How I Played Pro & Founded Knuckleball Nation
Tim Wakefield took a no-hitter into the 8th inning against the Oakland A’s. In between innings, with the umpire out of the way, I could see the seams on the ball sitting in the front row behind the backstop. I’d snuck down to the empty season ticket holder’s seats as a 13-year-old boy one hazy summer night. It was the first time my father let me and my buddy loose inside Fenway, and it was a night I’d never forget.
The ball dipped, danced and plopped into the catcher’s lap as the Citgo Sign glowed atop the towering Green Monster in the misty background.
I was in love. It was the most powerful sports memory of my childhood and that evening would start a lifelong obsession with the knuckleball. I taped the baseball cards of Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield to my bedroom wall, and I cut out the full-page picture of Wakefield’s grip from the Boston Globe’s Sunday newspaper.
Here’s the rub — I quit organized baseball after Little League to play my way through the ranks of school basketball. But that didn’t mean I gave up on the knuckleball. I’d play catch with any willing human being, throw knuckleballs with a wiffleball, and I wore out a patch of wood on the side of my backyard shed with tennis balls.
University of Massachusetts Amherst
I attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst where I’d blow off steam inside the college’s indoor baseball cages. Around noon when the facility was empty, I’d blast some music while throwing off the synthetic mounds into a sock net. Knuckleball after self-taught knuckleball. For years.
One day, my friends caught me firing knuckleballs and they lost their minds, telling me, “You’ve got to show somebody!” They dug around in an age just before the internet to find me an open tryout for the Cincinnati Reds just outside of Boston. So, I borrowed spikes, a nice glove and I took off one chilly morning.
The Tryout That Changed My Life
I arrived to a massive crowd. Apparently, the Reds’ cross-checker was running the tryout and word got out. Cross-checkers are one of the few people in an MLB organization that can offer you a contract on the spot, so everyone in New England seemed to be trying their luck. And it was apparent who this cross-checker was. He proudly wore a full Reds uniform without a sweatshirt in the chill of the morning.
The cross-checker gathered hundreds of us into the bleachers to say some rather harsh truths.
“If you’re right-handed and don’t throw at least 90 miles-per-hour, then get out of here. I don’t want to see you. We’ll take a short break after this meeting, and please do yourself a favor. Leave.”
I hadn’t ever been radar gunned but was sure that I didn’t throw 90. I decided to stay because of the uniqueness of the knuckleball. I was an outlier, I thought to myself.
Hours went by as they ran 60’s, threw from the outfield, took infield practice and did pop times in order to cut down the massive crowd of position players. By that afternoon, I was told that all the pitchers would be given three hitters in a simulated game; a game rostered by those who made the cut. And the hitters would be a small group of hand selected ballplayers. The best of the best that day.
The lights came up to full power as the sun started to fade. I was told that I’d be the ninth pitcher to compete and was grateful for such a low number as there must’ve been 100 pitchers. Without any rhythm for the game, I simply copied what pitcher #8 was doing. So, I started playing catch in the outfield next to that monster.
First Competition Ever
I trotted over to the bullpen behind pitcher #8. Turns out he was a highly touted college player standing 6’8″ and throwing high-90’s. It was the most impressive thing I’d seen on a baseball field since Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball that one misty childhood night at Fenway Park. The catcher’s mitt sounded like a gun firing as he pounded the strike zone with fastballs and a crowd gathered behind the bullpen to watch his amazing arm.
“I’m in over my head,” I thought to myself.
But I had spent all day sitting around the chilly ballpark, so I was resigned to at least try. I started my bullpen as pitcher #8 took the game mound. A few moments later, I was shocked to see a very large hitter smash the ball clean over the left field fence off pitcher #8.
I was starting to really worry as I trotted out to the game mound. The cross-checker and his staff walked around the turtle shell to ask what pitches I might throw.
I said, “Knuckleball.”
They responded, “And…?”
“That’s it,” I said.
With a smirk, the cross-checker’s assistant retreated behind the turtle shell to continue a conversation with his buddies. But, as I threw more and more warmup knuckleballs, their attention quickly shifted to me.
“Alright, first batter up!”
It was the same huge hitter that took pitcher #8 deep. He looked like The Predator. His forearms were like Popeye’s and I would later hear that he had climbed as high as Triple-A before being released. That’s why he was there. To show the Reds’ cross-checker that he had the stuff to make it to the show. I knew he’d be swinging big.
But he whiffed. He whiffed three times on four pitches for a strikeout. The same with the next hitter. And the next. Nobody touched my softly thrown knuckleball.
Well, that was my three hitters, so I started walking off the field slightly surprised with myself.
“Hey, Knucks, get back on the mound. Same three hitters,” the gaggle of scouts yelled from behind the turtle shell.
None of them got the ball out of the infield, and I personally caught a softly hit pop-up back to the mound for the last out. Again, I didn’t throw 90, so I started to trot off the field
Cross-checker Office Talk
“Hey, Knuckleballs! The big guy wants to talk to you.”
The cross-checker ignored the tryout to take me into an office at the university ballpark. He popped a ball onto the metal desk and instructed, “Show me your grip.”
I picked up the ball like Wakefield had shown the Boston Globe Newspaper when I was a kid.
“Who taught you?” he asked.
“Myself,” I replied.
“Where do you play?” he shot back.
“Nowhere, sir. I haven’t played since Little League.”
“Ok, so nobody knows about you?” he asked quickly.
“No, this is the first time I’ve thrown competitively in my adult life.”
“And you graduate college this spring?” he continued.
