Bob Sparks - 2/65 - 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.

Rays look to re-stock talent pool with MLB Draft

With far less fanfare and the hoopla that surrounds the NFL Draft, Major League Baseball will conduct the first two rounds of their version beginning Monday. The Tampa Bay Rays have the fourth overall pick.

Drafting that high, Tampa Bay has several “can’t miss” prospects from which to choose. That does not guarantee the next star player, but they have had some success over the decade.

Melvin E. (B.J.) Upton was their top pick in 2002, followed by Delmon Young the next year, Evan Longoria in 2006, David Price in 2007 and Tim Beckham in 2008.

Two of the more notable first round flops came in 2009 with the pick of LeVon Washington, who did not sign, and never made it above Class A with another organization. One of the saddest failures involved 2010 first round pick Chris Sale, who also never climbed higher than Class A.

The last two first round picks, Josh Lowe and Garrett Whitley, are currently at Class A Bowling Green, Ky.

Several mock drafts project Tampa Bay selecting University of Virginia outfielder Adam Haseley, which would be a safe pick. College players have little leverage and are more likely to sign. Conversely, drafting high school players can by risky because that player has the option of going to college if he is looking for a higher signing bonus offer.

MLB.com projects Louisville two-way player Brendan McKay as their likely pick. McCay struck out 131 batters in 97 innings on the mound, while hitting 17 home runs and knocking in 56 runs at the plate. He also hit .356.

Baseball America sees the Rays making that risky high school player pick. They project Tampa Bay will go with California infielder/outfielder Royce Lewis.

In later rounds, the Rays will have several outstanding Florida-based players from which to choose. That will likely not include University of Florida pitcher Alex Faedo, who is expected to be long gone as a top-15 pick. Two two high school infielders are getting a lot of attention.

Chris Seise is a shortstop from West Orange High School in Winter Garden. Seise is ranked the 34th-best prospect by Major League Baseball Network.

He could conceivably go late in the first round or be available to the Rays with the 4th pick of the second round. The same is true for Miami high school shortstop Jeter Downs, who is ranked 35th by MLB Network.

University of Tampa pitcher Garrett Cave is MLB Network’s 88th-ranked prospect while Baseball America has him at 56th. That could lead to a possible late second round or third round pick.

Other Florida-based players who could go in the early rounds include University of South Florida infielder/outfielder Kevin Merrell (a Tampa native and College of Central Florida pitcher Nate Pearson. Both are top 100 prospects.

The draft concludes Wednesday.

Florida, Florida State on the winning end of baseball’s June Madness

The NCAA College Baseball Tournament is not likely to come anywhere near the broad popularity enjoyed by the basketball tournament known as March Madness. At the same time, referring to this year’s baseball extravaganza as June Madness would not be overstating what has taken place so far.

Both Florida and Florida State have provided significant contributions to this year’s mayhem, which saw nearly half of the 16 seeded teams and regional hosts go down to defeat. Number two national seed North Carolina lost twice to huge underdog Davidson.

That is almost like a 15-seed beating a two-seed in basketball. It would also be the overnight buzz of ESPN SportsCenter.

The 5th national seed, Texas Tech, was shocked by Sam Houston State and the 8th-seeded Stanford Cardinal also went down, losing to Cal State Fullerton.

Four others, including the Gators and Seminoles, had to bounce back from losses. Wake Forest, Louisville, LSU, TCU and Oregon State all swept their regionals in three games.

No team among the 64 tournament teams had to climb the mountain faced by Florida State. The Madness struck in the first game, when FSU inexplicably lost to fourth-seeded Tennessee Tech, 3-1.

That meant they had to do the next-to-impossible: win four straight games in three days to advance to the Super Regional. Of the 288 who have lost their first game, only 21 – just 7 percent – have won four in a row.

Make that 22.

After blowing a lead in the 9th inning, the Seminoles were only a strike away from losing to Auburn on Sunday, but fought back to win 8-7 in 10 innings.

“I don’t think in all my years have I been part of a game in which the highs and lows were so close together,” said FSU Coach Mike Martin. “My guys never folded up and kept battling.”

