Like most young pitchers eyeballing a spot on a big-league roster, Steve Sparks was in a hurry. Trouble was, his fastball wasn’t. Burdened with a so-so speedball, he spent several years bouncing around the Milwaukee Brewers’ farm system before the coaching staff in El Peso, Texas, suggested he try throwing the knuckler. It took a little while to master the mechanics of this devilish pitch, but finally the persistent Oklahoman reached the majors in 1995, the year he turned 30.
The knuckleball is unpredictable, to say the least, the mystery meat in a pitcher’s smorgasbord of choices. Unlike sliders, curves, and fastballs, all of which can be thrown with reasonable precision, a knuckleball pitcher really has no idea whether one of his flutterballs is going to plop like a tired pigeon into his catcher’s oversized glove or veer with the violence of a motorist belatedly spotting his exit on the Lodge. Sometimes the ball does nothing, the fizzled pitch floating fat and lazily to the batter with “hit me” written all over it.
Typically gripped with the nails of the index and middle fingers and then pushed toward home plate, a knuckleball’s slow and erratic flight can be affected by the slightest change in wind velocity or the tiniest variation in delivery.
Working as a starter and in relief, Sparks had an unimpressive mark of 27 wins and 33 losses during his two seasons with the Brewers and two more with Anaheim. However, he had a composite 4-1 record with a 3.30 ERA against Detroit, which influenced the Tigers’ decision to offer him a free-agent contract in March 2000. It helped that Phil Garner, his manager in Milwaukee, was now Detroit’s skipper. At first, Sparks split time between Detroit and its AAA affiliate in Toledo. But when injuries ate into the Tigers’ staff at midseason, Garner recalled Sparks to the big club for good.
Sparks turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer. With his right arm tossing whiffle-ball-style pitches that took…their…good…old…sweet…time…dancing up to the plate, he won six of seven starts in August and was named the American League’s pitcher of the month. He finished 7-5 with a 4.07 ERA.
In 2001, Sparks had the finest season of his nine-year big-league career. He rang up a 14-9 record with a 3.65 ERA, pitching 232 innings and topping the circuit with eight complete games.
“The main thing with the knuckleball,” Sparks explained at the time, “is to not touch the seams with your fingers. Mechanics play a larger role with the knuckler than they do with other pitches. There’s less margin for error, because the ball is thrown with no spin. It’s funny, but I can feel a little click when the ball comes out of my hand perfectly. It’s coming out of the hand clean–no roll, no pop. If my hand is a little behind the ball, it will tumble, not knuckle, and I’ll be in trouble.”
Sparks had plenty of trouble in 2002, finishing 8-16 with a 5.52 ERA for a team that lost 106 games. The following year, a season in which the Tigers lost a league-record 119 games, he pitched strictly in relief, dropping all six decisions before being released in late August. He caught on with Oakland, then made brief stops in Arizona, San Diego, and Oakland again before retiring in 2005. He left with a 59-76 lifetime mark, but can claim to have been a member of one of the most exclusive fraternities in sports. Over the long history of baseball, only 150 or so pitchers have specialized in throwing the knuckleball.
Today Sparks lives in Houston and works as an analyst on Astros games. He’s no longer as fanatical as he once was about his fingernails. He had to keep them short so they wouldn’t bend, he explained. “I used to use that enamel gloss–Hard As Nails–to keep my fingernails from chipping.”