I know, I know: Everyone thinks they can throw a knuckleball. In baseball when you’re joking around with the guys you hear that all the time. Almost every single player has come up to me and said, “Check out my knuckleball.” I always say, “OK, now throw it 100 times in a row with a batter 60 feet, 6 inches away, knowing what pitch is coming.” It’s a fun pitch to mess around with. That’s what got me started with it originally.
Growing up and in pro ball, I always asked my coaches what they thought of a knuckleball just to see if anybody would let me throw it. It’s such an unpredictable pitch; it’s hard to throw just once in a while. You really have to get a feel for it. That’s why not too many people throw it. It takes an entire career to master, if it’s even possible to master such an unpredictable pitch.
During my 2011 season with the Rays, R.A. Dickey started having more success with the Mets. With Tim Wakefield already having so much success in Boston, people’s opinion of the knuckleball began to change. So, toward the end of that season, I thought, we’re out of the playoffs; maybe this is the time to give my knuckleball a chance. The next day I went into my coach’s office and said, “What if you let me throw my knuckleball that last game? Let’s see what happens.” He said, “Is it any good?” and I said, “Yeah, you want to see me throw it?”
The next day, as we finished playing catch the manager walked by and said, “Let’s see it.” I reached back and let it rip. As it danced toward the pitcher who was catching me, it moved around his glove, nearly hitting him square in the face. The coach looked at me like, “OK, you can throw it.”
I spent the next three days trying to get it ready for the game. It’s game day, and everybody is fired up to see it. Right before I’m about to go in the game, the pitching coach sent a player to tell me they wanted me to finish the game strong. In other words, throw my normal stuff. I was devastated, but being young and thinking about being with the Rays long term, I knew that’s what I had to do, and I did. I closed the game, we won, we finished the season, and I went home. Then, boom, I got the phone call.
Contacting scouts is how I got placed with an Independent ball team. Actually, I was traded twice before I even got to play a game in Indy ball. Trading happens all the time, there’s so much turnover. In fact, I was once even traded for myself, but I’ll get to that later.
In 2012, I played for the Lake Erie Crushers of the Frontier League. As I entered my first season in Independent baseball I knew I had to go all in on my knuckleball. It was going to be my ticket back to affiliated baseball. I made sure that whoever the coach of the Indy ball team would know that. I went into camp for the Crushers throwing my knuckleball and came out of spring training earning the No. 3 starting spot.
It was a rough start, though. I’d have one good inning, then one bad inning. Since I’d never had the opportunity to throw my knuckleball in a live game before, I went in not knowing how to pitch with it. I would stand on the mound, start my wind-up, then just let it fly. Strike, ball, strike, ball, ball. My command was wild. I didn’t give up many hits, but the walks began to pile up. I struggled to get through five innings.
In Independent ball, it’s all about winning. So, after starting three games with mild success, they called me in the office and said, “Hey, you’re really struggling so we’re going to move you back to the bullpen where you had success in affiliated ball.” At that point, I knew was playing for my job. I ditched the knuckleball for the rest of the season and went back to being a sinker-slider guy.
The knuckleball’s biggest downside is it’s so unpredictable (shocker, I know). This was a hard adjustment for me as I had always been a strike-thrower. Now all of a sudden, I’m walking hitters. Coaches weren’t working with me, trying to help me, mainly because they’ve never dealt with a knuckleball before outside of throwing it for fun.
Right after the 2012 season concluded, I went right back to throwing the knuckleball every chance I could starting with a men’s league tournament in Arizona. That was just the beginning. Catchers were tough to come by, and my dad wasn’t going to catch me anymore. That’s when brick walls became my best friend. I felt like I was 10 years old again, throwing against a wall every chance I got.
I had more confidence in my knuckleball heading into the 2013 given I had been practicing it for more than a year. I started the season playing for the Crushers again, but luckily with a new coach who was all for me throwing the knuckleball.
However, during spring training with the Crushers, the Bridgeport Bluefish, a team in the Atlantic League, became interested in me. My cousin was their pitching coach at the time. They ended up trading for me for a player to be named later. My games were starting to get better. I was pitching out of the bullpen again. Three innings one game, then four innings the next day. Then, two days later, I pitched again and gave up four runs without getting an out. The next day they traded me back to the Crushers as that player to be named later (so, technically I was traded for myself).
It all happened so fast. I was shocked again because I was having success and eating up innings for the team. But going back to the Crushers worked out well for me. I had even more success that season starting and relieving.
Following the 2013 season came the opportunity to play winter ball in the Australian Baseball League for the Brisbane Bandits. This was really the turning point for me. I was consistently in the starting rotation and had nothing to lose. I was able to get into a groove, consistently finding the strike zone with the knuckleball and pitching deeper into games.
However, prior to leaving for the 2014 season, I told my parents this could be my last season of playing. Not because I didn’t think I could find my way back to affiliated ball to someday pitch in the Major Leagues, but because no scout or team with any interest in me and my knuckleball had reached out to me. I thought it might be time for me to transition into coaching or scouting myself. That realization never comes easy to any baseball player.
As I head back to the Crushers for a third season, I had another new coach. He gave me the opportunity to start for them every fifth day. For the first half of the season I was pitching well but wasn’t getting the results I was looking for. I struggled to find consistent results.
As a veteran for the team, my coach approached me with a proposition. “The Southern Maryland Blue Crabs need someone for a spot start in the Atlantic League,” he said. “I wanted to ask you first to see if you were interested.” I jumped at the opportunity. Facing older hitters again was just what I needed. My first game, I threw seven shutout innings allowing two hits. They were hoping for one start, and I gave them my best 10 of the season.
I was finally getting the results I wanted. I felt a new opportunity was close, but I always wondered, would I ever get signed by a Major League Baseball Organization again?
In 2015, I got my answer.