Bob Sparks - SaintPetersBlog

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

FSU/UF to host NCAA regionals; 4 other Florida teams make field

The 64-team NCAA Baseball Tournament field was announced on Monday with 6 Florida teams receiving bids. Two will be hosting a regional, while three others are seeded second and another earning a three-seed.

The Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles will host regionals that include in-state competitors. The only qualifier to travel outside of the state is the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles.

FGCU, who qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time, are the second seed in the Chapel Hill Regional and will face third-seeded Michigan in their first game. The top seed is the nation’s number two overall seed, North Carolina.

Florida earned the third overall seed nationally and will open against fourth-seeded Marist. The other Gainesville Regional matchup features the second-seeded South Florida Bulls and third-seeded Bethune-Cookman Wildcats. If they win the regional, Florida would also host a Super Regional.

Bethune-Cookman, Florida Gulf Coast and Florida State were automatic qualifiers after winning their conference tournaments, while the others are at-large entries.

Earning the second seed in Tallahassee is the Central Florida Knights, who will open regional play against third-seeded Auburn. FSU opens against Tennessee Tech.

Should the Seminoles survive the regional, they would face the winner of the Lubbock Regional featuring the 5th national seed Texas Tech. The last two seasons saw FSU’s season end in the Gainesville Super Regional against the Gators. This year, the Gainesville regional winner is paired with the winner of the Winston-Salem Regional featuring the regional’s top seed, Wake Forest.

Florida State’s selection marks the 40th consecutive appearance in the NCAA field. That is now the longest streak in the nation after Miami was not chosen for the first time in 45 years.

The top 8 national seeds are Oregon State, North Carolina, Florida, LSU, Texas Tech, Texas Christian, Louisville and Stanford.

 

Remembering men like Bob Clark is what Memorial Day is about

There has long been a well-meaning, but wrong, impression of Memorial Day. While the gesture of “honoring our veterans” in late May is a kind thought, veterans are not the ones to be cherished on this day.

The fundamental difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day is that veterans served until they became veterans. Those we collectively remember on Memorial Day gave their lives for this country. They were not able to choose when their military service would end.

The overwhelming majority of those sacrifices came from men who had not been men for very long. In today’s military, more women are being remembered for their sacrifices as well.

My father, whose name I share, returned from World War II after surviving a kamikaze attack that sunk his LST in 1944. His cousin, Harold R. “Bob” Clark survived that war, but not the next one.

Clark was called back into the Army in 1950 to fight in the undeclared Korean War. On February 12, 1951, he and others were captured after a fierce battle near Hoengsong, South Korea.

Over the next two months, the captives were marched to what was called permanent Camp 1 near the Yalu River in North Korea, just across from China. According to the Department of Defense, Bob died “from exhaustion and possible incipient pneumonia” shortly after arrival.

A precise date of death is not known, but he may well have died on Memorial Day, 1951. He was buried by fellow soldiers near the camp’s clinic.

In 1954, the North Koreans returned the remains of soldiers from Camp 1, with one tagged as Clark. Those remains were later positively identified as those of another soldier.

Bob Clark is still over there and among the many forgotten 8,200 missing and “presumed dead” from Korea. A national monument stands in Honolulu containing the names of those Americans, including PFC Harold Robert Clark. His family does not have the opportunity to plant a small flag next to his grave.

While the purpose of Memorial Day is to remember those we lost, we should also think about the survivors left behind. Clark, not even 30 years old, left behind a young widow named Geneva and an infant son, Harold, Jr.

Memorial Day is also about the tens of thousands of others like Geneva and Harold, Jr., those who carry on after tragedy strikes their family.

Clark’s son never had the opportunity to know his father. Geneva remarried and returned to her home state of Kentucky from Indiana. Harold, Jr. turned out well, spending his entire career working for a major university in Kentucky after earning a degree from that institution.

After spending years looking, I was able to finally locate him. We recently spoke, mostly about his father and some about mine, both natives of Seymour, Indiana. Both were part of the “Greatest Generation,” but only one had the chance to influence their baby boomer children.

Bob Clark knew a little something about growing up without a parent. In fact, he had it worse. His mother died unexpectedly when he was only 7 years old and his father had that title only in a biological sense.

So, to those of you sending good wishes to veterans like me or my late father for Memorial Day, thank you. But could I request that you embrace a kind thought for heroes like PFC Harold Robert Clark and the multitude of others who laid down their life in service to our country?

