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Friday, June 22
Updated: June 23, 10:44 AM ET
Just a Sparks-ling effort in Detroit

It putters along at the approximate speed of Refrigerator Perry.

It has more moves than Britney Spears.

It's more uncontrollable than Dennis Rodman.

What is it?

Steve Sparks
It took Steve Sparks all of 85 pitches -- mostly knuckleballs -- to dispatch of the Yankees on Tuesday night.

Correct answer: It's Week in Review's favorite pitch ever -- the knuckleball.

And we bring this up because Tuesday may have been the greatest day in knuckleballing since the invention of knuckles.

  • In Tampa Bay, Tim Wakefield took a no-hitter into the ninth inning, in quest of just the third no-hitter by a flutterballer in the last half-century.

  • Meanwhile in Detroit, Steve Sparks knuckled his way through an 85-pitch complete game -- against those princes of patience, the Yankees.

    What a day of sheer knucklemania. Clearly, there must have been some kind of special knuckleball karma in the air, right?

    "You know, I would have said that," Sparks told Week in Review. "Except Wake was pitching indoors. There's not as much air there."

    All right. So maybe President Bush -- in between crossword puzzles, meeting with special guest tee-ball dignitaries and catching up on all those Baseball Tonight tapes he missed while touring Europe -- declared Tuesday "National Knuckleball Day" here in our great land.

    "I didn't notice that," Sparks said. "But I'll try to remember that date next year, so I can make sure I pitch."

    Obviously, it was Wakefield's no-hit bid that got most of the headlines, busted up regularly scheduled ESPN programming and had the knuckleball junkies out there buzzing. But to us purists, Sparks' 85-pitch complete game against the Yankees may have been even more amazing.

    "Most nights," Sparks said, "it seems like they take 85 pitches."

    Ah, but once in a while, stuff happens. Sparks just had one of those nights where the knuckler kept gyrating across that big white object in the middle of the batter's box. Incredibly, he ran no three-ball counts to the first 20 hitters he faced.

    Meanwhile, his knuckler was so alive, quipped catcher Brandon Inge, "it was like trying to catch a fly with chopsticks."

    So the Yankees started hacking early and often. And history was made.

    Oh, it may not have been the kind of history that will make for any very special evenings over at ESPN Classic. But in at least two categories we've chronicled, this was practically as unprecedented as Tiger missing the cut at Augusta.

    In the last 10 years, our research shows, there have been only two pitchers who threw fewer pitches in a complete game against the Yankees: Mike Grace of the Phillies, on Sept. 2, 1987, and Chris Bosio of the Brewers, on Sept. 17, 1991. So nobody had ever done anything like this against the Three-Peaters.

    But in even bigger news, this may have been the fewest pitches thrown by a knuckleball king in a complete game in the annals of modern knuckling.

    Unfortunately, nobody kept pitch counts on Hoyt Wilhelm or Willie "The Knuck" Ramsdell (especially their managers). So we'll never know. But we do know the previous low, since 1988, for pitches in a complete game by a knuckling kind of guy was 90 -- by the great Charlie Hough, in an eight-inning CG on April 20, 1988. So 85 in nine innings blows away the field.

    "I'm pretty sure," Sparks said, "that a couple of times, I've thrown 85 pitches in like an inning and a third. ... So this was definitely a rarity."

    Heck, "rarity" doesn't even begin to describe it. Suppose we held a poll in which people could vote on how many pitches a knuckleballer was liable to throw in a complete game. We'd bet right now there would be about three million more votes for 185 pitches than there would be for 85.

    Matter of fact, since 1990, the record for most pitches in a game was, not surprisingly, set by a knuckleballer. That would be Wakefield, who spun 172 of them as a Pirate on April 27, 1993, in a bizarre 10-walk, one-strikeout win over the Braves.

    (Knuckle-lore interlude No. 1: Wakefield had walked nine hitters in each of his previous two wins. So after this one, then-Pirates coach Rich Donnelly reported: "He said before the game, 'No way I'm walking nine again.' ... And he didn't.")

