Trickster

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When you live on the third floor, there’s no sneaking out the back window. I knew that much. So when a couple of my teammates back in Double A Akron chose a first-floor apartment, I thought they were crazy.

We all lived in the same apartment complex, two or three of us in each unit. It was Section 8 housing.

We called it the Ocho.

If you don’t know what Section 8 is, it’s a government program that provides low-rent housing for people with low incomes. My minor league checks were about $900 every two weeks, and the rest of the guys were right there with me, so we qualified.

The apartments themselves were actually pretty nice. You just had to be careful with your stuff sometimes. Everyone knew we were ballplayers, so they knew our schedule. One time, we came back from a road trip and my teammates who lived on the first floor walked into their apartment to find that it had been ransacked. The TV was gone. The PlayStation was gone. Their clothes were gone. Even their shoes were gone.

Later on, they found out it had been the people who lived across from them who broke into their apartment.

Ahh … the Ocho.

***

Ask just about any major leaguer and they’ll give you a good story from the minors. Minor league living is sort of a novelty. By normal standards, it’s pretty awful. You’re bouncing around from small town to small town, basically getting paid peanuts. One year, my W-2 showed something like $15,000 in income — for the year. And you only get paid during the season, like a school teacher. For the other five months of the year, you get nothing.

But you’re young and you’re getting paid to play baseball.

So it’s all good.

But every minor leaguer finds himself in one of two places at some point in his career. Either things start to click and you get invited to spring training or put on the 40-man roster, or minor league life — and the minor league paycheck — takes its toll and you go find something else to do with your life.

In 2009 in Akron, I found myself in the first of those two places. Everything clicked. I went 10–0 with a 2.32 ERA. So when my wife and I were back home in Arizona before the 2010 season, I said to her, “This is it. I could get a big league invite this year. I might even get a chance to make the 40-man.”

Potential is a very real thing in the minors. It doesn’t matter what your numbers are. You could have an ERA over 5.00, but if you’ve got potential, they’ll keep you around — maybe even move you up and give you a shot at the next level. If you have numbers and potential, you’re golden.

In 2010, like a lot of teams, the Indians were all about velocity. They didn’t care about the stats. They only cared about what the radar gun said. They saw the 92–93 mph I was hitting on the gun, and they weren’t impressed. They weren’t looking at the 10-0 record or the 2.32 ERA. So spring training came, and I had to watch as other guys with ERAs of 5.00 or more got big league invites over me — because they were throwing 95 plus, and I wasn’t.

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 4:  Steven Wright #35 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during the sixth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts on June 4, 2015. (Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

As far as I was concerned, baseball, for me, was just about over. I was just trying to figure out what the hell I was gonna do next.

At the end of the day, the Indians told me my stuff didn’t play up — that I didn’t project to the bullpen, where they wanted to use me, because I didn’t throw hard enough. They also told me that I didn’t have a true out pitch, like a heater that I could blow by somebody to get a strikeout, or something off-speed that I could catch guys chasing for a third strike.

So I didn’t go to the 40-man. I didn’t go to to a big league camp.

I went to Triple A.

Then, after only a few relief appearances, I went back down to Double A.

Back to the Ocho.

My wife had been with me in Akron in 2009. But in 2010, she didn’t go back with me. She stayed in Arizona to work. She had to. We were getting older and couldn’t live on just my minor league salary anymore. She got a job as a full-time nanny and also worked as a cart-girl at a local golf course. Between the two jobs, she was making more money than I was making playing professional baseball.

So I started working extra hard — maybe a little too hard.

That’s when everything started to go downhill for me.

When you try to do more than you’re capable of — like throw harder to try and squeeze an extra two to three mph out of your arm — that’s when your mechanics get out of whack you start to fail. That’s what happened to me. Early in that 2010 season, I was pressing. My ERA went up, up, up, and I started to seriously think about what I was going to do after baseball, because I didn’t see myself pitching beyond that season.

I briefly talked to my father-in-law, who’s a contractor, about working for him in California while I took some classes. I also thought about going back to school in Hawaii, where I played college ball. Maybe I could get a part-time job valeting cars or something.

As far as I was concerned, baseball, for me, was just about over. I was just trying to figure out what the hell I was gonna do next.