Together, we don’t have enough capital to repay them. All we can do is remember what they did.

 

FSU, UF to host NCAA regionals; other Florida schools will earn bids

Two weeks ago, the Florida State baseball team lost their regular season home finale to Wake Forest, 10-9. That left them 12-14 in ACC conference play with three games at then-No. 2 Louisville coming up, followed by the ACC Tournament in the same place.

There was some concern whether FSU would even make the NCAA Tournament. Coach Mike Martin uttered his complete frustration after that game.

“This one could have been really, really great for the resume,” he said while offering a prediction. “We ain’t getting a regional.”

No one disputed Martin’s pronouncement.

Fast forward two weeks. Florida State went 2-0 in the regular season’s final games against the Cardinals (one was rained out), but still only earned the 8th seed in the league tournament. After again beating Louisville, some began to believe something special may be unfolding.

On Sunday, Florida State won their second ACC Tournament title in the last three years, earning the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid and completely changing the conversation. On Sunday night, Dick Howser Stadium was named one of the 16 regional sites. .

The first Florida school to officially qualify for the NCAA Tournament was Florida Gulf Coast. On Saturday, the Eagles come from behind to stun Jacksonville 4-3 in 10 innings to win the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament championship and earn the league’s automatic berth in next week’s regionals.

Despite not winning their conference tournaments, other Florida schools will join FSU and FGCU in the tournament.

The Florida Gators were the top seed in this week’s SEC Conference Tournament. After reaching the semi-finals, the Gators were wiped out by the Arkansas Razorbacks 16-0.

Florida, Kentucky, LSU and Arkansas will all host NCAA regionals next week.

The Central Florida Knights entered the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Tournament as the top seed. But after two losses to 8th-seeded East Carolina, including’s Saturday’s 4-0 shutout,  UCF will wait for Monday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show to learn their place in the field.

Central Florida currently has an RPI ranking of 23 and conference rival South Florida is ranked 22nd. Both will make the field of 64.

In a battle of the Owls, Florida Atlantic fell to Rice in the Conference-USA Tournament semi-finals 13-2 on Saturday. With an RPI rank of 55, FAU is now a long-shot to make the NCAA Tournament.

In women’s softball, after dropping the opener to conference foe Alabama, Florida had to win the final two games of the Gainesville Super Regional to advance to the Women’s College World Series. Saturday’s 2-1 victory earned them the trip to Oklahoma City beginning next week.

In the Tallahassee Super Regional, Florida State won the opener, but LSU came back to win the next two to deny FSU the trip to Oklahoma City. The Tigers earned that berth with Sunday’s 6-4 win.

 

Saturday college sports action features high stakes matchups

Plenty of Florida college sports is on tap throughout the Memorial Day weekend. Many of the games come with high stakes.

The Florida Gators will play in the SEC semi-finals on Saturday against Arkansas. The top-seeded Gators will face the fourth-seeded Razorbacks in the second game of the day in Hoover, Ala. Second seed LSU meets 11th-seeded South Carolina in the first game at 1:00 p.m.

Florida reached the semi-finals after an incredible rally against Mississippi State. The Gators trailed 3-0 entering the eighth inning, but exploded for 11 runs on the way to a 12-3 win over the Bulldogs.

In the ACC, both Florida State and Miami are playing in the semi-finals in Louisville, Ky. FSU plays at noon in the day’s first game against 9th-seeded Duke in front of what will be a dramatically reduced crowd at Louisville Slugger Field. The Seminoles upended top-seeded and fifth ranked Louisville 6-2 on Friday to advance.

Miami is the tournament’s fifth seed and they will take on North Carolina following the FSU vs. Duke game. The Hurricanes rallied to get by Wake Forest on Friday to move on. They are on the tournament bubble and may need a spot in the championship game to improve their chances.

The Central Florida Knights are playing for a spot in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) semi-finals on Saturday, but they must win two games to get there.

UCF, the tournament’s top seed, must defeat 8th-seeded East Carolina in the first game Saturday afternoon, then beat them again in another game that would immediately follow the first. The Knights are in that predicament following their 14-3 loss to the Pirates in the opening game. UCF blasted the USF Bulls 12-0 to reach the semi-finals.

