Knuckleballers

Double-A right-handers Zach Clark (left) and Eddie Gamboa are transitioning into knuckleballers with the help of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (right).

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.

"He opened a lot of eyes through a lot of organizations," Niekro said of Dickey. "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."

'Take your ego out of it'

Graham said Clark and Gamboa are both good candidates for the transition because they've have arm strength and have consistently shown good command and feel with their conventional arsenal of pitches.

And age isn't an issue when it comes to throwing the knuckleball. More important is the patience to develop it.

"They're young for knuckleballers," Duquette said. "I think you go between your desire to succeed in the big leagues as a conventional pitcher and your fear of failing. I think that's a little bit of a tight-rope walk that the players are making.

"We wanted them to both know that the organization was committed to the project with them, so that they had the confidence to throw the knuckleball in competition and focus on the adjustments they need to make and not worry so much today about the results. That's really the equation that the players need to understand."

That was all Clark needed to know.

"I got to the big leagues," Clark said. "I want to stay there. And conventionally, I'd probably have to be at my best all the time for that to be a likely scenario. With the knuckleball, maybe it takes me a little while to figure it out, but my career could be exponentially longer. It could double or triple what it could have been if I stayed conventional.

"I want to throw knuckleballs," he added. "I don't know what they're looking for, but if that's going be what I can do to help a big league team win, or to get to the big leagues and potentially add years to my career, I'll do that. It's a way for me to play baseball longer."

Gamboa has already found that the most difficult part of learning the pitch is completing buying into it. When he's struggled to control it, he's battled himself on the mound against going back to his conventional stuff.

"Everything is opposite from what you learned pitching," Gamboa said. "With the fastball, you're exploding off the mound. With the knuckleball, it's nice and easy and smooth and you're just kind of floating it in there. That can get frustrating. You have ups and downs. You want to feel good about your stuff and you're throwing a pitch that you really can't command."

Gamboa (1-3), who earned his first win of the season Wednesday, said he's reached the point where he's throwing knuckleballs about 60 percent of the time. His goal is to get between 80 and 90 percent.

"I'm still in that transition," he said. "It is difficult to kind of leave everything else aside and throw the knuckleball. It can really mess with your head. You have to take your ego out of it. I'm not used to [starting] 0-3."

But that's why Niekro, who revolutionized the pitch, is there. He's worked with Gamboa a handful of times, gets reports on the outings he can't attend and says he's on call whenever the Orioles need him to work with Gamboa, Clark and Staniewicz. Staniewicz, 27, has thrown the knuckleball competitively longer, but he's behind the other two and will likely report to short-season Class-A Aberdeen.

"It's such a touchy-feely pitch that it can take them a while to get it," Niekro said. "I told them that you're going to throw one pitch and you're going to say, 'That's it.' It might be one batter, one pitch. It will come.

"But I told Wakefield and I've also told [Gamboa and Clark] this," Niekro said. "'If you ever lose confidence in this knuckleball, you and I are going to have to go to the hospital … to get my size 11 ½ shoe out of your [rear end].' You lose confidence, you've lost it."

eencina@baltsun.com

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