The next day, the unheralded Will Zirzow, making an appearance on the mound for the first time in 26 days, fired a two-hit shutout as FSU advanced, 6-0. Long Beach State, Kentucky and Florida were the other teams to lose a game (but not the first game) and still move on.

The Gators were moving along nicely in their regional until Sunday night. They had the opportunity for a three-game sweep, but the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats, earned a reprieve with a 6-2 win.

Florida restored order on Monday with a 6-1 regional-clinching win, but it was 0-0 in the 6th inning.

“Hopefully all the adversity that we’ve had, even though our record is really, really good, 45-17 now, there’s been a lot of games we’ve had to grind out,” said Gators Coach Kevin O’Sullivan. ”I’m awfully proud of our team, our players. They deserve all the credit they get and we’re excited about playing next weekend.”

The Madness that saw Texas Tech lose to Sam Houston State was great news for Florida State. Beginning Saturday, they will now host a Tallahassee Super Regional, a remarkable turn of events after questions arose a month ago whether they would even qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Florida will welcome Wake Forest to Gainesville Super Regional, also beginning Saturday. The winners qualify for the culmination of June Madness, the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Gators, Seminoles win showdowns, advance to Super Regional

Things were dicey for the Florida Gators baseball team on Monday, but when everything played out, they put away the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats to earn a spot in the Super Regional. For the Wildcats, they were not able to continue their magical run and ended the season with a 36-25 record.

As the game moved into the sixth inning, neither team could manage to put a run across the board. Part of the reason for the was the star of the game, Austin Longworthy. The two-way player got out of the third inning in relief of Kirby McMullen and put up zeroes in the fourth and fifth.

In the sixth inning, he came up with two on and launched a long home run to right to put Florida on top 3-0. After giving up a run in the seventh, Longworthy led off the eighth with a double and came around to score to make it 5-1.

Nelson Maldonado had an RBI single in the 9th inning to complete the scoring. The late offense backed up the combined 7-hitter by McMullen, Longworthy and Michael Byrne.

Florida will now face the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the Super Regional. As the number three national seed, the Gators will host the 14th-seeded Deacons.

In Tallahassee, the Florida State Seminoles shut out the Auburn Tigers, 6-0 to win the Tallahassee Regional at Dick Howser Stadium. Unheralded junior right hander Will Zirzow completely baffled the Tigers, limiting them to two hits in the complete game masterpiece.

Until Monday, the longest start of Zirzow’s career covered only five innings. He threw curveball after curveball for strike after strike while the offense provided enough run support to keep Seminole followers fairly comfortable throughout.

Zirzow struck out 11 and walked none. Catcher Blake Logan collected both Auburn hits, singles in the 6th and 9th inning.

Dylan Busby, just the second batter of the game for Florida State, doubled in Taylor Walls to open the scoring in the top of the first (the Seminoles played as the visiting team). FSU steadily increased the lead until Steven Wells capped the scoring with a home run in the top of the ninth.

With the victory, Florida State advances to the Super Regional, which they will almost certainly host. Tallahassee was paired with the Lubbock Regional featuring number 5 national seed Texas Tech. The Red Raiders suffered a shocking upset at the hands of Sam Houston State, the region’s number three seed, on Monday.

The official announcement of sites will come following completion of all regionals.

Bethune-Cookman shocks Gators in NCAAs; Seminoles force deciding game

College baseball’s June Madness came to Gainesville on Sunday night as the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats shocked the Florida Gators 6-2 to force a deciding game in the Gainesville Regional. BCU made it to the championship round by eliminating the South Florida Bulls 6-4 on Sunday afternoon.

After Bethune-Cookman starter Donte Lindsay gave way to T.J. Densmore one out into the second inning and two runs across, the Wildcats bullpen was stingy for the rest of the night.

Densmore and Anthony Maldonado combined to hold the Gators scoreless over the next 7-plus innings. Meanwhile, BCU took lead in the sixth, and earned some breathing room with a three-run eighth.

Both teams will have some time to get ready for Monday’s winner-take-all contest. First pitch is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. at McKethan Stadium.

