Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services

April 25, 2000 St. Petersburg Times
(Jeff Sparks)

St. Petersburg Times
A big-league ride as straight as a screwball
By Bruce Lowitt

April 25, 2000
Jeff Spark's journey from Texas to Tampa Bay had more curves that a game full of screwballs, winding through CanWest Global Park, home of the Winnepeg Goldeyes, and a trailer in Zephyrhills, home of Mike Marshall.

"Jeff works his tail off, a marvelous student.  Jeff will always take the extra step to learn, take the initiative to find out how good he can be," said Marshall, a 14-year major league pitcher turned sports guru.  He earned a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Michigan State as well as a National League Cy Young Award, and runs Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services.

On a Devil Rays team searching for consistent, reliable pitching, Sparks, 28, has shown the potential to be a reliever capable of diffusing any enemy threat.  Not bad for someone who showed Cincinnati virtually nothing (besides a strikeout pitch) in parts of three seasons in the low minors, was cut loose by the Reds and seemingly had nowhere to turn and no one to turn to.

"Mike Marshall took me in when nobody else would," Sparks said after his appearance Sunday, two innings of nearly unhittable screwballs, three-strikeout relief in the Rays 1-0 victory over Anaheim.  "He is one of my best friends in the world.  He showed me the way."

The way began in Marshall's 24-foot travel trailer, and it came in tiny increments.

"Learning from Mike is subtle," Sparks said, "not a case of one day saying, "oh my God!" and you're this incredible pitcher.  It's a thumb movement, an inch in an arm movement, having your foot turned a quarter of an inch.  It's thinking all the time, getting inside the hitter's head, knowing what he's wanting to do."

A different pitcher

Sparks first met Marshall as a junior at West Texas A&M.  When Marshall returned to Florida the following year, he helped Sparks transfer to St. Mary's University, where a Marshall disciple was the pitching coach.

After being drafted by the Reds and being sent to rookie league Princeton, Sparks hopped on a bus to Tampa at the end of the '95 season and showed up at Marshall's doorstep, lived in Marshall's trailer and trained that winter.  Sparks spent parts of the next two seasons in Cincinnati's minor-league system at Charleston, W.Va., and Burlington, Iowa, his earned-run average ballooning before the Reds released him.  "I wasn't as good a pitcher as I am now," he said.  "I guess the Reds just weren't willing to take the time to let me come into my own."

Rays manager Larry Rothchild concurred.  "This is a different pitcher.  He's changed everything," Rothchild said.

"He's picked up the screwball, he's changed his delivery.  You might as well throw (his earlier statistics) out because this is a different guy.  You can change his name if you want.  It's not the same guy."

The day after the Reds cut him loose, Sparks was back on Marshall's doorstep.  "I knew I had good stuff," he said.  "I had dreams of pitching in the big leagues and I wasn't going to give up on them."

Marshall persuaded him to sign with Winnipeg, an independent team.

'You do it or you're gone.'

The Northern League is often the last refuge of players clinging to a career.  It was more than that to Sparks, then 25.  "It was a blast up there, the right league for me at the right time.  Baseball wasn't real high on my list of things to do after the Reds released me.  It had become more like a business to me.  Getting back up there, I found a love for the game again."

He also found the love of his life in Winnipeg, a nurse, Alison Adduno.  They were married four months ago.

Northern League teams are different from Class-A teams belonging to big-league franchises.  "The political stuff's not there," Sparks said.  "The higher draft picks aren't there.  In the lower minor league of a major-league organization, guys like me are going to get released because there's other guys that have more money invested in, or they feel have more promise.  In the Northern League, everybody's equal.  You do it or you're gone; that's all there is to it.  Nobody means more than anybody else."

When he wasn't playing for the Goldeyes for the last few weeks of '97 and all of '98, Sparks was back in Marshall's trailer, learning the screwball and tweaking his game.  "I teach everybody the screwball," Marshall said of the pitch that breaks away from left-handed batters.  "It's the best pitch there is."

Sparks signed as a free agent with the Pirates and was assigned to Triple-A Nashville before being traded to Tampa Bay.

He appeared in 18 games at Durham before being called up to the big leagues.

Realistically, he pitched his way off the Rays roster in the spring, "I think he was probably a little hyper," Rothchild said.  "His arm slot wasn't exactly right, way too far over the top.  He'd just got in that (mind-set) where he was going to blow everybody away.  Now, he's pitching.   You can see it as soon as he makes a bad pitch, he regroups and makes a good one.  That's what pitching is."

Sparks started the season at Durham.  "I wasn't disappointed," he said, "I went down, worked my butt off and I'm back here where I need to be - and it didn't take much time."

Rothchild said he knew the Rays would need him, but he would have preferred to give him more time at Durham.  "But, he's come up and is throwing the ball extremely well.  He throws pitches the batters don't see very often - the screwball, the hard sinker.  That's a pretty good aggressive way of pitching."


