25 years later, Steve Sparks reflects on dislocating his shoulder while ripping a phone book in half
You won't find Steve Sparks' name mentioned much in Major League record books, but he is permanently etched on one particular ever-changing list. And it's somewhat of a source of pride for the former knuckleballer.
The list? Stupid sports injuries. And every time a new one comes out, "I vacillate between [No.] 4 and 7, proudly," Sparks said.
It's been 25 years -- exactly, to the day -- that Sparks dislocated his shoulder trying to tear a phone book in half. The anniversary, first examined in a story that appeared in The Athletic, was Thursday, and while it's not one of those "feels like just yesterday" memories for Sparks, he does remember every single detail.
Spring Training. Brewers. 1994. One day earlier, the team had been treated to one of those team building sessions -- the brainchild of general manager Sal Bando and manager Phil Garner -- designed to bring players closer together by watching grown men partake in odd, improbable behavior.
Enter Radical Reality, a motivational group that did things like blow up hot water bottles and bend bars with their teeth.
"And they tore these phone books..." Sparks recalled.
The next day, Sparks decided to give it a try. He started off by cheating, tearing eight pages at a time until he had built up enough to make the rest of the phone book easier to rip in one motion. Or so he thought.
"Everyone started chanting my name," Sparks said. "And I dislocated my left shoulder."
It was his non-throwing shoulder -- which he's dislocated 15 times in his life -- and he never went on the disabled list with the injury. But the antics did get him shipped out to the Minor Leagues, and he had to wait another year-and-a-half to get his first big league callup.
"When Garner and Sal Bando sent me out, they had spit flying at me," Sparks said. "They wouldn't let me get a word in edge- wise. It didn't fly."
Sparks, now the Astros' radio analyst, laughs at the memory, but at the time, it was, he said, "devastating." He had spent eight years in the Minor Leagues. He didn't get his first big league callup until 30. That 1994 Spring Training was, at the time, his best shot to make the roster.
"It was more devastating for my wife, to be honest," he said. "I had a good chance to make the team that year. We spent so many years in the Minor Leagues and she was so supportive -- she worked two jobs so we could eat. To spill that news to her, I felt like a jerk."
This story has a happy ending. Sparks ended up pitching eight years in the big leagues. He and his wife, Michelle, are still happily married. And his popularity keeps growing among the Astros fanbase as a funny, insightful analyst on the radio.
The Great Phone Book Caper is now more of a footnote than a defining moment.
"I feel like I'm wiser now," he said.