In Tallahassee, Florida State stayed alive by eliminating Tennessee Tech, 5-3, then defeated Auburn 8-7 in 10 innings to force a third and deciding game. The winning run scored for FSU when J.C. Flowers was hit by a pitch on an 0-2 count with the bases loaded to force in the winning run..

In the Chapel Hill Regional, North Carolina, the number two national seed, ended Florida Gulf Coast’s run with a 10-1 romp. The Tar Heels went on to lose to fourth-seeded Davidson Sunday night.

Gator fans had something to cheer about on Sunday. The Florida women’s softball team advanced to the Women’s College World Series Final on Sunday with a 5-2 win over Washington. They will face defending national champion Oklahoma in a best-of-three final beginning Monday night.

 

FSU beats UCF to stay alive in NCAA Tournament; Gators outlast USF

The Central Florida Knights had hoped to play Florida State on Saturday, but not with the season on the line. The Seminoles rolled to a 6-1 win in the Tallahassee Regional, eliminating the Knights from the NCAA Tournament and ending their season.

Both FSU and USF thought they would be playing each other in the winner’s bracket game on Saturday night, but Auburn and Tennessee Tech had other ideas.  UCF dropped a 7-4 decision to Auburn on Friday, while FSU was shocked by Tennessee Tech 3-1, setting up the unlikely high stakes game on Saturday.

The Knights never figured out Seminoles’ lefthander Tyler Holton. He allowed only 6 hits and one unearned run while striking out 13 Knights in a complete game effort. Jackson Lueck provided the big blow of the game, a three-run homer in the third inning.

With the victory, Florida State moves on to Sunday for a rematch with Tennessee Tech in a loser’s bracket elimination game. The Golden Eagles lost to Auburn 5-3 in the winner’s bracket game. Central Florida finishes the season with a 40-22 record under first-year coach Greg Lovelady.

In the Gainesville Regional, the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats avoided elimination with a 4-2 win over Marist. On Sunday, they will face the USF Bulls, who lost to the Florida Gators 5-1 in 12 innings late Saturday night. Florida moves on to the regional final.

In the Chapel Hill Regional, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles lost an opportunity to make the regional finals when they dropped a 2-1 decision to the Davidson Wildcats. FGCU now must get by North Carolina, the tournament’s number 2 national seed, in a Sunday elimination game to have the chance to meet Davidson in the finals.

NCAA Baseball Tournament providing June Madness

Just call it June Madness. Crazy upsets are the norm in basketball every March, but the first day of regional play in NCAA Baseball Tournament produced some unlikely outcomes.

In Tallahassee, the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles scored three runs over the final two innings to stun Florida State 3-1, sending the Seminoles into the loser’s bracket.

Florida State starter Drew Parrish did not allow a runner to reach second base through the 7th inning. After he departed in the 8th, the Golden Eagles bunched together 6 hits to take the lead and pull the upset.

The top-seeded Seminoles will face the Central Florida Knights in an elimination game at Dick Howser Stadium beginning at noon on Saturday. UCF dropped the first game of the day, 7-4 to the Auburn Tigers. Auburn meets Tennessee Tech in the winner’s bracket game.

Earlier in the day, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles made their first-ever appearance in the tournament a memorable one with a 10-6 victory over the Michigan Wolverines in the Chapel Hill Regional. The Atlantic Sun Conference champions came from behind three times to finally take the lead for good with a 5-run 6th inning to take control.

The second-seeded Eagles will face the fourth-seeded Davidson Wildcats on Saturday in a winner’s bracket game. That match comes about following Davidson’s shocking 8-7 win over North Carolina, the number two national seed.

In the Gainesville Regional, the Marist Red Foxes were thinking upset, but fell short. They trailed the top-seeded Florida Gators only by 7-6 in the bottom of the 8th inning, but JJ Schwarz hammered a three-run homer for the Gators to provide the final margin.

Florida will face the South Florida Bulls in the winner’s bracket on Saturday. USF defeated the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats 9-1 in the first game of the day.

The Bulls built a 7-0 lead after four innings and cruised to the victory. Duke Kunkel, Jr. and Chris Chatfield homered for Florida while starter Phoenix Sanders threw seven shutout innings to get the win.

