Late-Blooming Knuckleballers, Part Three

R.A. Dickey, the subject of our previous post on late-blooming knuckleballers, is only the most prominent of today’s knuckleball pitchers, including those who decided to specialize in it only after having already put in a few years of pro ball. (Which is, after all, the typical knuckleballer path. Few start out in pro baseball determined to be knuckleballers; IKA’s own Chris Nowlin is one exception.)

Here are a few other players on the field today who have adopted the knuckleball.

Wakefileld Dickey Niekro

Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox organization is described in our Knuckleball History as “throw[ing] a Dickey-like, hard knuckleball that averages 75-77 mph.” Wright has been called up to the majors in 2013 and again in 2014 after starting the season with the Pawtucket Red Sox. “This year, I’ve definitely been concentrating more on trying to throw three knuckleballs: a harder one, a regular one, and then a slower one,” Wright said said in September. “I feel like you can make it three different pitches.”

Eddie Gamboa, currently a free agent, tried the knuckleball to improve his chances of sticking around in the game. “When you get older,” he says, “there are kids who are 18 and 19 years old who can do the same thing that you can, so you have to do something different and for me it was the knuckleball…. I’ve always thrown the knuckleball since the age of 12, but I never threw it competitively, until I met Phil Niekro  and he convinced me.”

Kevin Pucetas took up the pitch in 2013. “I kind of had it in the back of my mind,” Pucetas said after being asked by the Texas Rangers to adopt the pitch, which he did in consultation with R.A. Dickey and Charlie Hough. “I wasn’t having a great year in Frisco, I definitely wasn’t where I wanted to be with my numbers. So I agreed to give it an evaluation and [said] let’s see where this is and where it can take me.”

“I’m not 24 any more,” said Dan Johnson, 35, in explanation of his pursuit of the knuckleball. “My hope was to ultimately become a guy that could do both. Essentially if you needed a bat or position player I could do that, and if you’ve got a game that’s maybe getting out of hand, instead of burning up a whole bullpen, being able to go out and throw 70 or 80 pitches and suck up innings. I don’t want to do it as a sideshow. If I’m going to do it, I want to do it right.”

Frank Viola III, a free agent who has played for the Toronto Blue Jays organization, has worked with Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey and Phil Niekro (pictured above) to develop his knuckleball. Viola decided to give it a shot after suffering both elbow and knee injuries, and after former teammates of his father suggested he turn to the knuckleball to revive his career. It was slow-going at first. “I threw one out of 100 that actually knuckled. Then within two months or a month and a half, I started throwing it where I could get like two out of 10. I was like, ‘Wow, this is kind of cool.’ ”

Tomo Ohka, now 38, has played a lot of ball on both sides of the ocean, most recently for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League. After a varied professional career in the U.S. that began with the Boston Red Sox organization in 1999 and included major-league play, he returned to Japan in 2010 to re-join his old team of the Yokahoma BayStars. In 2013, back again in this country, Ohka spent a season with the Toronto Blue Jays organization before being added to the roster of the Bluefish. He had begun learning the knuckleball in 2011 while still in Japan, after suffering a shoulder injury. “I threw a lot every day,” he said about his initial training. “I was able to confirm that I had been training properly on my own. I want to give it another shot if given the chance, even if I have to start in the minors.”

Like many a ball player who never throws the knuckleball professionally, Blaine Sims messed around with a knuckleball for quite a long time before he decided to turn to it in earnest. “I was playing Legion ball,” Sims told Gondee.com last year, “with a kid that went to high school down the road from me, I played catch with the kid, and at the end of every catch session he would say ‘catch my knuckleball.’ I didn’t think anything about it and we just started playing knuckleball catch, and he showed me how to do it.” Thanks to his inadvertent display of his knuckleball during batting practice, the Atlanta Braves asked Sims to devote himself more seriously to it. “I’ve always grown up different, and I wanted to be different. I’m already left-handed, and guys already think you’re out there anyway. Well then you start throwing a knuckleball, and people are like ‘my God, what is this.’ ”

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