote a number of “Few and Chosen” books in which he would partner with a beloved player from a storied franchise and select an all-time roster. I just finished the Giants edition, in which the late Bobby Thomson served as Pepe’s co-author and shared his memories of many Giants greats. It’s a breezy read and a must for those who watched the Giants play at the Polo Grounds.
— Your Pop Quiz answer is Darren Daulton and John Kruk. If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]