Thursday, October 18, 2012
- by B.B. Branton
How many Knothole Gang alums can say they have enticed New York Yankee greats Derek Jeter to ground out and A-Rod to pop out in the same game and go 2-1 in the series?
Okay, for Signal Mountain native Tommy Sparks it was in the New York Yankees Fantasy Camp this past January and not this week as a member of the Detroit Tigers staff in the American League Championship Series.
Tonight, Sparks can tell that story and more at The Engel Foundation Knothole Gang Reunion at Engel Stadium – 6 p.
m. and free to the public – as a couple of hundred other former Knothole Gang players will gather to see old friends and re-live their playing days of long ago on Chattanooga area sandlots.
From his first baseball uniform for Signal Mountain Knothole League in the late 1950s at the age of 10 – “green t-shirt and blue jeans” – to playing for McCallie School, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and three years in the Atlanta Braves minor league system, the crafty left-hander’s career has touched seven decades.
“We were in the Knothole Gang City Championship three straight years (1959-61), but could never beat Anna B. Lacy,” Sparks stated.
That was one of the few times his opponents has had the edge on Sparks as he helped guide McCallie to the 1966 Mid South Conference championship and was instrumental in the UTC Mocs playing in the 1971 NCAA tournament.
While most of his youth teammates hung up the glove and spikes long ago, Sparks at 63, continues to toe the rubber as the oldest player in the National Adult Baseball Association (NABA) in South Carolina.
“No question I am the Satchel Paige of the NABA as I play first base and pitch,” the Greater Chattanooga Sports hall of famer said with a laugh.
Yankee Fantasy Camp
Spending a week at the 2012 New York Yankees Fantasy Camp in Tampa, Fla. in January, Sparks – a.k.a. ”Lefty” – was 2-1 with a pair of saves, plus five strikeouts and two walks and a solid 2.82 ERA while wearing Yankee hall of famer Whitey Ford’s No.16.
Dismissing the myth that pitchers cannot hit, the Knothole Gang alum batted a hefty .571 (16-26) with four doubles, a three-bagger, scored nine runs and drove in 11 and made the Camp All-Star team.
“Each fantasy team played two games a day and we (The Sultans) finished in the top two and played a five-inning game against the Yankees on the final day,” said Sparks who works for the South Carolina board of education in Charlotte.
“It was a great experience as we had players from all over the country ranging in age from mid-twenties to me, the oldest.”
Sparks vs. Derek Jeter: “No way this 62-year-old arm (Sparks turned 63 in May) was going to try and sneak a fast ball by Jeter so I used exclusively off speed stuff - curve balls and change ups. He grounded out to shortstop the first time, but sent a heat-seeking missile up the middle right past my ear for a single in the fourth.
Sparks vs. A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez): “I got him to pop out to the infield the first time and then he hit a long home run in the fifth.”
High School: Sparks was a four-year letter winner at McCallie, was 20-5 for a career and a member of the 1966 Mid South championship team.
Sparks vs. Freddie Dukes: In 1966, McCallie and Chattanooga Central (when the Purple Pounders were located on Dodds Ave.), played a home-and-home series.
Central’s Kenny Choate defeated Jerry Gross at Central and Sparks gained the win against Freddie Dukes a couple of hundred feet away on the McCallie diamond.
I wish Central had been on our schedule each season as that could have been a great rivalry,” stated Sparks who earned his master’s degree from Winthrop University (S.C.) and holds a doctoral degree from the University of South Carolina in educational leadership.
College: Sparks was 19-5 in four years with the Mocs (1968-71) and won the home opener four straight years at Engel Stadium – ironically on the same mound where Satchel Paige once played as a member of the Chattanooga Black Lookout in the 1930s.
During “The Sparks Era”, the Mocs posted wins against such top programs as Tennessee, Georgia, Georgia Tech and Ole Miss and played in the 1971 NCAA tournament.
For a career, Sparks set 10 school records, including wins (season - 9 career - 19), strikeouts (season –102 in 97 innings; career – 247) and shutouts (season – 4; career – 7)
Setting aside all the honors, records and stats, tonight at Engel Stadium is about old friendships renewed and many great stories told.
Yet, "Lefty" from Signal Mountain no doubt has his old ball glove, cleats and that green t-shirt from his youth in his car and will be ready to take the mound in case someone wants to choose sides and play a couple of innings.
“I have great memories of playing Knothole Gang baseball and am looking forward to seeing a lot of old friends tonight at the reunion,” Sparks stated.
contact B.B. Branton at email@example.com