    And the reason knuckleballers throw so many pitches is because they're gluttons. They would never leave a game if the games didn't end after nine innings. Or curfew didn't intervene. Or their managers didn't get tired of watching the catcher chase his 11th passed ball to the screen.

    (Knuckle-lore interlude No. 2: Bob Uecker once said the best thing about catching a knuckleballer was: "I met a lot of important people. They all sit behind home plate.")

    "Certain nights, when my mechanics are good, I feel like I can throw 200," Sparks said, completely seriously. "However long you and your son could play catch in the back yard, that's how long I could go. "I know one game in winter ball in the Dominican, I was close to 180. I pitched 10 innings. I remember walking back to the dugout. And my wife was giving me the sign across the neck, like: 'That's enough! Let's not get hurt in winter ball.'

    "Thank God the guy who was charting the pitches that day was an American. So he told me how many pitches I'd thrown. If it was one of the locals, he might have said, 'Let's see. You've thrown 92.' "

    One thing we couldn't help wonder as we watched Wakefield's no-hit bid was this: How many no-hitters have there ever been in which the hero of the evening never got out of the 70s on the radar gun?

    Maybe none. Niekro threw 50 percent non-knucklers in his no-hitter. And when Wilhelm threw his, they weren't even pointing radar guns at Chevrolets yet. So who knows? But then, radar guns are a source of great amusement to knuckleballers, anyway.

    Sparks, for instance, pitches on the same Tigers team as Matt Anderson -- a man who threw 15 pitches at 100 or higher in one inning last weekend. Asked how he'd compare his own radar-gun readings to Anderson's, Sparks merely chuckled.

    "I don't think I could throw as hard as Matt does," he said, "with two crow hops and two pitches."

    When Anderson comes in to relieve Sparks, the hitters are pretty sure he's throwing 1,000 miles an hour. On the other hand, Sparks also has been brought in to relieve Anderson. And you can imagine how that feels.

    "There are certain days where I try to throw so slow," Sparks said, "that I have time to run and back up the plate."

    But backing up the plate wasn't much of a problem for either Sparks or Wakefield on Tuesday. They were as pristine as two knuckleballers ever get.

    They also raised their combined records to a dazzling 10-3 (with four more Sparks wins blown by the Tigers' bullpen). So being the knuckleball fans we are, and given how good these guys have been, we ask: Shouldn't there be a special knuckleball slot on the All-Star team?

    "What do you mean -- like the honorary captains?" Sparks wondered. "Or the honorary mascots?"

    No, sir. We want to raise the profile of knuckleballers everywhere. Next winter, instead of an ESPN Home Run Derby, we want a a knuckle-off, featuring Wakefield, Sparks, Dennis Springer, new Reds knuckle-reliever Jared Fernandez and any Niekro family members who happen to be in town.

    And down the road, we want Tom Candiotti and Charlie Hough to host "Knuckleball Tonight," which could be a prelude to the new ESPN-KNEWS network, featuring knuckleball videos around the clock.

    And to properly promote future knuckling, we heartily endorse a suggestion made by our buddy, Danny Knobler, who covers the Tigers for Booth Newspapers: If the Red Sox-Tigers series in the season's final weekend doesn't mean anything, we want Wakefield and Sparks to start all three games.

    "Oh, we could do it," Sparks said. "It would be great publicity. The only bad thing is, if we did well, the GMs will start thinking they can save a lot of money."

    Yeah, but on the other hand, the one-man rotation could solve all kinds of problems for our sport. Except all the catchers might retire.

    Farewell of the week
    Let's see now. The last season Cal Ripken wasn't playing in the major leagues (1980), Rusty Staub, Bert Campaneris, Willie Horton, Woody Fryman, Tim McCarver, Vic Davalillo, Willie McCovey and Carl Yastrzemski were all still drawing meal money.

    Jimmy Carter was president.

    J.R. Ewing hadn't gotten shot yet.

