Ten weeks ago I began a weekly series looking back at some of the top farm squads in the history of Brewers baseball, dating back to 1970 when the Seattle Pilots headed northeast from spring training in Arizona and became the Milwaukee Brewers. I have not included short-season Class A or Rookie ball teams, as their seasons are generally too short to compare to full-season squads in A, AA, and AAA levels.
With this week’s edition of Beating the Bushes, I present the #10 team on my list:
#10 Stockton Ports, 1989
The Ports won the California League North division in 1989, but fell just short of the Class A Advanced league title, falling in a three-game series to Bakersfield. Stockton–managed by Dave Huppert–compiled a record of 89-53 during the regular season.
Huppert is still managing these days and is in his 26th year, having been on the bench for nearly 3,500 games. His current team is Lakeland, the Tigers’ entry in the A+ Florida State League.
The Ports played at Billy Hebert Field and drew only 72,700 fans, which ranked eighth in the ten-team league. That seems odd since they won the most games in the league and had won league titles in 1980 and 1986. The Ports nickname was established in 1946, recognizing Stockton’s status as an inland port city, some 75 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.
Thirty-seven players dressed for Stockton during the year, and 13 players either went on to play in the bigs or were on rehab assignment.
John Jaha won the league MVP title, hitting 25 homers and driving in 91, while batting .292 for the Ports.
As a team, the pitching staff was the league’s best, leading the California League in ERA (2.77), shutouts (20), fewest homers allowed (41), and strikeouts (1,114). The also led the league in fielding percentage (.969).
Collectively the hitters were rather pedestrian, finishing third in runs scored (654), fifth in batting average (.247), sixth in home runs (57), and seventh in steals (120).
Dale Sveum was on a rehab assignment due to a broken leg suffered in a collision in September 1988 and only played in 11 games for Stockton. He would finish with twelve seasons in the bigs, playing in 862 games. His best season was the ‘Team Streak’ campaign of 1987 for Milwaukee, when he hit 25 home runs and drove in 95 runs.
He managed three years in the Pirates organization and would go on to coach with the Red Sox and Brewers before managing one year in Milwaukee and two with the Cubs. He is currently a coach with the Kansas City Royals.
Pitcher Doug Henry was a starter in those days, but only pitched in five games in the minors that season. In eleven major league seasons, Henry pitched in 582 games, earning 34 wins and 82 saves. He was eighth in Rookie of the Year voting in the American League in 1991, and saved 29 games the next season. He is currently the bullpen coach for Kansas City.
Jaha was one of the top players in the California League and would go on to play for ten years in ‘The Show.’ In 826 games, ‘Jaws’ hits 141 home runs, including two years of 34 or more.
Steve Sparks won 13 games with two shutouts and a 2.41 ERA. He pitched for nine seasons in the bigs, on the mound in 270 games. He would not reach Milwaukee until 1995 but performed well enough to place ninth in Rookie of the Year voting, winning nine times and completing three games. He won won 59 games against 76 losses in his career with Milwaukee, Anaheim, Detroit, Arizona, and Oakland.
Aussie Dave Nilsson played well as a 19-year-old in 1989, knocking in 56 runs while hitting .244. He would play in the bigs for eight seasons, appearing in 837 games and hitting 105 homers and slashing 284/356/491 in over 3,100 at bats. He competed in the 2000 Olympics for his home country and in 2008 was named to the Sports Australia Hall of Fame.
Pat Listach stole 37 bases, tying for seventh in the league. He won the 1992 American League Rookie of the Year Award with his 54-steal, .290 batting average season. In his six years, he played in 503 games and stole 116 bases. He managed for three years in the Cubs organization before becoming a big league coach with the Nationals and Cubs, and is currently a coach for the Houston Astros.
HR: John Jaha (25)
RBI: John Jaha (91)
BA: John Jaha (.292)
SB: Pat Listach (37)
C: Dave Nilsson
1B: John Jaha
2B: Pat Listach
3B: Chris Cassels
SS: Charlie Montoyo
OF: Robert Jones
OF: Rob Smith
OF: Timothy Raley
SP: Mike Ignasiak
SP: Steve Sparks
SP: Mark Ambrose
SP: Narciso Elvira
SP: Kent Hetrick
CL: Chris George
Keep Your Phone Books Away From: Steve Sparks
The Brewers drafted Steven William Sparks in the fifth round of the 1987 June Draft. He began his professional career at Rookie level Helena and did okay in nine starts, winning six games, earning him a promotion to ‘A’ Beloit.
Sparks went 9-13 in 24 starts at Beloit and would move up to ‘High A’ Stockton in 1989, where he went 13-5 with an ERA of 2.41 and was arguably the best pitcher on the staff.
In 1990 he split time between Stockton and AA El Paso but returned to Stockton in 1991.
That was the season he began throwing a knuckler and notched a combined 10-12 record between Stockton and El Paso.
He pitched at El Paso in 1992 and spent 1993 at AAA New Orleans.
In spring training before the 1994 season, Sparks tried to rip a phone book in half and the result was a separated left shoulder, which wasn’t the end of the world for the right-handed pitcher, but it set him back a few weeks. He finished the season in New Orleans.
As a 29-year-old rookie in 1995, he placed ninth in the A.L. RoY voting with his nine win season and 202 innings pitched. He split the following season between Milwaukee and New Orleans.
In 1997 spring training, he injured his arm and had ‘Tommy John‘ surgery, missing the season and getting released by the Brewers.
He would go on to pitch for Anaheim (1998-99), Detroit (2000-03), Oakland (2003), and Arizona (2004). He posted his best big league season in 2001, winning 14 games and leading the American League with eight complete games.
Sparks retired in 2005, having pitched in 270 games (182 starts) and compiling an ERA of 4.88.
The Houston native has been the color commentator the last three seasons for the Astros radio broadcasts.