Tim Tebow, Steve Sparks, and the difficulty of being different

Steve Sparks Tim Tebow

Steve Sparks and Tim Tebow doing what made them both successful and odd: throwing a knuckleball and running the football.

People want things to make sense. When someone different comes along that challenges their view of the world, it’s unsettling.

Tim Tebow is unsettling. He’s not a pocket passer. He doesn’t have textbook passing skills, and he plays the game more like a linebacker than a quarterback. He doesn’t look right when he plays the position.

Similarly, knuckleballers are the oddballs in their sport, defying the traditional view of what it means to be a big league pitcher. Succesful pitchers are supposed to throw the ball hard, to toss it past the batter. It’s comforting to know that the pitcher has a simple job – overmatch the man in the batter’s box with his stuff. Just as on the gridiron, where fans (and coaches and executives and pundits) are accustomed to watching a passing quarterback pick apart opposing defenses, on the diamond the pitcher is supposed to buzz the ball past the hitter, or induce him to make an out with his good stuff.

For some reason, it’s unsettling to see an athlete use guile to defeat his opponents, to do something that flies in the face of convention. Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to run 25 times a game. NFL teams aren’t supposed to run the option offense. Pitchers aren’t supposed to try to trick the batter with a dipping, diving pitch that flutters like a moth the 60 feet and six inches to the dish.

According to author Rob Neyer, who penned the excellent book The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, there have been roughly 80 pitchers in the history of the game who have relied heavily on the knuckleball for their livelihood. If it wasn’t for the “trick” pitch, those men would have never forged a career in the big leagues.

But every one of those pitchers, without exception, had to overcome doubters to get their shot. At every level of competition, the knuckleball pitcher had to prove his value. He also had to find an ally – someone in the high ranks of the team – to give him a chance.

If it sounds a lot like what Tebow is going through in his second season with the Denver Broncos, that’s because the circumstances and prejudices are the same. NFL executives have years of experience in the game, evaluating what works and what doesn’t, who’s good enough and who isn’t. Countless hours of watching practices and workouts, games, and tape. Keenly identifying the assets that are needed to win in their game.

When someone comes along who defies those parameters, who breaks the mold. When someone, but his very success, threatens the commonly accepted view of their landscape, it freaks them out. Tebow is a freak, just like Steve Sparks was a freak.

Sparks was selected in the 5th round of the amateur draft in 1987 by the Milwaukee Brewers. He was a straight pitcher at that time, utilizing a fastball and curveball like most other hurlers. But never had the stuff to get to the major leagues. In 1991, after hurting his right arm, he started to tinker with the knuckleball. Just over two years later he had mastered the pitch to the point where he was rapidly moving up the ladder in the organization. He suffered a bizarre injury in 1994 when he dislocated his non-throwing shoulder after he attempted to tear a phone book in half. A year later, he finally made the big leagues, now a full-fledged buckleballer. Most of his pitches barely registered 60 MPH on the radar gun, but he could locate his knuckler so well that he baffled enemy batters. He rarely walked batters, making it even harder to keep him off the major league roster.

But like all knucklers, Sparks had to continually prove himself. Wherever he went – Milwaukee, Anaheim, Detroit, Oakland, and finally Arizona – the righty was one bad outing away from being labeled a trick pitcher lucky to be in the majors.

“The knuckleball isn’t easy to understand,” Sparks said in a recent interview. “I had to be my own pitching coach most of the time,  [my] teammates and coaches and managers were sort of confused by me.”

That’s something every knuckleballer has had to deal with, just as Tebow tries to convince the powers-that-be that he can play his position effectively. Doing something unusual and different is tough in sports. The wizadry that is the knuckleball can ebb and flow, coming and going just as fast.

But Sparks mastered the pitch very well for several seasons. His best seasons came in a  Tigers uniform. In 2001 he won 14 games for a very bad Detroit club, and that season his rubber arm tossed eight complete games, the most in the American League. In all, Sparks pitched 25 games that season where he threw at least 110 pitches. He had a 3.65 ERA that year, the lowest of his career.

In four seasons with the Tigers, Sparks won 29 games, frequently coming out of the bullpen as well. He was never going to take the team to the World Series, but he was a decent big league pitcher who chewed up innings.

Tebow has his sights set much higher than just being a decent player. His goal is to lead the Broncos to the NFL promise land – the Super Bowl. If he does it with his legs and brains and muscle and the trickery of the option offense, you have to think Steve Sparks will appreciate it.