The Florida Atlantic Owls are also trying to reach a conference final. They face the Rice Owls on Saturday for a spot in the Conference-USA finals in Biloxi, Miss.

In softball, both Florida and Florida State can reach the College World Series with wins today.

The Gators kept their hopes alive on Friday when they shut out conference foe Alabama 2-0 to even their best-of-three Super Regional series in Gainesville. FSU took the opener of the Tallahassee Super Regional with a 3-1 win over the LSU Tigers.

ESPN is showing both games. The FSU vs. LSU contest is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. while Florida vs. Alabama is set to begin at 5:00 p.m.

Marco Rubio, Chris Coons introduce bill to enhance college opportunity for low-income youth

Sen. Marco Rubio has teamed with his colleague Sen. Chris Coons to introduce re-introduce legislation designed to help low-income and at risk students. The Florida Republican and Delaware Democrat launched the American Dream Accounts Act that would provide increased access to a college education.

The two senators joined with Opportunity Nation, a group promoting educational and employment opportunities for youth, to announce the introduction of the legislation. Joining them at the announcement was Opportunity Nation executive director, Monique Rizer.

“I was happy to join Senator Coons and Opportunity Nation today to announce the reintroduction of American Dream Accounts Act,” said Rubio. “Since its inception, America has been a unique nation where anyone from anywhere can do anything. We must keep it that way and I believe one way to do that is to provide more pathways for children to attend college.”

The legislation authorizes the Department of Education to award three-year competitive grants that would support innovation and partnerships supporting low-income students preparing for a college education. Those grants would fund personal online accounts and open college savings accounts for eligible students as well as supporting college-readiness efforts.

“If we want to ensure that American workers can compete in the global economy, we must ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to access higher education,” said Coons. “The American Dream Accounts Act would bridge the opportunity gap by connecting students, teachers, parents, and mentors to create a new generation of higher education achievers through streamlining resources that would allow young people to prepare for, save for, train for, and achieve their dreams for their futures.”

In addition to Opportunity Nation, the legislation is endorsed by other state and national affiliates such as the First Focus Campaign for Children, Corporation for Enterprise Development, the National PTA and others.

“We are proud to endorse the American Dream Accounts Act sponsored by Senators Coons and Rubio, which provides an evidence based, collaborating solution to ensuring more young people have access and complete their post-secondary education, which is critical in the 21st century workforce,” said Rizer.

While the senators are generally drawing kudos for the bill, not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Responses on Rubio’s Facebook page used terms like “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) and “Rubio is really a Democrat.” Others offered the Bernie Sanders approach that college should be free.

The bill was assigned to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Tampa Bay will host Super Bowl LV in 2021

The NFL has awarded Super Bowl LV to Tampa Bay after stadium construction delays in Los Angeles required the league to move back their opportunity by one year. The league’s owners voted unanimously for the move to Raymond James Stadium.

“From our standpoint, we felt this was an appropriate thing to do,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “We were fortunate that Tampa had a very competitive presentation when they bid on the Super Bowl earlier (in 2016). So this was a solution the membership got on very quickly.”

Los Angeles will now host the 2022 game, but the Tampa Bay area will relish the chance to again welcome one of the most prestigious, and lucrative, sporting events in the world.

“The Tampa Bay area has enjoyed great success over the years hosting Super Bowls and we look forward to working with our local leaders in the coming months to meet the requirements for hosting Super Bowl LV in 2021,” said Buccaneers co-chairman Bryan Glazer in a statement.

The overwhelming success Tampa enjoyed hosting the 2017 College Football National Championship certainly did not hurt the city’s and the region’s effort to land this marquee event. Tampa Bay received numerous accolades for the way they pulled off a similar, though slightly smaller, football event.

Tampa Stadium hosted Super Bowls in 1984 and 1991, while Raymond James Stadium welcomed participants in 2001 and 2009. Hosting the game derives an economic impact of up to $800 million, according to P.J. Johnston, NFL spokesman for Super Bowl 50.

Whatever that amount turns out to be will be complimented by the entire world watching on television and seeing the many sights of Tampa Bay.

 

USF seeks to knock off regular season champ UCF in AAC baseball tourney

The American Athletic Conference Baseball Tournament begins today in Clearwater. Spectrum Field will host the 8-team event featuring the Central Florida Knights and the South Florida Bulls.

