Sparks grew up watching his father, Donald Sparks, play baseball professionally for the New York Yankees and only wished that he could walk in his footsteps one day. This day came last summer, when Sparks, a UC Irvine junior, got drafted to play for the Cincinnati Reds.
His love for the game came naturally to him, as he has been playing for as long as he could walk. Even throughout his high school career, although he played football as well as baseball, he would always gravitate towards baseball.
“Baseball has a smaller team, so you get closer to the guys in comparison to football and connect a lot more,” Sparks said.
The familial aspect of a team is what continuously reels Sparks in to be the baseball player he is today. Not only in sports, but also in every aspect of his life, he craves the close-knit bond of a community engaging in something together.
Growing up, Sparks’ most prominent support system was his family. They were the ones to give him rides to little leagues and practices, stood by his side when he wanted to give up and supported him at every game they could make.
Though he does miss his intimate community back home, some of the perks he’s experienced as a minor league player are stunning.
“I’m not famous enough to be recognized on the streets yet, but I do get letters in the mail from die-hard Reds fans that follow the team. Some just collectors, and others real fans. I even had one fan from Japan draw a picture of one of my baseball cards. That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever received,” Sparks said.
In the summer of 2013, Sparks was in Japan for eight days playing with the USA team. He assumes he caught the fan’s attention during those days, which prompted the unique gift. The mail Sparks received consisted of: a letter from the fan in readable but very broken English, a hand drawn picture of Sparks on a baseball card, an origami baseball hat with the words “Reds” on it, and Sparks’ very own legitimate baseball card for him to sign and mail back.
His adjustments don’t stop there. He explains that even the dynamic of the game on a minor league level and a collegiate level is taught and shaped very differently. He correlated playing at the collegiate level as extremely disciplined and specific fundamentals.
“I can only speak for UCI’s processes, but it was very disciplined in what they wanted you to do. For example, the pitching was a lot more off-speed, not too many fastballs,” Sparks said.
Contrastingly to the collegiate level, in the minor leagues, he sees it more as raw talent being shaped and formed to eventually becoming what the team wants you to become. It tests your potential talent and strength. No longer is it a strictly disciplined process, but more of you showing off what you have to offer.
As Sparks moves forward with his career, his ultimate goal is to be a great player, both on and off the field. Although to play in the major leagues and to become a hall of famer is the ideal aim for any rising baseball player, Sparks has considered other professions as well, such as becoming a firefighter.
If baseball didn’t exist, there is no doubt that Sparks would be sliding down poles and putting out fires.
“I love the whole team atmosphere firefighters have. It’s a family, you have to support and help each other. The reason I love baseball and the reason I still consider becoming a firefighter one day is because of the close-knit group they both provide. I obviously gave all my efforts to baseball, but it’s definitely something I still consider,” Sparks said.
His encouraging family background plays a huge part in why community is so important to his life. The support not only kept him going all these years, but also set a standard as to how he wants to give and receive from his life. As Sparks continues to adjust to his new life as a professional baseball player, he mostly enjoys being supported and welcomed by his new family, the Reds.
His decision to become a baseball player was definitely for love of the sport, but he never overlooks the fact that the family he gets out of it was a huge motivator and reward as well.
Thankfully, his personal life has not changed much other than not being able to be home as often, but he acknowledges that it comes with the job.
“My family and girlfriend, Katie, have always been huge supporters of my baseball career. My grandparents and family members always would have something to do, you know? They would come and watch my Irvine games. Now, they have to fill that time with something else,” Sparks said.
As his professional baseball career just kicked off in the minor leagues, he is determined to make his way to the top. He is finally one step closer to being side by side with his dad in the major leagues. But all things considered, he can’t wait to be able to be reunited with his first and closest community, his family.
“It’s never fun being away from home for so long, but once you get to the majors, your schedule isn’t as tentative and changing as it is now. I guess I’m just earning my stripes and doing my time then,” Sparks says
To be present for the ones who truly matter is what he continues to work towards.