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NEW YORK -- Steven Wright's three-year quest to get knuckleball tips directly from New York Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey finally materialized during spring training through a chance encounter.
Wright, a minor league pitcher with the Cleveland Indians, was playing alone at Palm Valley Golf Club in Goodyear, Ariz., where his wife, Shannon, works, after having returned from winter ball, when he met another solo golfer and struck up a conversation. That man, Kirby Arnold, a retired sportswriter for the Everett (Wash.) Herald, formerly covered the Seattle Mariners and had maintained a relationship with Dickey.
Arnold set up an email exchange between Dickey and Wright, which led to an hour-long spring training tutorial by phone. Now, the 27-year-old Wright scrutinizes each of Dickey's outings on a laptop from the Double-A Akron Aeros clubhouse, and is on a path toward becoming the second active knuckleballer in the majors.
|Wright has a 1.99 ERA in 13 starts for Double-A Akron this year.|
Dickey, a potential National League All-Star starter who is bidding for his MLB-leading 12th win when he opposes New York Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," may be doing more than giving the Mets a credible shot at the postseason. He is giving new life to a pitch that seemingly had been threatened with extinction. Dickey's wild success also may be increasing the receptiveness to the knuckleball in major league front offices, easing the path for others to follow him to the majors.
A survey of the 30 major league organizations found only two active knuckleballers besides Dickey -- Wright and Chicago Cubs farmhand Joe Zeller, who was transferred to Class A Boise last week, from Daytona in the Florida State League.
Of the 1,188 knuckleballs thrown in the majors this season, 1,186 have been delivered by Dickey. (The other two? Those came from Kansas City Royals outfielder Mitch Maier, during an April 15 mop-up appearance against the Indians, according to ESPN Stats & Information.)
"I hope that myself and other guys can -- not fill his shoes -- but follow his path, like he did with the Niekros [Phil and Joe], and Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield," says Wright, who is 6-4 with a 1.99 ERA through 13 Eastern League starts this season. "Now it's R.A., and then hopefully it's myself and other guys. Right now, with what R.A. is doing, it's giving us a chance. It's opening the eyes of all the other 29 organizations. They aren't going to be like, 'Well, this guy is a knuckleballer. We're just going to write him off. We're not going to give him a chance.'
"R.A. is definitely changing that. It's such a lost art that it's almost extinct, where nobody sees it. That's the thing, I don't think it will die. Not with what R.A. is doing. R.A. is making a stand for knuckleballers, because he's showing how valuable they can be for a team, whether it's as a starter or reliever or mop-up guy. What he's doing, it's making guys want to take that risk. He's helping us maybe get a big reward out of this big risk that we're taking on a pitch that's just unpredictable."
Says New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson: "I definitely believe that Dickey's success will lead to more interest in the knuckleball by other professional and even amateur pitchers. However, the interest in the pitch may be short-lived if no one out there can teach it. R.A. worked hard to connect with those who could help him develop his knuckleball. Others may not have the same perseverance."
Wright first was exposed to the knuckleball as a 9-year-old growing up in Southern California, while taking pitching lessons from Frank Pastore, who had an eight-year career with the Cincinnati Reds. Pastore would throw knuckleballs back to Wright, intriguing him. For the next 14 years, Wright dabbled with the pitch while playing catch. He also paid special attention when Red Sox games involving Wakefield were televised.
Knuckleballers frequently refer to the offering as a pitch of "desperation," a last resort to keep their careers afloat. That was not entirely the case with Wright, a second-round pick in 2006 out of the University of Hawaii. His fastball still hovers around 90 mph, more than adequate to remain a conventional pitcher. But after being demoted from Triple-A Columbus to Akron in 2010, Wright recognized he needed an additional "out" pitch to put away batters once he reached two strikes.
The decision to incorporate a knuckleball happened by chance, however -- just like the encounter with Arnold that led to the contact with Dickey. Akron catcher Miguel Perez was waiting for a pitcher to throw a bullpen session before a game in New Hampshire, so Wright hopped on the mound to fool around.
"I was like, 'Hey, Miggy, see if you can catch this,'" Wright says. "I started throwing it and he couldn't catch it. So I kept throwing it, because he was up for the challenge, like, 'Man, I've got to be able to catch this.' And then I thought it was the end of it -- it was fun while it lasted. Greg Hibbard, our pitching coach at the time, and Jason Bere, one of our special assistants, were there watching. And they were both interested, like, 'Wow, that's pretty good.'"