    Christina Aguilera hadn't gotten born yet.

    And that newfangled ESPN was in approximately 897 homes, most of them in a newly wired development in Plainville, Conn.

    Yikes, that was a long time ago.

    And now Cal is about to depart on us, trailing a U-Haul stuffed with all his records, his streak memorabilia and his photo albums of all his different batting stances.

    Sad, isn't it?

    Darned right it's sad. But here at Week in Review, it's not our job to sadden you. It's our job to cheer you up. So once again, we're bringing in our favorite Baltimore maniacs, David Hill and Jim Sundra, of the tremendous Baltimore baseball magazine, Outside Pitch, to remind you of ...

    The top 10 best things about Cal Ripken announcing his retirement early
    10. Orioles fans will be weeping at something other than watching Jose Mercedes pitch.
    9. One last memorable night with Youppi!
    8. 15 percent off at all Denny's through September.
    7. The Twins are letting you pick out what toaster oven they're presenting you.
    6. Gives the Yankee fans the opportunity to gather up their finest projectiles to heave at you.
    5. You get the chance to go around the league and bask in the loving fan appreciation that -- oh hell, you can steal all the hotel towels you can fit in your bag.
    4. Supreme Court said you can use a cart to get from third base to the dugout.
    3. This year, the Orioles have all that Albert Belle insurance money to spring for a really nice gift.
    2. As a 20/20 man, you have the right to refuse all bunt signs.
    And 1. in appreciation for your years of devotion to the game, your Orioles teammates will rally around you, play over their heads and get to one final World Series. ... Yeah sure, they'll just get you some crummy golf bag.

    Inter-lopers of the week
    Interleague play may have its down side. And by that, we mean: those 38,000 empty seats that watched the Expos and Blue Jays in Montreal. And, possibly, that special tingly feeling we all get whenever the Pirates and Tigers square off.

    But interleague play also has a unique and magical capacity to generate one of our favorite things in the whole darned baseball world:


    There is no trivia quite like interleague trivia, friends. For example, the Dodgers just played what would have been the longest 1-0 game in National League history. Except for one thing: They made the mistake of playing it against the Angels.

    So is it a National League record, an American League record, an interleague record or a record only for games pitched by Giovanna Carrara? The official ruling: It was recorded as the longest 1-0 game ever in a National League park. Phew.

    But the oddities and the trivialities have gotten way more involved than that. So let's take a look at the two most recent bizarre interleague ironies:

    The Player of the week

    The National League named Pirates right-hander Todd Ritchie as its player of the week last week. Ordinarily, nobody would have any problem with that. The guy did, after all, go 2-0 in two starts, with a 0.53 ERA.

    But even his teammates were raising an eye over this particular award.

    "I think we need to put a little asterisk up there," Terry Mulholland told Week in Review. "There needs to be a little footnote to that accomplishment."

    Yes indeedy. And we're honored to be the first to provide that footnote. Which is this:

    1. ibid.
    2. OK, sorry. We just threw that in out of longstanding term-paper force of habit. Let's start over:

    1. Aforementioned player of the week never threw one pitch against a National League team, hitter or logo.
    2. Aforementioned player of the week went 2-0 against American League teams (Detroit and Cleveland) -- but was still winless against the National League for the entire season (0-8).

    Hmmm. These are not your normal player-of-the-week qualifications. But that isn't to say we can't read some special significance into this award nonetheless.

    "I'd like to think, first of all, that it's a pretty clear commentary on which is the stronger of the two leagues," Mulholland said. "The guy goes up against the National League, and he's 0-8. He pitches against two American League clubs -- one of which (Cleveland) had the second-best record in the American League -- and he beats both.

    "Tell you what," Mulholland mused. "I'd like to see what that does to the line on the All-Star Game in Vegas."

    So would we, of course. But that would promote gambling, which is occasionally illegal. Therefore, let's take that All-Star angle one step further:

    Shouldn't Todd Ritchie actually be on the All-Star team now, since he's proven conclusively he can beat that other league?

