Series merit badge fitting for son of Orioles scout

Ken Rosenthal

October 19, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Ed Sprague Sr. is the scout who delivered Mike Mussina and Jeffrey Hammonds to the Orioles. The only Stanford star to elude him in recent years is the one who last night hit a pinch-hit, game-winning homer in the World Series.

His son, Ed Sprague Jr.

"He was first on my list that year," Sprague Sr. said early this morning from Lodi, Calif., recalling the 1988 draft. "He was a legitimate first-round pick. But he wasn't going to be the fourth pick in the country."

That was the Orioles' draft position in '88, and after Atlanta chose a high school kid named Steve Avery, Baltimore took Auburn reliever Gregg Olson. Sprague went to Toronto on the 25th pick. Now, more than four years later, he's a World Series hero.

On a night the Canadian flag was held upside down by a U.S. Marine color guard during the playing of the national anthems, Sprague's two-run homer in the ninth inning enabled the Blue Jays to defeat Atlanta, 5-4, for Canada's first series victory.

Yes, another backup catcher.

Cabrera, Berryhill, Sprague. Who's next, Toronto's Randy Knorr?

The irony again was delicious, and not just because Sprague's father works for the Orioles. This is the same 25-year-old kid who became a media villain in Canada after his wife, Kristen Babb-Sprague, upset Canadian Sylvie Frechette for the gold medal in Olympic synchronized swimming.

A controversy erupted over the scoring, and a Toronto radio station contacted Sprague in Detroit for his reaction. He said he didn't care what the Canadian people thought, he was thrilled for his wife. The sound bite was taken out of context. Suddenly, unfairly, Sprague was the ugly American.

Not anymore, eh?

His wife reached him as he walked from the interview room to the Blue Jays clubhouse last night, surrounded by cameramen and reporters in the bowels of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. She kissed him, embraced him, kissed him again, then patted him twice on the back.

"I just wanted this so badly for him," she said. "It's been such an incredible year of 'Me, me, me.' He deserves so much credit for hanging in there. What an incredible thing. He can retire from baseball tomorrow. He might never have a moment like this again."

Kristen wasn't suggesting Ed actually retire; indeed, his career is only beginning. But as an athlete, she appreciated the singular thrill he experienced last night, connecting off veteran closer Jeff Reardon, tying the series at one game apiece.

Back in Lodi, Ed Sprague Sr. could appreciate it too. He pitched in the majors from 1968 to '76 without ever appearing in the Series -- even though he was a member of the '72 Cincinnati team that lost to Oakland in seven games.

He watched last night's game at home with his 80-year-old mother Irene and wife Michelle. He plans to fly this morning to Toronto for the middle three games. He didn't come to Atlanta because he was too busy performing his duties for the Orioles, for whom he began working in 1986.

He spent the end of September scouting Oakland so he could file a report if the Orioles met the A's in the playoffs. His son's team, of course, ruined everything. Only now is he getting back to his regular amateur coverage in northern California and Nevada, in preparation for next year's draft.

So, it was the TV or nothing.

Ed Jr. had pinch-hit twice in the ALCS, and both at-bats were eventful. His single off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 was the first sign the Oakland closer might be vulnerable. And his strikeout against Eckersley in Game 4 prompted the reliever's fist-pumping, finger-pointing display that so roused Toronto.

Last night was different. The Blue Jays trailed by one run entering the ninth, with their 7-8-9 hitters scheduled to bat. Manager Cito Gaston had used Candy Maldonado as a pinch hitter in the seventh. Bench coach Gene Tenace told Derek Bell and Sprague to get loose.

Bell, in his first full major-league season, drew a one-out walk. Sprague, who spent half the year as a Syracuse Chief, jumped on Reardon's first pitch. A low fastball to a low fastball hitter. A pitch Sprague crushed over the left-field wall.

"As soon as he threw that ball, I saw Eddie's hands go back . . ." Ed Sr. said, his scout's eyes true. "It was a tremendous thrill for us. What more can you say? That's the situation you want to see. You can't ask for anything more."

Afterward, Ed Jr. talked about how veteran Rance Mulliniks advised him to watch Reardon closely. He talked about how disappointed he was to open at Syracuse after spending most of last year with Toronto. And he talked about the furor resulting from his wife's gold medal.

Outside, Kristen Babb-Sprague also was holding court, wearing a stars-and-stripes denim jacket. A reporter asked about her father-in-law, and she laughed. "The man is going to die," she said. "He can die tomorrow and be a happy man."

Back in Lodi, Ed Sprague Sr. was alive and kicking, and completely over failure to appear in the '72 Series. "This is better," the Orioles scout said. "You raise a kid, you want him to do well. They've had a tremendous year, both those kids. You work as hard as they do, good things happen."

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