Gamboa knuckleball’s new hope
• Phil Niekro was a 21- yearold pitcher in Class A when his manager, Red Murff, gave him a compliment that propelled him to the Hall of Fame. If Niekro could control his knuckleball just a little better, Murff said, he would pitch in the big leagues.
That was in 1960. Niekro would pitch through 1987 and earn 318 victories.
“That’s what really got me going, and that’s what I’m trying to convince Eddie Gamboa,” Niekro said by telephone. “It’s not a second or third pitch. It’s your pitch. Everything comes off your knuckleball, and he hasn’t gotten to that yet, I don’t think.”
Gamboa, 31, is a nonroster invitee of the Tampa Bay Rays who showed up Sunday at Charlotte Sports Park for the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers. He wears No. 73, befitting someone with no major league experience. Sort of.
In April, before a weekend game at Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles called Gamboa to the majors.
He rushed to the ballpark, arriving in midgame and reporting directly to the bullpen. He spent two days on the active roster but did not pitch. He wished he had, of course, but added that his knuckler might not have been ready.
Gamboa’s brief promotion could be the extent of his major-league career. But he offers hope, at least, for the future of the major league knuckleballer, a species that seems to number no more than four or five — but always more than zero — at any given time.
“I told Eddie, ‘ Listen, you’ve got to let it happen,’” said Charlie Haeger, who threw knucklers for three teams and is now the Rays’ pitching co- ordinator. “If you try to rush it, if you try to push this thing and don’t properly get the process taken care of, you can be at a disadvantage.
“Think about it: A regular guy can get away with a 95-mile-an-hour pitch down the middle. We don’t get away with those very often. The process is longer, but the career can obviously be extended with what we’re doing, too.”
R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays is the only knuckleballer in a major- l eague starting rotation. At 41, Dickey is the oldest player in the American League and the third oldest in the majors, behind the New York Mets’ Bartolo Colon and Miami’s Ichiro Suzuki, who are 42.
Because throwing a knuckleball does not engage the muscles that impart spin on a ball, those who throw it tend to last much longer. Learning the pitch resets a pitcher’s clock. Steven Wright, who has made 11 starts for Boston in the past three seasons, converted to the knuckleball five years ago while in the Cleveland farm system. He is 31, and his career may just be starting.
“I remember when I first started throwing it, Mark Shapiro told me, ‘ You’re the one guy where age is just a number,’ ” Wright said, referring to the Cleveland Indians’ president at the time. “‘ It doesn’t matter. To us, you’re 21 again. You just need to grow with it. The more you throw it, the better feel you’ ll get for it, the more confidence you’ ll get with it, and we just want you to build off of that.’ ”
Confidence is an issue for Gamboa, a factor that has, so far, helped keep him from joining Dickey and Wright on major league mounds. For the Orioles’ Triple- A team last season, Gamboa walked 84 and struck out 79, with a 4.61 earned run average.
“Depressing, to say the least,” he said. “It was really tough, because I came from a career where walks were never an issue. I always pitched to contact. To put people on base and give a free base, that was tough, physically and mentally.
“But I went to winter ball this off- season, and I mixed it in with all my pitches. I was fortunate things went really well.”
Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey is the only knuckleball pitcher in a starting rotation in the majors.