    "If I'm Bobby Valentine and I want to win that game," Mulholland said, "let's just say I think he's got to look inside the numbers."

    Cyclist of the week

    John Olerud made himself a little history last weekend. And we're all for that.

    When the sweet-swinging Mariners first baseman hit for the cycle last Saturday, he was immediately described as having joined Bob Watson as the only men in history to (ahem) hit for the cycle in each league.

    On the surface, this seems like a nice, secure slice of trivia. Olerud did, for real, hit for the cycle once as a National Leaguer (i.e., a Met), on Sept. 11, 1997. Now, with many eyewitnesses present, he also has hit for the cycle once as an American Leaguer (i.e., a Mariner).

    Simple enough. Right?

    Wrong. Time for that footnote department again.

    Yes, Olerud has hit for the cycle for teams in each league. But he's also hit for the cycle against teams from only one league -- since his cycle last week was an interleague special against the Padres.

    So it's hard for us technicality mavens to say that what Olerud did was exactly the same feat that Bob Watson pulled off, for one basic reason -- because it's not.

    But we won't hold that against him, because what are the odds of a speedster like John Olerud hitting for the cycle once, let alone twice, when one of the requirements is a triple?

    This, remember, is a man who has hit six triples in the last seven seasons -- and miraculously converted two of them into cycles.

    He's also a man who hadn't hit any triples since July 9, 1998 -- yet had the brilliant timing to hit his next one on a night when he went cycling.

    And of the 20 players since 1900 who have hit for more than one cycle, he has accumulated nearly 200 percent fewer triples in his career (12) than the guy who had the next-fewest trifectas, Wally Westlake (who had 33).

    Sheez. Lance Armstrong's cycling feats almost pale in comparison to John Olerud's.

    To kick off this particular cycle, Olerud doubled down one line (left field) in the second inning. Then he tripled down the other line (right field) in the third. He lined a single to center in the fifth. And finally, thanks to the hardest swing of his career, he whomped a 464-foot ninth-inning home run into the second deck in San Diego, where only one other homer has ever landed.

    It would have been your classic cycle -- except that it was achieved by the least-likely player in history to hit two of them.

    "What you need is power and speed," teammate Edgar Martinez told the Tacoma News-Tribune's Larry LaRue. "John has more speed than ... me."

    And, rumor has it, he also has more speed than one Sulcata Tortoise currently residing in Southeast Asia.

    Monkey business of the week
    When you have a star on your hands, what do you do?

    You get him out there on the talk-show circuit. What else?

    Rally Monkey and Gary Miller
    ESPN's Gary Miller enjoys a moment with the infamous Rally Monkey.

    So it came as no shock to Week in Review this week that right there, sitting next to ESPN's own Gary Miller on the set of "Up Close" on Monday, was the one, the only ...

    Rally Monkey.

    Now in case you've been missing our exclusive coverage of the mystical, all-powerful exploits of baseball's coolest primate, we'll recap one more time.

    One day last summer, the boys in the Jumbotron room at Anaheim's Edison Field were just monkeying around when they popped up some footage of a monkey, jumping up and down in highly inspirational fashion. Superimposed over this footage were two words that would change baseball:

    Rally Monkey.

    In the year since, the Rally Monkey has been helping the Angels wage true late-inning gorilla warfare against the rest of the American League. And in the process, The Monkey has thrilled millions, blown stuffed-monkey sales into the stratosphere, starred on Baseball Tonight and catapulted itself into baseball's all-time No. 1 cult mammal.

    So it was only a matter of time before he became hot talk-show property. And Monday, that time came, hot on the paws of two huge wins in the Freeway Series against the Dodgers -- which raised the Rally Monkey's record this year, in late-inning pressure situations, to 11-5.

    All right. In truth, we'll admit, this wasn't an episode of Up Close that was meant to be shown on an actual prestigious television network. It was an episode merely meant to be included in the forthcoming Rally Monkey First Birthday Extravaganza being plotted by the Angels.

