Tim Gray reminds us of how the knuckleball can revive a pro-baseball career:
“I expected to play 10 years in the big leagues and ride off into the sunset,” [Dan] Johnson said Friday at Haymarket Park, where he was playing for the St. Paul Saints. “When [Patterson] approached me [about pitching the knuckleball] I took it semi-serious, but I wasn’t thinking this is how it was going to be.
“When I was done throwing, he just told me, ‘This is something you need to take serious, you have that special ability to throw this pitch that is very hard to learn.’ “
The MLB veteran took it serious enough, and the Rays came calling again in 2015, signing him to a two-year deal before an elbow injury set him back.
Tampa Bay suggested taking some time off, but Johnson was eager to craft his new trade and spent time with knuckleball veteran R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Some of the wisdom I got from R.A. was, if I needed a strike, I’m throwing my knuckleball,” Johnson said…. “He is, for sure, my biggest mentor after playing with him and being able to pick his brain.”
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Speaking of sleeves and feet—okay, we weren’t; but now we are—Steven Wright is putting his foot down in response to Sox manager John Farrell’s advice that he wear sleeves to help with the knuckleball and the heat.
…The sleeves would presumably allow Wright to wipe off the sweat and keep his hands dry for a clean grip on the knuckler…
[Wright] might be stubborn, but being consistent is what has worked for him all year.
“I’m not going to do sleeves, man,” he said. “It’s too hot. I just don’t feel like I need to change that much. You recognize it, and so you go out there and if it becomes an issue, yeah, I’ll put some sleeves on. But if it’s not an issue, why am I going to? If the ball doesn’t feel good in my hand, well I need to switch something up. But if the ball feels fine coming out of my hand, why the hell do I need to change?”
Wright says his knuckleball is more likely to be skewed by rain than by heat, and attributes a less-than-phenomenal performance in a recent game to other factors.
Wright still holds a 3.12 ERA, sixth-best in the American League. His breakout season has been due largely to the fact that he’s figured out how to be consistent with his delivery and his grip, every single game, every single pitch. He’s even mastered the art of throwing a high-80s fastball while in the exact same delivery he uses to throw a mid-50s knuckleball.
In light of these facts, perhaps it would be best that nobody insist on long sleeves. And hey, Wright says he may try it if and when muggy circumstances truly warrant.
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Not counting MLB pitchers Wright and R.A. Dickey, who else is plausibly working on a knuckleball? We’ve been watching several aspirants in the minors and elsewhere, and every once in a while we come across a name not yet on our radar. Like V.J. Collins.
Again, the Tampa Bay Rays are both benefactor and beneficiary.
[Collins] had made as far as playing for an independent league team known as the San Rafael Pacifics, before deciding to return to Manhattanville and take a job as a pitching coach.
Then, everything changed for the 24-year-old with the help of his older sister Nicole.
Nicole Collins, who is a lawyer, believed in her brother and his knuckleball so much that she took it upon herself to contact the Tampa Bay Rays, as well as the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Against all odds, the assistant director of minor league operation for the Rays returned Nicole’s messages and enquired about her brother’s famed knuckleball.
Nicole sent the organization a two-minute demo video. This led to a tryout at Dutchess Stadium.
After a long and anxious wait, Collins signed a contract with the Rays.
The Poughkeepsie Journal, which reported the deal on July 27, quotes Collins on what a bolt from the blue this opportunity is for him. He’d pretty much decided to pack it in.
“This is something I’ve spent years fantasizing about,” the 24-year-old said. “Seeing it start to come to fruition is unbelievable. It’s indescribable right now. There’s nothing I can compare this to.”
Though he has thrown the knuckleball since he was 12, Collins pitched in just one game as a senior at Arlington High School and had an undistinguished collegiate career. He had made the choice to stop playing after last season.
His sister, Nicole Collins, kept banging on doors until one of the doors opened. A last-ditch gambit was leaving voicemail with the Rays’ Jeff McLerran. She recalls:
“I said, ‘Full disclosure, my brother is 5-foot-10, 185 pounds. And I’ve been an attorney for seven months. I can’t promise anything, but my word is all I have. People have said his knuckleball is Major League quality. If you take the time to look at him, you would see he has ability.’ ”
“This was just a Hail Mary,” she said. “I went into this cold and just prayed.”
Saved by the knuckleball. And sis. Wow.