 

Tampa prepares for NHL All-Stars, Gasparilla on same weekend

As the 2016-17 National Hockey League season nears its conclusion, thoughts turned to next season and the NHL All-Star Game. Commissioner Gary Bettman was in town to join a press conference at Amalie Arena to talk about recent awarding of next year’s game to Tampa Bay.

Bettman was the first to discuss the dates of All-Star Weekend, January 26-28, coinciding with Gasparilla activities. He was undaunted by any logistical challenges and the league was well aware of the Tampa tradition long before awarding the game.

“This weekend is going to be something special,” Bettman said. “We plan to make both events more special.”

Bettman also made it clear that the league’s superstars will be in town and not practicing for the February Winter Olympics. NHL players will not be participating in the 2018 games to be held in South Korea.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn expressed his enthusiasm about having two major events going at once.

“The opportunity to marry that great event with the hockey all-star game is a dream come true,” he said. “We do this better than anywhere in the world. This is also an opportunity for the world to see a city that has transformed itself.”

Both Bettman and Buckhorn talked about the transformation of Tampa’s Channelside area, turning it into a vibrant source of activity and commerce. They gave proper credit to Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who had a message for the Lightning organization and fans.

“You deserve this all-star game,” he said. “You have allowed us to dream big.”

Vinik referenced the 107 consecutive sellouts the Lightning have enjoyed.

2018 will mark the second time the Lightning has hosted the All-Star Weekend. In 1999 the game was played in the current Lightning home, which was then called the Ice Palace.

It will also mark the second time a major sporting event has coincided with Gasparilla. In 2001, Super Bowl XXXV was in town as Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla was taking over the city.

While everyone with the Lightning and Buckhorn’s staff is pleased with the chance to conduct both events simultaneous, Buckhorn was asked about the city’s greatest challenge, especially on Saturday, when the Gasparilla parade takes place.

“Traffic,” he said succinctly. “Game night (Sunday) will be fine, but Saturday will be challenging.”

They have 8 months to come up with a plan.

 

Rays’ win in Texas caps winning month of May

Did Wednesday’s game in Arlington against the Texas Rangers signal a turning point for the Tampa Bay Rays? While there is no question the dramatic 7-5, 10-inning comeback win was the highlight of the season, it is still only one win.

A better barometer is established using a larger sample size. The signs are good for Tampa Bay.

A quality team must win on the road, or at least break even. The win in Texas brought the Rays’ overall road record to 13-14.

While that is nothing to celebrate, the good news lies in their road record for the entire month of May. Playing 14 games in Miami, Boston, Cleveland, Minnesota and Texas, the Rays went 10-4.

During the current trip, which now continues in Seattle, they are showing signs of putting the ball in play more often. During the first 6 games of the current road trip, which continues in Seattle on Friday, the Rays have fanned more than 10 times only twice.

Why is this significant? Tampa Bay leads Major League Baseball in strikeouts by a wide margin, averaging more than 10 per game. In the final two games in Texas, they struck out only 5 times each game.

The Rays also lead Major League Baseball in home runs with 83. While making better contact recently, the power continues, hitting 15 home runs during the 6 games of this road trip.

While everyone is making a contribution, how big has Logan Morrison come up? He has hit two home runs in extra innings on this trip, paving the way for a Rays’ victory. Morrison homered in the 15th inning of the Rays 8-6 win over the Twins and in the 10th inning of Wednesday’s victory over Texas.

Evan Longoria has also homered in extra innings on the trip. Morrison would not have had the chance to put the Rays on top Wednesday had it not been for a dramatic, two-out, game-tying homer by Kevin Kiermaier.

Tampa Bay’s pitching has been good enough to keep them in several games in which they have found ways to win later. Wednesday’s game is a case in point.

Thursday provides a welcome day off for a tired group, although the plane ride to Seattle must have been more relaxing after such an emotional victory.

“We’re looking forward to the off-day for sure,” said Manager Kevin Cash after the Texas win. “It’s going to help a lot of guys to just relax, lay around, not pick up a baseball.”

The Rays just completed a stretch where they played 33 games in 34 days in 7 different cities.

Now that they are playing much better away from Tropicana Field, the next step toward a successful season is to perform better at home. They were only 7-9 in May home games.