I was shocked when he explained that the Reds covet the knuckleball and that I had a unique skill. He continued to say that he would try to convince the Reds that I was worthy as the last draft pick, oftentimes referred to as Mr Insignificant. He said that the last pick was usually reserved for favors or family members of the Reds organization, but that I could be the pick. He took my number and told me to keep in touch.
I drove home completely mystified as to what just happened when my dad called to ask if I was ready for graduation. I told him that there might be a complete change of course in my life.
As it turns out, I didn’t get drafted by the Reds. The cross-checker was fired that spring but called to encourage me to chase the knuckleball. He told me to head to warmer climates to continue developing the pitch. He convinced me I had a real chance.
So, I sold everything I owned on the front yard of my college house for $500, packed up my Jeep Wrangler and headed to Phoenix, Arizona. There, I got a bartending job at a chain restaurant for the flexible hours, intentionally avoided friends and stole a strike zone screen from a local high school to teach myself how to pitch.
I attended every tryout I could, and they were plentiful in the Southwest. I expected each tryout to turn out as well as the Reds tryout, but I was told the same thing over and over again by every scout for every team:
“This is really cool, but I don’t know how to appraise this skill.”
Over and over and over again.
I finally drove out to Long Beach, California, for a tryout when I was told to shut it down just three pitches into my bullpen. And it angered me. I threw my stuff in the dugout when the scout calmed me down. He just wanted to see me throw last for some strange reason. I sat down skeptically.
Meeting Charlie Hough & RA Dickey
When Charlie Hough arrived to the ballpark, I finally understood why the scout was saving me. I’d taped Hough’s card to my childhood bedroom wall and was about to throw for the 24-year MLB legend.
After the dust settled, he gave me his phone number on a crumpled piece of paper.
Charlie Hough called me, “Horse(bleep) with potential,” and I’d never been prouder.
He thinks I have potential!
Exactly two weeks later, I called the legendary knuckleballer who invited me out to his house in Orange County, California, where he’d mentor me. We’d throw bullpens and live at-bats at a nearby community college with RA Dickey. And over the course of a few months, he taught me all that I needed to know.
In those early days, RA Dickey was not very good. The Rangers had instructed him to “throw like Wakefield” and had a hard time adjusting as a first-round draft pick throwing 95 miles per hour. In fact, his arm was so quick that he looked like he was passively aggressively making fun of the knuckleball with his ultra-low effort delivery at 65 miles per hour.
Through the years, RA Dickey would have an identity crisis until he let the real RA win the battle. He decided that if he was going to throw the knuckleball, then he’d do it his way by throwing it hard. And it sure paid off.
But after months of bullpens and live-at bats back in those early days, Charlie Hough eventually asked me, “Kid, are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” I asked.
“Ready for pro ball?”
My First Pro Contract
Charlie Hough helped me land my first professional contract for the Lincoln Saltdogs of the American Association. I was in the changing room at my bar’s fancy restaurant getting ready for a shift when the Saltdogs called asking where they could fax the contract.
I rummaged around my wallet to find my father’s business card. I gave him his fax number and he called me mystified the next morning.
“Is this real?” he asked.
I responded with a confident, “Yes,” marking one of the proudest moments of my life.
He signed it, sent it back and I started a bumpy minor league career that would shoot me to Australia, Taiwan and all over the independent minor leagues in the United States and Canada.
My first pro appearance, in the pre-season in front of a nearly packed house in Lincoln, Nebraska, was a proud but difficult moment for me. I was called in out of the bullpen to face Fernando Valenzuela’s son who’d already hit two homers and a double that day. I struck him out, walked the next guy and then rolled over a double play to end the inning.
Phil Niekro & The Founding of Knuckleball Nation
I walked back to the dugout shaking. I did not anticipate the mental aspect of the game to be so difficult, but, when you’re out there in the loneliest spot on earth, everyone is watching you. The team is depending on you. And you’re only armed with “trick pitch” that relies on fine touch. One little mistake could cost you the game and it’s nerve-wracking. And that’s why I make so much of my clinics and lessons about the mental side of the game.
Through the years, the knuckleball has made me friends with my childhood heroes. I was lucky enough to become very close with Phil Niekro before his passing in 2020. I’ve been yearslong acquaintances with Cy Young Winner RA Dickey. I’ve received lessons from MLB legend Tom Candiotti. And I can count Charlie Hough, Steven Wright and Mickey Jannis as friends.
That’s why I founded Knuckleball Nation in 2008. I know that the knuckleball can be learned by a select group of pitchers, and that I can keep the pitch alive through the teachings of Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro and RA Dickey. I can find the next great knuckleballer to pass on these lessons while forming a community of support for those that make the knuckleball their baseball identity.
Knuckleball Nation Today
I serve as General Manager at Beimel Elite Athletics in Los Angeles, California. The Major League training facility is equipped with all the bells and whistles — including Rapsodo, Tracman and Edgertronic — so I can record the spin rates and breaks of my knuckleballs. I only get better at the knuckleball as I age, and I can fire off a 70 mile-per-hour butterfly with less than 40 RPM on the Rapsodo at will. That’s less than one-half of a rotation on the way to the plate.
My partnership with Beimel Elite Athletics exposes me to MLB greats like Joe Beimel (of course), Kenley Jansen, Lucas Giolito, Joey Votto and more. But despite my incredible knuckleball metrics, I am still on the outside looking in. So I intend to change MLB’s scouting paradigm to include the knuckleball so that me or someone like me can rise to their rightful place in professional baseball. And I’m asking for your help in the process. Simply join Knuckleball Nation so that our voices can be heard in an era of cookie-cutter flamethrowers.
I think you’ll agree — the game will be better for it.