When right-hander Zach Clark was summoned to Orioles manager Buck Showalter's office two weeks ago and told he was being designated for assignment, the conversation suddenly veered off in a peculiar direction.
Clark, who at that moment was still digesting the end of his brief four-day stint in the majors after parts of eight years in the minor, said Showalter abruptly began talking about reigning National League Cy Young Award winner and current Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, who turned his career around after transitioning into a knuckleball pitcher.
"He starts telling me about how [Dickey] doesn't have an ego, he's committed to the pitch," Clark said of the conversation. "He fields the position well, He holds runners, all these things that you need to be able to do to throw a knuckleball. And then he was like, 'But we'll talk about that later.' I don't know what he was doing, but it was probably to see my reaction to it."
Once Clark cleared waivers, the UMBC graduate had another discussion, this one with executive vice president Dan Duquette, where he was asked to begin a transition to become a knuckleballer.
The Orioles are hoping both Clark and right-hander Eddie Gamboa — who has also toiled in the minors — can take their careers to the next level by mastering baseball's most unpredictable pitch.
"They're only valuable if they're good," Showalter said. "It's a long process. There are certain guys you can't do it with ... because some guys have that instant-return [mentality]. You have to have to stick to it and know the failure you're going to go through and knowing it's a long shot, but it's not as long as maybe the [alternative]."
Learning from the best
Clark and Gamboa are getting plenty of help as they try to learn the finer points of the knuckleball. Pitching at Double-A Bowie, they've been receiving tutelage from Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, whose 318 career major league victories are the most ever by a knuckleballer.
Duquette's relationship with Niekro goes back nearly two decades, when Duquette — then the general manager of the Boston Red Sox — asked Niekro to work with a budding knuckleballer named Tim Wakefield.
Clark and Gamboa both tested their knuckleballs in spring training while Niekro was in Orioles camp working with another knuckleballer, Zach Staniewicz, who is currently in extended spring training.
"When will the return be? I don't know," Duquette said. "But if these pitchers can pitch and make their way to the big leagues, that's certainly worth the investment. … Look at the money you can make if you establish yourself as a major league pitcher, so what difference does it make what pitches you use to get the hitter out? It doesn't really matter does it? It's all about performance."
Gamboa has been throwing a knuckleball competitively for two months. Clark, who started the season at Triple-A Norfolk before his short stint in the majors, began working with Niekro last week.
"You've got to make the commitment," Niekro said. "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, going out there knowing that the batter knows what you're throwing and you're still going to throw it anyway.
As Niekro, Wakefield and Dickey have proven in their careers, a successful knuckleball pitcher can be a game-changer, because he can eat innings, save a bullpen and keep an opposing lineup flumoxed. But that's easier said than done. By throwing a pitch with less spin, the knuckleball's path can be erratic, which makes perfecting it a lesson in both patience and persistence.
"We'd call is God's pitch, because only God knows where it's going," said Bowie pitching coach Blaine Beatty, who also threw the knuckleball with the New York Mets from 1989-91.
Both Clark and Gamboa are eager for the opportunity, realizing they there will be some struggles along the way. After years of trying to improve their repertoires through the minor leagues, they're in some ways starting from scratch. Clark, who signed for $1,000 as an undrafted free agent in 2006, is 29 and has had two shoulder surgeries. Gamboa is 28 and has pitched just four games above Double-A in his six-year minor league career.
"They're both at a point of their careers where they're at the point where they're getting a little bit older at the minor league level," Orioles minor league coordinator Brian Graham said. "Both of them are at the point now where they do have to do something like this to try to put an extra spark in their career."
Both Duquette and Showalter know what perfecting the knuckleball can do to a meandering pitcher's career. Wakefield went on to pitch until he was 44 and won two World Series titles with the Red Sox.
And in Texas, Showalter was the manager who suggested to Dickey that he should embrace the knuckleball when his career was floundering in 2005.
Last season, at age 37, Dickey became the first knuckleballer to win a Cy Young Award. Niekro, who pitched until he was 48, said Dickey's success has changed the way teams think.