Night to re­mem­ber for Sparkes

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - Ni­cholas Mercer

Ev­ery­body knows Com­pass re­porter Ni­cholas Mercer loves sports. So does his grand­fa­ther, Wil­bur Sparkes, a for­mer St. John’s se­nior league base­ball player who re­cently was in the city for a spe­cial alumni night. Ni­cholas was there too, and he shares some thoughts on the event in this week’s To The Point col­umn.

St. Pat’s Ball Field was dif­fer­ent from how Wil­bur Sparkes re­mem­bered it.

The steel bleach­ers, re­fur­bished in­field and the ex­tended dugouts wer­ent around when the Bay Roberts res­i­dent first stepped on the ven­er­a­ble field.

In the in­ter­est of full dis­clo­sure, he is my grand­fa­ther.

Step­ping onto the field for the first time in a decade, Sparkes re­mem­bered days when the bleach­ers and the hills on Carpasian Road and Em­pire Av­enue were filled with ea­ger fans wait­ing for their chance to see a Sun­day af­ter­noon ball game.

Sparkes pitched for the Guards in the St. John’s se­nior base­ball league in the early 50s and trav­elled to pro­vin­cial hot spots in Cor­ner Brook, Grand Falls-Wind­sor and Stephenville with the St. John’s Caps. It was good enough to earn him a St. John’s Base­ball Hall of Fame nod.

On July 31, he at­tended an alumni night at the park. Any player who pre­vi­ously played in the se­nior league could come out, snag a cou­ple of ground balls and share some sto­ries. It served as a lead in to the an­nual St. John’s Cap­i­tals-Cor­ner Brook Barons se­nior A pro­vin­cial show­down.

It took Sparkes all of five min­utes to as­cend to the top of the pitcher’s mound and toe the rub­ber. Clutch­ing his hands to re­sem­ble a glove and a ball, he peered to­wards home plate and awaited the signs of an imag­i­nary catcher. He was prob­a­bly imag­in­ing throw­ing to his Guards’ catcher, Herc Phillips, or maybe Joe Kenny and Ju­nior Rum­sey. Agree­ing to the pitch in his mind, Sparkes went into his windup. For a cou­ple of brief sec­onds, he was back in the 50s and de­liv­er­ing to the plate in a play­off game. The windup wasn’t as smooth as it once was, but it was like he never left the ball park. In its first year, alumni night only at­tracted a hand­ful of vet­eran play­ers, in­clud­ing Sparkes, Mike Hagerty, Greg Hagerty, Steve Phillips, Gor­don Breen and Wayne Comeau.

While the turnout was rel­a­tively small, there was no short­age of ex­cite­ment as most of the as­sem­bled group broke out their Gon­zaga Vik­ings or Holy Cross jer­seys and stepped into the bat­ter’s box for a round of bat­ting prac­tice. Even some of the older folk got in on the ac­tion.

Af­ter­wards, the group headed to the Joe Wad­den Room for some adult bev­er­ages and friendly con­ver­sa­tion.

Sports re­unions are a lot like any other time a cou­ple of old friends get to­gether. There are the cus­tom­ary ‘how are you,’ ‘how are the kids’ ques­tions. They’re quickly done away with, how­ever.

This leads to the juicier stuff. The tall tales, ones that got away and trots down mem­ory lane.

The St. John’s re­union was ex­actly like that. With ev­ery swing of the bat, a new story came out. Re­mem­ber player X? Man, he was good one. He had the fast­ball that re­ally jumped out of his hand and a nasty change.

There were plenty of sto­ries like that. Ones that made you vi­su­al­ize what they were telling you as if it was hap­pen­ing right there.

For two alumni, the night was some­thing more than just a chance to re­live past glo­ries on the diamond. Sparkes and Breen were ri­vals in the 50s dur­ing league ac­tion but team­mates with the Caps come pro­vin­cial play. One was a Guard, while the other played for Holy Cross. On the road, they were close friends.

I’d hung out with these two be­fore but not since I was a kid on one of their many old timers base­ball tour­na­ments in var­i­ous ports of call. On July 31, they em­braced like broth­ers, their hand­shake a lit­tle firmer than nor­mal.

In that mo­ment, they were brought back to the dou­ble­header Western flick they caught in Cor­ner Brook the night be­fore head­ing to Grand Falls-Wind­sor for a date with the se­nior club there. As they rem­i­nisced, oth­ers at the re­union stopped and lis­tened. They lis­tened for tales of what base­ball was like when thou­sands came to the park to watch. They lis­tened for sto­ries of the great play­ers lost to the pas­sage of time and just how life was dif­fer­ent in days gone by.

My grand­fa­ther speaks so highly of St. Pat’s — it was spe­cial to watch him re­live those cher­ished mem­o­ries.

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