In today’s Baltimore Sun, I wrote a story on the Orioles’ efforts to convert minor league pitchers Zach Clark and Eddie Gamboa into knuckleballers.
Clark and Gamboa are working with Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro, who won 318 games and revolutionized the knuckleball, while both pitchers are at Double-A Bowie.
In speaking with the 74-year-old Niekro this week, you can tell he’s still very passionate in teaching the knuckleball to young pitchers. He realizes that, in some ways, it can make a difference in helping a pitcher break into the majors.
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The Orioles are committed as well. Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette knows Niekro from Duquette’s days as Red Sox general manager, when Duquette brought Niekro to work with Tim Wakefield in 1995. Duquette’s made it clear that the Orioles will be patient with Clark and Gamboa’s transition to becoming knuckleballers.
Here are some additional nuggets from my conversation with Niekro and working with Clark and Gamboa:
On his first days working with Gamboa and Clark:
“I’ve got to first find out if they’re really mentally prepared to do this and make the transition from what they were throwing all their lives until now. You’ve got to make the commitment. You’ve got to make the sacrifice. The knuckleball becomes a part of you 24 hours a day. You eat, sleep and drink it. Your other pitches you can mix in there, but you don’t go to the mound and try to get guys out with anything else but your knuckleball. That’s sometimes a hard transition to make, you being out there knowing that the batter knows what you’re throwing and you’re still going to throw it anyway. A lot of guys have trouble with that.”
On Eddie Gamboa:
“Eddie’s probably got as good of stuff other than his knuckleball than any pitcher that I’ve been around or seen or worked with. He’s got a good fastball, a nice changeup, he’s got a breaking ball that’s good, so when he’s not getting his breaking ball over, he can go to another pitch every once in a while and get better out. A lot of knuckleballers can’t do that.”
On the diversity of knuckleball pitchers:
“There’s no age to knuckleballers. I think I told them both that I didn’t win my first game in the big leagues until I was 26 and I pitches until I was 48. I told Dan Duquette when he was in Boston and he had the chance to get Wakefield, ‘You have a guy here who can start for you, he can long for you, the can middle for you, he can set up for you, he can close for you.’”
On whether R.A. Dickey’s success has put a spotlight on knuckleball:
“He opened a lot of eyes through a lot of organizations. He made headlines last year. I think maybe now there are some organizations realizing that they have some good pitchers in the minor leagues who may be on the bubble and that don’t know what to do with them. If they’ve been throwing knuckleballs on the side, then let’s get someone to help them and maybe we can get them to the big leagues and keep them there.
On hitters’ comfort level against knucklers:
“There arent many hitters who like facing knuckleball pitchers. They may not be initimidated by them, but they sure are thinking about them before they go into the box. When you get guys thinking before they get to home plate, you’ve got a little edge on them.”
More on the process of teaching the knuckleball:
“You have to have some patience with knuckleball pitchers. It’s such a touchy-feely pitch that it can take them a while to get it. I told Zach and Eddie that you’re going to throw one pitch and you’re going to say, ‘That’s it.’ It might be one batter, one pitch. Sometimes they’re uncomfortable about it because they’ve been getting guys out in the minor leagues and have been pretty successful and all of a sudden it’s [backwards] now.”