ABERDEEN - When they drafted him from a high school in Katy, Texas, in the fifth round in 2017, the Orioles could look into the future and foresee a day where young outfielder Lamar Sparks would fill out his 6-foot-2 frame and turn into an athletic player with a lot of pop in that bat.
That day could still be coming, but it’s at least been delayed for Sparks, the No. 158 overall pick that year. A pitcher in high school, Sparks first felt shoulder pain on the high school showcase circuit. As an outfielder on the O’s farm in 2018, the shoulder got worse. It led to labrum surgery in June of that year and Sparks missed the entire 2018 season.
He was still rehabbing the shoulder, but starting to feel much better, when he took a few at-bats in extended spring training in Florida early in the 2019 season. It was during a game then that he could see the 92 mph fastball headed directly for his face but didn’t get out of the way in time.
The beaning was severe.
After the shoulder surgery, here was another major setback.
“The ball hit me and cracked and fractured the left side of my face,” Sparks told me during a recent interview at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, where he is now playing with the high Single-A IronBirds. “Missed my helmet completely. Hit me right next to the temple. My eye was swollen shut - couldn’t see out of that eye. My nose was bleeding a lot.
“Got off the field. There was no concussion. But in the doctor’s office, they said, ‘You are lucky it only did what it did to you.’ Most of the time it would have broken that orbital bone or broken part of your skull. I was lucky it wasn’t worse. I don’t want to say the words, but you are lucky that didn’t happen. Where it hit me, most people wouldn’t be able to resume playing in a few weeks. I was lucky.”
Kevin Bradshaw was coaching third base that day in Florida as manager then of the extended spring training team that would form some of the roster of the short-season Aberdeen IronBirds later that summer.
“I’ve been in the game a long time and hadn’t seen very many like this one,” Bradshaw recalled. “This one hit him flush. It hit nothing but face and it was devastating to watch. It was not a pretty scene at all.
“When he got hit, he was on his way to getting out of the Gulf Coast League. He was swinging very well. When this happened, you knew it would be a while for him to not only get over the injury but the mental side of it. And he was so close to moving up.”
And as Bradshaw pointed out, in Florida, some of those young pitchers bring big velocity, but with very shaky command. And when Sparks resumed playing a few weeks after being hit, of course, he was facing just one of those shaky command pitchers.
“The biggest struggle was getting back in the box and facing some of the dudes down there,” Sparks said. “My first game back, there was a guy throwing 100 (mph) and his first pitch was over my head. I stepped out of the box and turned and looked at one of the coaches. He was just like, ‘Try to do the best you can.’ Got back in and the next pitch went over my head. Next pitch grazed me on the shoulder and I went down to first base.
“The big struggle for me was getting back in the box after that.”
So, yeah, very, very challenging.
“So I went through my 2019 season struggling a bit just staying in the box,” Sparks explained. “Some of the guys in Florida are typically more wild than when you start going up levels, so it is hard to adjust to guys when one pitch is right there and then the next is near your head.
“Honestly, it’s still a process. It’s not something you get over overnight. You watch some of the guys in the big leagues now that have been hit in the face. They look like they’re fine in the box, but I guarantee you, it’s a different kind of game now. At least in the big leagues, I won’t say it is easier, but typically up there, they know where the ball is going. Down in Florida and you have guys every at-bat throwing a pitch close to you, and it’s a little hard to get that confidence back in the box and know you will not get hit in the face again.”
So, after missing one season due to the shoulder surgery, going through the beaning of 2019 and missing the COVID 2020 season, Sparks is trying and succeeding this year finally in advancing his career. He finally made it out of Florida and has reached Aberdeen after batting .256/.344/.388/.732 with low Single-A Delmarva over 45 games.
This is a player with some nice tools and one that is going to turn 23 on Sept. 26. It’s already his fifth year in the organization, but he had played just 78 games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League before this season. He will be eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft in December.
Sparks moved to Aberdeen in mid-August and has been solid for the IronBirds. Over 21 games, he is batting .235/.340/.432/.772 with three homers and 10 RBIs.
“I’m thrilled for him,” said Orioles director of player development Matt Blood. “He had some tough luck in the earlier part of his career. A young very athletic, toolsy kid we got out of south Texas. For a while, you weren’t quite sure if he would ever make it out of the complex because of things he couldn’t control. He’s playing well and it’s great to see.”
Sparks is slowly but surely getting over any trepidation about facing live pitching and is now showing he can hit it at the highest level he’s ever played.
“I still had it a little bit in the back of my head starting in spring,” he said. “Since then, I’ve been working hard to overcome it. Getting my confidence back and been feeling a lot better in the box. Moving up also helped as well. When you get up here, guys are not missing around your head as much.
“This has been the first year where I have been able to play a full year healthy. No problems with my shoulder, no problems with getting hit. My confidence is still not quite where I want it to be yet, but it’s better. I’m seeing pitchers better now and I’m hitting pitches better now. I really appreciate baseball.”
Sparks was ranked as the organization’s No. 25 prospect in 2018 by Baseball America. Some of that potential is on display now for Aberdeen. He’s finally playing and succeeding in full-season ball.
“He can really throw and he’s got a lot of bat speed,” Aberdeen manager Kyle Moore said. “Wilmington’s manager came up to me after seeing him play one game and said, ‘That Sparks kid can really whip it through the zone, huh?’ Tommy Shields saw him one time. That is what you see, some strong bat speed.
“His best tool is probably power, just raw power. His next best tool is throwing. He had a shoulder issue, so he’s worked through that. But he can really throw, he’s got a plus-plus arm in right and left field. If we can get him to hit for any average at all and barrel up the ball consistently to use that power, we’ll have something. You never know, if he just stacks up a couple good years on top of each other with 400 or 500 at-bats, he might be a sleeper. He might emerge one day and hit for big power.”
If you spend any time with Sparks, his enthusiasm for the game of baseball and the O’s organization comes pouring through. The kid has been through a lot, but now maybe and finally, better days are ahead.
The Orioles, he said, have provided strong support, through both his surgery and his beaning.
“It’s a great group of guys to be around,” he said. “Everyone in the organization - from the medical staff to the guys higher up - it’s good. The players that all come through here are great guys. We are family and it’s a great environment to be in this organization. Everyone treats everyone else with respect.”
Now Sparks wants to finish 2021 strong and set himself to continue advancing his career this winter and next season.
“This is going to be a big offseason for me. I’m going to try and put on some weight,” he said. “I will go into this offseason with high hopes to be a better all-around player and person coming into spring next year.”