For the remainder of the season, with the organization's encouragement, Wright used the knuckleball as a two-strike pitch -- "maybe 10, 15 percent" of his total offerings. Now, the knuckleball ranges from 65 to 85 percent of Wright's offerings in any given game, and is consistent with the hard one Dickey utilizes, in the 78-81 mph range.
By spring training in 2011, Wright showed enough promise that the Indians called in Tom Candiotti to work with him. Candiotti, a former Indians knuckleballer, advocated the knuckleball becoming Wright's primary offering. "I didn't think that a year from that I'd be a straight knuckleballer," Wright says. "That's just the way that I went. And I've shown I can be really successful with it.
"And then, when you have a bad day, it's like batting practice. I've been lucky enough to where I still have a fastball that's in the high 80s to low 90s. I've still got a sinker. I've still got my cutter. And so it kind of gives me a little bit of a safety net if I'm not throwing as many strikes as I'd like with the knuckleball."
Zeller, 24, often would fool around with the knuckleball as a youngster while playing catch with friends. He figured out the grip by researching Wakefield and Hough on Google Images.
Drafted in the 28th round in 2010 as a conventional pitcher out of The Master's College in Santa Clarita, Calif., Zeller had a subpar inaugural pro season, producing a 6.87 ERA between the short-season Arizona and Northwest leagues after the draft. So he approached coaches about attempting the knuckleball during the following spring training in a bid to stick.
"Probably, like most knuckleballers, it's necessity," Zeller says about the motivation for adopting the pitch full-time.
Zeller occasionally worked with Hough last offseason, through an introduction from Dennis Lewallyn, the Cubs' minor league pitching coordinator. It worked out well because Zeller lives near Hough in Orange County, Calif.
R.A. is making a stand for knuckleballers, because he's showing how valuable they can be for a team, whether it's as a starter or reliever or mop-up guy. What he's doing, it's making guys want to take that risk.” -- Indians minor leaguer Steven Wright
"He wants me to throw it as hard as I can and still be able to take spin off of it, which is one of the main reasons I think Dickey is having so much success," Zeller says. "He's able to throw it 80, 81 mph. Seeing that, it shows you I need to work on being able to throw it really hard like that. There's a misnomer that you want to throw it slow, but I think that's more because a lot of people who throw the knuckleball blew out their arms, so they could not throw it hard."
Beyond Wright and Zeller, there have been only a smattering of other knuckleballers in the minors in recent seasons.
Charlie Haeger, who has 34 major league games on his résumé, completed last season with Double-A Portland in the Boston Red Sox organization and is currently rehabbing following Tommy John surgery. Former Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand Houston Summers, only 24, had a pair of shoulder surgeries in the past 18 months. Summers, originally drafted as a catcher, is planning to pursue a college degree in the fall, but still hopes to rekindle his knuckleball career.
Eddie Bonine, who appeared with the Detroit Tigers for three seasons, pitched for Triple-A Lehigh Valley in the Philadelphia Phillies organization last year. Charlie Zink, a former Red Sox farmhand, pitched in the independent Atlantic League in 2011 with Lancaster.
So why are there so few knuckleballers?
"It's hard to throw, first of all," Zeller says. "I think the bigger reason is you have to be really patient with a pitcher. It might take anywhere from like three to five or maybe seven or eight years. Organizations, they like guys who throw 95, 100 mph and stuff like that. You just have to have the right kind of people that will be patient with it."
Wright recalls a conversation with Scott Radinsky, now the Indians' pitching coach, while preparing for the 2011 season. Wright was waiting for other farmhands to complete their bullpen sessions before his turn.
Says Wright: "He called me over and said, 'Hey, Wrighty, what do all these guys have in common?' He goes, 'They're all between 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-4, right-handed pitchers, low-to-mid-90s.' He goes, 'What separates them? Opportunity. Right place, right time. Success. Failure. But, in reality, when you're looking on a scouting report, they're all the exact same.' With the knuckleball, he goes, 'That's something that gets people talking.' It's like a left-handed pitcher with gas. You just don't see them that often. So when you do see it, it gets people thinking, 'Hey, maybe this is something.'
"It's definitely inspirational for me just to watch it," Wright continues, referring to Dickey, "because he's helping all the guys like myself that right now are just trying to make it as a knuckleballer. He's showing how valuable a knuckleballer can be for an organization."