    But you've got to start somewhere. And after word of this Up Close appearance gets around, can Regis be far behind?

    So when we tracked down Miller for a full report on this monumental man-meets-ape encounter, he told Week in Review: "I'll just say that you haven't lived until you've been Up Close with The Monkey. He's one wild beast, to say the least."

    In his Up Close gig, Miller has been paid to hob-nob with many of the sporting world's most memorable personalities. But he had to admit the thought of meeting the Monkey gave him the kind of feeling you get only when you know you're about to be in the presence of genuine greatness.

    "I've really been looking forward to it," Miller conceded. "Not many of us are fortunate enough to see him in the flesh. He's just up there on the Jumbotron."

    But The Monkey also presented Miller with a unique challenge. After all, what do you ask a monkey to get him to reveal his true inner self?

    "I was thinking," Miller said, "that John Wooden, David Halberstam, Brian Billick and Bill Walsh were the most intellectually challenging guests I thought I'd ever had. But The Monkey, far and away, was the most difficult and challenging guest ever, from a standpoint of being able to rise to a level where I felt we were even remotely communicating."

    So Miller tried his best to reach out and probe The Monkey's greatest potential fear -- that some day, he'd fade back into being just another primate face in the crowd.

    "One question I asked," Miller said, "and I couldn't quite translate the reply, was: Did he fear copycats -- a Rally Dog, Rally Mice, a Rally Pig? But I don't think he does. I think he feels he's above all that."

    In fact, The Monkey showed his inexperience on the talk-show front with more than just evasive answers. His entire act was reminiscent of, say, Madonna on Letterman. This was one monkey determined to do his own thing, inside or outside the classic talk-show format.

    He was asked, at various points, to hold up a sign, grip a bat and wear an Angels cap. None of that went too hot.

    Rally Monkey
    The Rally Monkey does his little act on Up Close.

    He even disdained the sumptuous ESPN Zone refreshments that most Up Close guests seem to enjoy. Instead, Miller reported, "he had a special diet, like rock stars do."

    Still, Miller plowed onward diligently, trying his best to achieve a meeting of the minds with this beloved creature. But when asked if he felt he'd done that, Miller sounded discouraged.

    "I don't know," he said. "He's pretty single-minded. I really don't feel I conveyed to him how supportive I am of his cause. He was enraged. He has one single-minded purpose, and he doesn't really want to be distracted by this other stuff. He's got work to do -- rallying the Angels."

    When The Monkey does that work, of course, everyone feels an urge to rally. And frankly, even under these conditions, that included our man, Gary Miller.

    "I needed a rally to get through nine innings with him," Miller said. "I know that."

    Asked if we could expect to see the Rally Monkey back for a full-length feature Up Close performance, Miller didn't appear to be hopping up and down over the prospect.

    "You may spot him on tape from time to time," he said. "But as far as another live appearance, I don't know. It was easier to deal with Allen Iverson's entourage than with all the people it takes to coordinate a Rally Monkey appearance."

    Hoo boy. You figured it was inevitable that one day, this effervescent beast might go to the whole posse thing. And now he has. As his legend grows, his fans are growing concerned that he's getting increasingly caught up in the whole Rally Monkey star syndrome.

    "I see signs of that," Miller said, "especially in view of the Angels' recent success in the Freeway Series."

    It's clear, from this report, that -- at least for now -- there's only one place The Monkey feels at home. And that's at the old ball game, where he sincerely doesn't seem to care if he ever gets back.

    But Miller made it clear that for The Monkey to rise above his surroundings and take that next step from culthood to legitimate national stardom, if he's really going to follow in the paw prints of some of his role monkeys -- King Kong, Donkey Kong, Curious George -- he's going to have to tone down his talk-show act in the future. Kind of like Drew Barrymore.

    "At one point," Miller said, "he was so disheartened, he took his pants off. That's a first.

    "Most of our guests," said Gary Miller, "change before the show."

    Jayson Stark is a Senior Writer at ESPN.com. Week in Review appears each Friday.

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