Top-seeded UCF, who took two of three from USF to take the regular season title, will take on the number 8 seed East Carolina Pirates beginning at 7:00 p.m. The fourth-seeded Bulls will face the fifth seed, the Tulane Green Wave, beginning at 3:30 p.m.

The tournament runs through Sunday with the championship game slated for noon.

Both USF and UCF are in good position to receive invitations to the NCAA Tournament no matter how they fare over the next few days. The Knights carry a 38-18 record into the tournament and have a current national ranking of 21st, according to the Ratings Percentage Index. The Bulls are 40-15 with an RPI rating of 18.

UCF earned the regular season title and top seed the hard way last weekend. After dropping the opener of the season’s final series against USF on Thursday, the Knights stormed back to win the final two games to earn a share of the title with Houston. UCF beat the Cougars two out of three earlier in the season to earn the tie breaker.

Following Saturday’s season finale, Knights’ first-year coach Greg Lovelady was understandably emotional.

“It’s been an awesome day. I’ll never forget it,” said Lovelady, the AAC Coach of the Year. “I’m proud of these kids.”

Just one year ago, UCF finished at the bottom of the AAC standings.

The Bulls, under Coach Mark Kingston, may be the fourth seed, but have more than enough to take the tournament crown.  They won 6 of the 9 games they played against UCF and Houston.

They lost 2 of 3 to the third-seeded Connecticut Huskies. All four teams could earn a bid to the tournament.

Houston has an RPI ranking of 24 and UConn is number 39. A total of 64 teams will be chosen with the tournament winner receiving an automatic bid.

If both the Bulls and Knights win on Tuesday, they will meet for the seventh time this season on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. They would also play each other should both lose their games on Tuesday.

Both of today’s games featuring the Knights and the Bulls will be televised over the CBS Sports Network (not the regular CBS).

After Ryan Fitzpatrick signing, Bucs fans wish good health for Jameis Winston

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new back-up quarterback. By signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year, $3 million deal (plus incentives), Tampa Bay fills the void left by Mike Glennon’s departure to the Chicago Bears.

The good news is the Bucs are free from a problem that faces other franchises from time-to-time when training camps begin. The words “quarterback controversy” will not be spoken or written when training camp begins in two months. Unless a pre-season injury says otherwise, Jameis Winston will line up under center on opening day in Miami.

Fitzpatrick’s arrival brings a ho-hum reaction among the media and the faithful. What a difference from a year ago.

Last year, the New York Jets were desperate to re-sign Fitzpatrick after his best season as a pro. The 12-year veteran had put up career numbers in 2015.

He had his only winning season, leading the Jets to a 10-6 record, passing for 3,905 yards with 31 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The Jets got their wish, but Fitzpatrick was a disaster under new head coach Todd Bowles.

Fitzpatrick threw for 2,710 yards with 12 touchdowns, but suffered 17 interceptions. Ironically, the favorite to win the Jets job this year is a former Buc flop, Josh McCown.

Also available, but overlooked, was Robert Griffin III. The former Heisman Trophy winner has struggled since becoming Washington’s first-round pick (second overall) in the 2012 draft. He has suffered through numerous injuries, including last year in Cleveland. Missing nearly the entire 2016 season helped make the risk to sign him too high.

Colin Kaepernick, who led the San Francisco 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl, was also available but someone the Bucs “didn’t even consider.” No one would say so on the record, but few would want to run the risk of a media circus over last year’s kneeling for the National Anthem.

While Kaepernick put up much better stats than Fitzpatrick, passing for 16 touchdowns with four interceptions in 11 games, who wants such a distraction for a backup quarterback? Perhaps the answer is the Seattle Seahawks who, according to coach Pete Carroll, is interested in signing the polarizing quarterback.

Rookie free agent Sefo Liufau and Ryan Griffin, in his fourth year, will also compete for the backup job in training camp.

Bucs Nation is expecting Winston to further develop into a top NFL quarterback this year. However, they have a more fundamental request of the former Heisman winner from Florida State.

Stay healthy.

 

Tim Tebow and Michael Jordan, Pied Pipers for baseball

Believe it or not, Tim Tebow and Michael Jordan have a few things in common. Most know that both made huge names for themselves while playing before capacity crowds during their college days.

Like Jordan, Tebow was part of a college championship as a freshman. Jordan and North Carolina won the 1982 NCAA Basketball Tournament, with Jordan providing the winning points. A generation later, the Florida Gators were the 2006 BCS national champions, with Tebow accounting for two touchdowns.