They can work on that beginning next Tuesday. After spending the weekend in Seattle, they return home to face the Chicago White Sox.

In the meantime, Jake Odorizzi takes the mound on Friday night in Seattle to start the month of June.

Corey Dickerson lone Rays’ bright spot in All-Star balloting

Corey Dickerson is having a monster season worthy of an all-star. Whether he is invited to make the short trip to Miami as part of the American League All-Star team is yet to be determined.

In the first round of American League All-Star balloting released Wednesday, Dickerson is fourth among designated hitters. No other Rays player is among the top 5 in any position.

Seattle’s Nelson Cruz leads designated hitters by a wide margin over second place Edwin Encarnacion of the Cleveland Indians and third place Matt Holliday of the New York Yankees.

Dickerson’s .346 average leads all of the league’s designated hitters by almost 70 points. As of Wednesday, he leads the American League in hitting by one point over Seattle’s Jean Segura.

Cruz and Dickerson both have 12 home runs while Holliday has 11 and Encarnacion has 10. Dickerson leads all designated hitters with 30 extra base hits, while Cruz is second best with 20.

It is unlikely Dickerson, or any Rays player, will be voted into the starting lineup by the fans, but could be selected as a reserve by American League Manager Terry Francona or fellow players.

Among those in the running include Steven Souza, Jr. among outfielders, who is fourth among right fielders in batting with a .277 average. Logan Morrison is hitting only .237, but leads American League first basemen with 14 home runs and has the fifth most in the league.

Morrison could also be a candidate for the Home Run Derby competition, which is beginning to dwarf the game itself for fan interest. Matt Andriese, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer are possible starting pitcher selections while closer Alex Colome is a probable selection.

The game will be played at Marlins Park on July 11. The next American League voting update is Tuesday, June 6.

 

Marlins sale still involves Who’s Who of Republican politics even without Jeb Bush

The news began to break on Tuesday evening. Jeb Bush was reportedly no longer interested in purchasing the Miami Marlins, according to anonymous sources.

Bush was yet another among the biggest names in Republican politics seeking to buy one of baseball’s worst performing teams. Others include President Trump’s family circle and a serious investor carrying the name of Romney.

The Bush family has been involved with baseball for decades. George H.W. Bush was captain of the 1948 Yale baseball team and a frequent patron of the Houston Astros. George W. Bush co-owned the Texas Rangers in the 1990s.

Before we learned of Bush’s pursuit of the Marlins, news broke in February that current team owner Jeffrey Loria had a “handshake agreement” to sell the team. Not just to anybody, but to Ivanka Trump’s father-in-law and brother-in-law for $1.6 billion.

Charles Kushner, father of White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, and Joshua Kushner were seriously pursuing the purchase, but halted their bid. The problem developed when Trump was said to be strongly considering Loria for the role of ambassador to France. Loria is a major donor to the Republican National Committee.

“Although the Kushners have made substantial progress in discussions for us to purchase the Marlins, recent reports suggest Mr. Loria will soon be nominated to be ambassador to France,” read a statement from another member of the group, Joseph Meyer, Joshua Kushner’s brother-in-law. “If that is true, we do not want this unrelated transaction to complicate that process and will not pursue it.”

Loria is yet to be nominated, leaving open the possibility the Kushners would re-engage if Trump goes in another direction for France. If so, Charles Kushner would need to address questions from his past regarding a conviction for tax evasion.

While Bush is apparently stepping aside, his partner, future first ballot Hall of Famer Derek Jeter is looking for other investors. If the Kushners do not get back in, the Tampa resident’s main competition comes from Massachusetts.

Tagg Romney, a venture capitalist and the 47-year-old son of the GOP 2012 nominee for President Mitt Romney, is making a strong bid and apparently picking up steam. Mitt Romney is not involved with his son’s bid.

In April, former Atlanta Braves’ legend and 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Tom Glavine joined the group. In early May, former Oakland A’s pitching star and Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager Dave Stewart joined Romney and Glavine. Miami native Alex Rodriguez declined an offer to join.

The two competing groups are said to be offering about $1.3 billion. The Marlins hope to close the sale by the time they host the MLB All-Star Game in mid-July.

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