In less than two weeks, the Class of 2014 inductees to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Athletics Hall of Fame will be honored at the annual banquet at the Chattanooga Country Club. This group includes representatives from tennis, basketball, football, wrestling and a unique opportunity to honor a former member of the Mocs baseball team.
Tommy Sparks (1968-71) is just the fourth representative from the baseball program, and only the second student-athlete, to go into the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame. He is widely considered one of the best to ever suit up for the Mocs.
Sparks won UTC’s opening game at Engel Stadium all four years of his collegiate career and guided Chattanooga to the NCAA Tournament as a senior in 1971. He put up some gaudy numbers during his final year, posting a 9-0 record in 15 appearances as a left-handed pitcher.
He added to those school records by topping UTC’s single season charts for strikeouts (102), innings pitched (97), complete games (6), shutouts (4) and ERA (1.81). Sparks also holds school records with 19 career wins, 247 career strikeouts, 14 complete games and 47 appearances.
Since NCAA baseball was last played in 1982 at UTC, memories of the Mocs on the diamond may have faded among fans. However, the days of pitching in Engel Stadium and representing UTC are as clear as a bell for Sparks.
“Every time I walked into that place, I just got chill bumps all over,” said Sparks when recalling what it was like to pitch in historic Engel Stadium.
He grew up playing Knothole baseball on Signal Mountain and was a star football, baseball and soccer player at McCallie. He actually was headed to Furman to play soccer before UTC baseball coach Don Shaver convinced him to come to Chattanooga on an academic scholarship and play baseball.
“To me, Engel Stadium was like hallowed ground,” added Sparks. “I walked out on to that mound in that stadium and I felt like I was the luckiest guy in the world.
“One thing we liked to do, when teams would come in to play us – Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia or whoever it might be – we would sit right above the runway where you would first see the field. When they saw that 484-foot, 30-foot high wall in centerfield, they knew there would be no home runs that day. It was just a wonderful place to pitch and I have always felt totally humbled every time I went in there.”
Despite being in the College Division, the Mocs played a schedule full of Division I heavyweights. They routinely knocked off teams from bigger schools and were 4-4 during his career against Tennessee.
“There were a lot of big games,” recalled Sparks. “I remember the first time we beat UT at Engel Stadium. We beat them 3-2 in 10 innings and I was fortunate enough to pitch all 10 innings. I will always remember that. Mark Longley drove in the winning run in the 10th inning.”
There were other big wins too, including a 5-3 win against Vanderbilt when he got four hits, and their first win over Georgia Tech. There was also the game in his senior season when they traveled to Ole Miss to take on the third-ranked Rebels. That team had Archie Manning at shortstop, but it didn’t matter. The Mocs still won 12-4.
There was the time Chattanooga swept a three-game slate in Athens, Ga., against the Bulldogs, Oglethorpe and Georgia Tech. The team celebrated with a trip to a Braves game on their way home and was surprised to be recognized by the public address announcer. They were even more surprised when the PA said “We need to get these guys out of the state of Georgia as quick as possible,” because of what they did to the local teams.
When asked about getting into the Hall of Fame, Sparks is quick to point out how important his teammates were to him and his success.
“I was so happy and proud and humble,” added Sparks when told of his induction. “The only reason I was selected is because of the players that played with me.”
Sparks remembers all of the great teammates he played with and how important they were to his success as a pitcher. He made life-long friendships during his time at UTC and calls out the lineup as if he was playing tonight.
“Pat Woolsey (the only other baseball player in the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame) played third base and we played together at McCallie. We are still best friends and very close.
"First base was Joe Scruggs, David Fussell was our catcher. He was my mentor. If I shook him off when I was a freshmen – he was about 6-5, I was 5-10 – he would come out and tell me in a few expletives not to do that again. Great catcher, strongest arm I ever played with.
"Bill Dye at second was unbelievable. Rick Cook played second after Bill was gone. Mark Longley in the outfield. These are all guys I still have relationships with. They are all great players.”
After graduating with a degree in Mathematics, Sparks was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles. He was traded to the Atlanta Braves and spent three seasons trying to catch on through their farm system.
Injuries forced the start of Sparks’ very long and respected career as an educator. He went on to earn his Master’s Degree in Mathematics, as well as an Educational Specialist Degree in Math, from Winthrop University.
In 2008, he became Dr. Sparks, after graduating from Nova Southeastern University with a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. He is currently the Superintendent of the Orangeburg Consolidated School District and lives in Rock Hill, S.C.
Dr. Sparks, and the rest of the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2014 will be honored at the banquet on Friday, March 28. Tickets to the event are $30 per person and open to the public. To reserve your spot, contact the UTC Alumni Office at (423) 425-4785.