Jordan won the James Naismith Award as college basketball’s best player. Tebow won the Heisman Trophy as the top player in college football.

There is, of course, nothing to compare in their professional careers. Jordan, with 6 NBA titles playing for the Chicago Bulls, was arguably the best to ever play the game, while Tebow won one playoff game for the Denver Broncos.

In 2017, more comparisons between the two have emerged. Not for glory in their primary sports, but instead for their mutual detours into professional baseball.

Many in the sporting world know Tebow is giving baseball a try with the Columbia Fireflies, the New York Mets’ Class A farm team. in South Carolina. The frenzy surrounding him began on opening day when he homered in his very first career at-bat before a sellout crowd.

Since that day, Tebow has connected for one other home run and as of Friday, his batting average was down to .221. No matter; he is still a big draw.

The Fireflies’ average attendance is up by around 45 percent so far. Teams in Hickory, North Carolina and Augusta, Georgia report spikes of 120 percent and 82 percent, respectively, when Tebow and Columbia are in town.

“He’s a celebrity and he’s a brand,” Lakewood (NJ) BlueClaws’ director of ticket sales Jim McNamara told ESPN.com. “Plus, the casual fan into pop culture is interested in him.”

Lakewood drew twice their season average during a recent series when Tebow paid a visit.

As for Jordan, the basketball superstar struggled throughout the summer of 1994 playing for the Chicago White Sox Minor League affiliate in Birmingham. He hit .202 with three home runs and 51 runs batted in, with plenty of strikeouts, for the Barons that year.

Yet his effect on Minor League Baseball was just the same as Tebow’s 23 years later. During a visit to Nashville in late April, 1994, the Tennessean newspaper described Jordan’s following this way.

“In just 15 Double-A games, Michael Jordan has assumed the role as Minor League Baseball’s Pied Piper.” The night before, the Nashville Xpress experienced a record crowd of more than 15,000 for the game. It was a common occurrence throughout the Southern League that year.

“Michael Jordan can bring something to baseball that nobody else can bring,” said Xpress owner Larry Schmittou. “He can put people in the seats.”

Now, 23 years later, change the name in that quote to Tim Tebow, and we have come full circle.

After a welcome day off, Rays prepare to welcome Yankees to Tropicana Field

The Tampa Bay Rays have been looking forward to Thursday. This day will be like no other that they have experienced since April 27.

It is called on off-day.

Thursday marks only their third day off since the season began, but it will be the first for them at home. The other two were in New York and traveling between Baltimore and Toronto.

The span of 20-games-in-20 days started with 5 games in Toronto and Miami and finished with 6 games in Boston and Cleveland.  In between were 9 home games with Miami, Toronto and Kansas City.

While the Rays went 10-10 over that span, the 3-6 home stand left many wondering if the team was poised for a prolonged tailspin. After all, they were heading out to face the Red Sox and Indians on the road, which is no easy task to put it mildly.

Winning four of those 6 games gives the team a welcome boost heading into the off day. Taking the last two in Cleveland was extra important.

Their stay in Cleveland was eventful. Doing what they do best, the Rays hit 10-home runs at Progressive Field over the three games, a franchise record.

“Home runs are fun,” Colby Rasmus said on mlb.com. “Chicks dig the long ball. We’re just trying to put good swings on it.”

For those needing a refresher, the Rasmus reference to “chicks” came from the famous ad featuring Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Mark McGwire.

Tuesday’s game, a 6-4 Rays’ win, provided the best example of the dichotomy that describes this Rays team. Tampa Bay became only the third team in history to hit 5 home runs, while striking out 16 times in the same game.

While they lead MLB in strikeouts by a wide margin, the Rays, as they should, choose to look at the positive.

“Obviously, a great series,” said Rays’ Manager Kevin Cash. “It’s a pretty challenging task to go into Boston and come in (to Cleveland) and find a way to have a winning road trip.”

After the day off, the Rays welcome the Yankees to Tropicana Field on Friday. They are six games behind New York, who continues to surprise with the performance of young players.

Friday’s game begins a stretch of 13 games before their next day off on June 1, meaning they will have played 33 games in 34 days barring any rainouts.

Hopefully, they will take advantage of the brief respite Thursday provides.

 

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