     From this article, you can see that his, on April 24, 2000, field manager, Larry Rothchild, thought very highly of Jeff Sparks.  If we examine his earned run averages for his first seven games before this article, then we can see why.  Jeff had a 1.74 ERA.

| # | Game Date  |  ERA  |
|01.| 04-08-2000 | 00.00 |
|02.| 04-11-2000 | 02.70 |
|03.| 04-12-2000 | 04.15 |
|04.| 04-14-2000 | 03.00 |
|05.| 04-15-2000 | 02.57 |
|06.| 04-20-2000 | 02.16 |
|07.| 04-23-2000 | 01.74 |
     But, what happened thereafter?  From again examining his ERA, we see that, over the next five games, Jeff lowered his ERA to 1.53.  Clearly, Jeff continued to pitch well.

| # | Game Date  |  ERA  |
|08.| 04-26-2000 | 01.59 |
|09.| 04-28-2000 | 01.46 |
|10.| 04-29-2000 | 01.88 |
|11.| 05-03-2000 | 01.65 |
|12.| 05-05-2000 | 01.53 |
     Now, let's examine those horrible last three games that you discussed.  In his thirteenth game, he gave up a three run home run to Carl Everett in Boston.  Jeff made a pitch selection and pitch location mistake and a quality major league home run hitter made him pay.

| # | Game Date  |  ERA  |
|13.| 05-07-2000 | 02.84 |
     I don't know about you, but I did worse.  At one point during my 1971 season, I gave up four home runs in two games to Willie Stargell's Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburg and another home run in my next appearance in Atlanta.  I guess that Gene Mauch should have sent me back to Single-A ball.

     But, let's see what Jeff did in his horrible fourteenth game.

| # | Game Date  |  ERA  |
|14.| 05-13-2000 | 02.66 |
     Let's see.  He walked four batters, but he struck out three batters and despite the manager removing him with two base runners and one out, he lowered his ERA from 2.84 to 2.66.  It appears that he did not give up a run.  That does not seem too horrible.  Now, let's look at the dreaded game that forced the Devil Rays to remove him from their major league roster.

| # | Game Date  |  ERA  |
|15.| 05-17-2000 | 03.54 |
     He walked three batters and a relief pitcher gave up two of his runs.  I know that nobody wants to hear excuses and Jeff does not make any, but I know what the problem was.  Mike Defelice.  Defelice is a bad catcher.  In a game against Baltimore, I watched him completely miss two of Jeff's fastballs.  The announcers thought that Jeff had crossed him, but he had not.  Defelice is just a bad catcher.

     To make up for his lack of catching skills, Defelice became a dictator.  That is, he will not let pitchers change pitches.  For two batters, Jeff went along with what Defelice called.  But, after two walks, Jeff shook off the fastball.  Defelice immediately ran to the mound and told Jeff that he had to throw the fastball.  After three more fastballs, Jeff threw a sinker on a fastball call.

     Defelice again ran to the mound and this time challenged Jeff to a fight.  Jeff had his say.  Then, Rothchild came to the mound and removed Jeff.  You see, statistics do not tell the whole story.

     Jeff had a bad game.  With batters squaring to bunt, Jeff could not get his fastball in the strike zone.  He messed up.  However, back then, Jeff could throw his sinker for strikes better than fastballs, but Defelice would not let him throw his sinker.

     But, after several good to very good games, they get rid of him because of bad control at an away game in Texas.  Why?

     While I have no definitive knowledge, I did have an earlier involvement with the Devil Rays that could have contributed to their action against Jeff.

     After Jeff pitched for Winnipeg at the end of his 1997, I telephoned the Tampa Bay Devil Rays General Manager, Chuck LaMar, and asked him if he would come to Zephyrhills, so I could show him my baseball pitchers training program that eliminates pitching injuries.

     To my surprise and delight, Mr. LaMar agreed.  At that time, I trained baseball pitchers one at a time at my personal baseball pitching training area at my house.  I did not move into my present Pitching Research/Training Center for another two years.

     When Mr. LaMar arrived with the Devil Rays financial manager, Mr. LaMar stood close to Jeff while he perform my wrist weight exercises, iron ball throws and baseball pitches.  I was not able to explain what Jeff was doing.  Mr. LaMar would ask Jeff, "Doesn't that hurt?"  To which, Jeff would answer, "No."

     After Jeff finished pitching, without saying anything to me, Mr. LaMar got into his car and left.  Clearly, my baseball training program did not impress him.

     While I was disappointed, I appreciated that Mr. LaMar had taken the trouble to come to my place and watch Jeff train.

     I do not believe that Mr. LaMar knew who Jeff was when the Devil Rays traded for him or when he pitched for them.  That is, until this April 25, 2000 article, I do not think he connected Jeff and me.

     Then, for whatever reason, I believe that Mr. LaMar decided to get rid of Jeff.  Because of the kind statements that Larry Rothchild said about Jeff, I do not believe that it was his idea.

     But, on the face of it, some could say that the Devil Rays sent Jeff to Triple-A to get work on his control.  However, I believe that they wanted to completely destroy Jeff.

     For young major league baseball pitchers to return to the minor leagues is traumatic, especially when your field manager has said that you have earned your spot in the bull pen.  But, for newlyweds with an apartment in Tampa to be separated and Jeff having done so well, it was terrible.

     When I said that the Devil Rays released Jeff, I was trying to be kind to the Devil Rays.  In truth, they were much more cruel.  Their pitching coaches hounded Jeff to change to the 'traditional' pitching motion.  They let him sit in the bull pen for days without even warming up.  They wanted to psychologically destroy Jeff.

     From April 08 to May 17, less than six weeks, Jeff had pitched over twenty innings of major league baseball.  In his six weeks in Triple-A, they let Jeff pitch nine innings.  Then, they sent Jeff to Single-A baseball, practically across the street from where the Devil Rays play, and they continued to not let Jeff pitch.  After a few weeks, they made Jeff drive from Tampa to Orlando to play the remaining weeks in Double-A, where they continued to not let Jeff pitch.

Happy Pitching Everybody

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