Blast from the Past: Steve Sparks and the 2003 ALDS

Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/Tony Ranze

 

A new feature on this site will be a nostalgic look into the past players, games, and moments in A’s history that have since been forgotten in the sands of time or have sadly been overlooked.

In the waning day of August of 2003, the A’s were in the midst of clinching their third division title in four years when they signed 37 year old journeyman knuckleball pitcher Steve Sparks to a contract for the remainder of the season. Sparks had been recently released by the Detroit Tigers, a club who would finish the year as the worst team in American League history painfully enduring a lopsided season of 43 wins against 119 losses. Unable to crack a Tiger rotation which featured a 20 game loser (Mike Maroth), a 19 game loser (Jeremy Bonderman), and a pitcher who finished the year 1 and 12 (Adam Bernero). He found himself relegated to the bullpen and pitching exclusively as the Tigers long reliever while posting a 4.72 ERA and 1.43 WHIP over 89 relief innings. On a team that would average a 5.30 ERA collectively, he could be considered one of the better pitchers based on his mediocre stats alone. Afer his release, he would not be unemployed long, and would be picked up by the A’s four days after his release thereby going from worst to first overnight.

Looking to be nothing more then September filler, Sparks would make his way into nine games with the A’s as they would wrap up the division title in the final week. Filling in as the designated mop up man he would fail to find the feel for his knuckleball in the cool September air. Struggling through 9 outings in relief he was battered for 5.71 ERA despite a decent WHIP of 1.26 attributed to only 3 walks in 17 innings. Quite simply he was throwing a very hittable knuckleball right over the plate with great consistency. With largely unimpressive numbers during his short stint in Oakland,  he would shockingly find himself on the ALDS roster as the last man in the bullpen. With a staff that suffered a major loss due Mark Mulder’s season ending stress factor,  and a bullpen that had been pushed to the limits in the seasons final months the A’s gambled a roster spot on Sparks who would be used in case of an emergency or a blow out.

Little did the A’s realize that Sparks services would be needed due to the most unlikely of circumstances when facing the Boston Red Sox in the 2003 ALDS. Following a stirring Game 1 in which the A’s would win on an extra inning walk off bunt with two outs by Ramon Hernandez, they would jump all over fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in Game 2 riding a 5 run 2nd inning to victory and sending them on a cross country flight with visions of their first playoff series win since 1990 in view. As a young man, who recently had to endure three straight painful first round playoff exits in succession. I tried to temper my hopes and expectations and live in the moment telling myself not to celebrate until the A’s could record that final elusive 27th out. I had been here before and each time the loss felt worse then the year prior, and the winter longer than the last. As I watched the A’s simply throw Game 3 away, due to a fundamental lack of understanding by Eric Byrnes and Miguel Tejada on the most basic principles of running the bases. I couldn’t help but feel that the A’s were doomed to for yet another horrible case of being so close , yet so far from moving on to the ALCS. Little did I know that I was absolutely right.

Now prior to Game 3 which was played on a Saturday with Ted Lilly on the mound, the A’s arrived on a Thursday night flight and had a full day of rest before resuming action. Accounts vary on the exact timeline of the events of Friday, October 3rd but from what we do know is that an altercation occurred between potential Game 4 and 5 pitchers Tim Hudson and Barry Zito and the denizens of the Q nightclub in Boston. According to sources found by A’s beat writer Susan Slusser, Hudson engaged in a fistfight with an overzealous Red Sox fan who had been aggressively heckling him as Zito prepared to play music with the house band. Now with neither pitcher set to pitch the next day and possibly not again in the series, it’s no surprise that they decided to find a little fun in beantown that night. Perhaps it was a lack of judgement to go into a hostile territory as a member of an opposing team, but these were two adult men who are responsible for their own decisions. As the team downplayed the incident, Hudson would exit Game 4, after one shut out inning with what the A’s would call a left oblique strain. His early departure would lead to the aforementioned Slusser breaking the news that the injury may have been due to the fight in the nightclub. With the A’s in a must win situation, and without the services of their best pitcher, manager Ken Macha would turn to Sparks to takeover for Hudson and keep the A’s in the game against one of baseballs best offenses.

In what would be a difficult situation for even the best of pitchers, Sparks would stare down a Boston line up featuring Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, and Nomar Garciaparra. Thrown into the fire in the second inning, he would face the heart of the Sox lineup and set the tone with a scoreless inning. After a leadoff walk in the third, Sparks would get a potential double play ball off the bat of Jason Varitek but unfortunately Mark Ellis would throw the ball away on the relay to first . With a second chance, Boston would capitalize as Johnny Damon would pull a knuckler over the right field wall for the Red Sox first lead of the day. Undeterred by the homer, he would go on to retire Garciaparra, and Todd Walker in order ending the inning. As the A’s threatened to bust the game open against the ancient John Burkett, Sparks would go on to quiet the Red Sox over the next two innings providing scoreless relief. After a three run A’s rally in the top of the 6th, Sparks would be removed from the game in favor of Ricardo Rincon. Resembling the effective pitcher who led the league in complete games, while notching 14 wins in 2001. Sparks allowed just 2 hits and 2 earned runs over 4 innings, essentially holding the Red Sox in  check and providing them with a chance to win the game.

Four innings. That’s all that stood between the A’s clinching the ALDS in Boston and heading back to Oakland to prepare for the ALCS. For a moment it appeared that Steve Sparks would accomplish what “The Big Three” never could. A victory in the clinching game of a playoff series. Granted he didn’t start the game, his 4 competent innings kept the game under control and victory very much in reach for the Athletics. But it wasn’t meant to be after Ricardo Rincon cemented his legacy as the A’s reliever most likely to give up a big hit surrendering a solo homer to Todd Walker. After a scoreless seventh, Ken Macha would turn to closer Keith Foulke for a two inning save, while leading 4-3 in the 8th inning. Keeping up the tradition of postseason failures of fellow A’s closers Dennis Eckersley and Billy Koch, Foulke would allow a two-run, two-out double to David Ortiz and the Red Sox would go on to win the game. The next day, the A’s would go on to lose the series in a game even more heartbreaking than this one.

For a moment, Steve Sparks was the answer to Oakland’s prayers. In a dark period, he emerged out of nowhere to provide consistent reliable innings when they were needed the most. For a moment, he was destined to conquer the almighty Boston Red Sox in the house of horrors known as Fenway Park. but the moment would not last. To even the most knowledgable fan, Steve Sparks is best known for being so moved by a motivational stunt in spring training, that he dislocated his shoulder attempting to rip a phone book in half. Others may confuse him with a former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who shared the same name. For myself, he shall forever live as the man who nearly saved the A’s season in 2003 and never received the credit he deserved.

Devin Pangaro can be found ranting and raving about all things green and gold on twitter @devinpangaro, and please follow my fellow Swingin’ A’s scribes @FS_SwinginAs or like us on Facebook

 

Topics: MLB Playoffs, Oakland A's, Steve Sparks

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