|Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services|
February 28, 2001 New York Daily News
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
February 28, 2001
TAMPA, FL:  Around Yankee camp, the gag goes that you hear Jeff Sparks pitching long before you see him throw a baseball.  Sparks, who releases a loud grunt along with the ball, also has an unorthodox, jerky delivery that has fellow pitchers wincing and rubbing their own arms.
"Your arm, even your neck," joked pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
But nobody's chuckling about Sparks' chances to make the team.  The 6-3, 220-pound righthander, a non-roster invitee, is one of several candidates for the bullpen and has impressed both Stottlemyre and Joe Torre - and not just with the fact that he threw 120 pitches 88 straight days during the off-season and has thrown 48 each day in camp.
"He's got a little trickery involved," Torre said.  "His screwball, that's pretty impressive.  He doesn't have to throw it 95 (mph) to get it by someone.  And he appears to be durable."
Sparks, 28, learned his motion and devotion to throwing every day from Mike Marshall, the 1974 NL Cy Young Award winner.  Marshall coached Sparks for a season while Sparks was in college at St. Mary's, TX, and Sparks has trained for the last seven years at Marshall's baseball school in Zephyrhillis, FL, about 30 miles from Tampa.
Marshall stresses throwing regularly, more than most big league clubs like their pitchers to, but Sparks says it's the reason he has a chance in the bigs.  And, Sparks says, the Yankees have shown him nothing but support, though he knows people kid around about his windup, which has a pronounced lunge forward at the finish.
"It's not just, 'Damn, you look goofy.  What kinda motion is that?'  " Sparks said. "It's more,  'What are you trying to accomplish?'"
"That's Jeff's philosophy and I've talked at length with Mike," said Torre, who managed Marshall with the Mets in 1981.  "The way Mike pitched and the years he had, you can't contradict.  We've given Jeff free rein."
"We may tinker, but to make him conventional?  No.  I won't do that," added Stottlemyre.
Before he met Marshall, Sparks emulated Nolan Ryan's high leg kick.  "I'm sure not saying I was him.  I threw 81 (mph)," Sparks said.
Marshall stripped down his windup, stressing that he get his entire body moving toward the plate.  Now Sparks can reach 92 on the radar gun.  He throws three pitches - a fastball, curve and the screwball, which tails away from lefties.  Sparks says his forward lunge means he releases the ball two feet closer to the plate than most, making his fastball appear faster.
He throws every day "to force my body to make an adaptation so I can throw whenever I want to," Sparks said.  "I don't expect to throw every day during the season."
He threw all those pitches this winter "to lock in on the area of the strike zone," he said.
That was a problem last season, when he spent about a month with the Devil Rays.  He walked 18 in 20 1/3 innings.  But he also struck out 24.
Sparks entered a May 17 game against Texas and threw 14 pitches, two for strikes.  He walked all three batters he faced and then was berated by catcher Mike DiFelice in a diatribe that was replayed on highlight shows.  The next day, the Rays demoted him to Triple-A and eventually released him.
Marshall, who is also Sparks' agent, contacted teams during the winter and the Yankees, looking for righties to replace Jeff Nelson and as insurance for Ramiro Mendoza, were the first to call.
Now, the independent league graduate hopes he can help the organization that has offered him an opportunity.
Nothing funny about that.