***

I was nine years old the first time I saw a knuckleball. My parents had signed me up for pitching lessons, and my coach was former Reds pitcher Frank Pastore. I was throwing with him one day, working on my mechanics, and one time when he threw the ball back to me, it just looked … funny. It was something I’d never seen before. The ball didn’t spin. It just floated toward me and fluttered around a little before it landed awkwardly in my glove.

I was instantly intrigued.

Like … How could you throw a baseball forward with no spin?

So Frank showed me how to throw a knuckleball.

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 17: Steven Wright #35 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays in the first inning on April 17, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts . (Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

To me, it was a trick pitch. A novelty. I started messing around with it, and all through my baseball life, I occasionally broke it out when I was playing catch during practice or before a bullpen session. You know, like, Hey, check this out …

But I never threw it in a game. Not in high school, not in college, not in my first few years in the minors.

About halfway through that 2010 season with Akron, we were on the road in New Hampshire and I was tossing the ball around getting ready to throw a side session. I yelled down to my catcher, “Hey, catch this one!” and I threw him a knuckleball. I thought it was funny because he couldn’t even catch it. So I threw it a few more times. You know, just messing around.

And that was it. Same thing I’d always done. Check out this trick pitch.

Then I heard my pitching coach Greg Hibbard call over to me. He was talking with Jason Bere, a baseball ops guy for the Indians who used to pitch in the big leagues. I guess they had seen me throwing the knuckler.

“Hey, Wrighty,” he said. “Throw a couple more… ”

Now remember, I was 25 years old and in my fifth season as a pro. In the back of my mind, I was still trying to figure out what I would be doing at the same time next year, because I probably wouldn’t be playing baseball.

After watching me throw it a few more times, Coach Hibbard told me I should start throwing the knuckleball in games.

When the Indians passed on me for spring training and the 40-man that season, they said there were two things I didn’t have: the velocity to come out of the bullpen, and a true out pitch.

Coach Hibbard wanted me to use the knuckleball as my out pitch.

So instead of giving up on baseball after that 2010 season, I worked on the knuckleball.

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 30: Starting pitcher Steven Wright #35 of the Boston Red Sox works the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 30, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Just about every knuckleballer turned to the pitch out of desperation. To hold on. To save our careers.

When spring training came around in 2011, the Indians wanted to get an expert evaluation of my knuckleball to see just how good it could be. So they brought in Tom Candiotti, a knuckleballer who pitched for the Indians in the ’90s and had spent a couple of years in their front office.

I remember when Candy and I went out to throw one of our first bullpen sessions, and the coaches made me wait because they wanted to clear the bullpen mounds so it was just me and Candy out there. I’ll never forget walking out to the mound, stopping halfway and looking around and seeing like 50 people gathered around the bullpen.

Just to watch a routine side session.

I thought it was so weird. Like, It’s just a trick pitch, guys…

Then, Candy came out and watched me throw a few knucklers. He said, “You know what the difference is between you and Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough, R.A. Dickey and myself?”

I didn’t.

“Repetition. A lot of guys can throw knuckleballs. But not everybody can throw it consistently to hitters in game situations. It’s all about repetition. You just gotta get out there and do it.”

He made it sound so simple. Like all I had to do was throw a bunch of them and I’d start getting guys out.

Then he gave me the advice the Indians brought him in to give.

“You can do this. You need to pursue this.”

Even though I had worked on it that off-season, that was when I decided to really give the knuckleball a shot. I mean, what else was I going to do? Was I going to go back to the minors for my sixth season and do the same thing that wasn’t getting me anywhere? I had to do something different. It was a last-ditch effort to hang on to the dream, and it was going to take time and — like Candy said — repetition. So the Indians sent me back to the minors to work on my knuckleball.

But I wasn’t going to Triple A. I wasn’t even going back to the Ocho. At 26 years old, I was going all the way down to low A ball with the 18- and 19-year-olds.

I was literally going to start over from the bottom.

That 2011 season was a tough one. I started out O.K. in low A, but as I moved up through the system, I started to get smacked around a little bit and my ERA just kept going up. I was walking guys at a higher rate than I ever had in my life. I couldn’t consistently throw my knuckleball for strikes. And even when I did, I didn’t think it was very good.

I was frustrated. I was over the idea that this trick pitch was going to save my career. So when the season ended and the Indians sent me to winter ball in Panama to work on my knuckleball, I didn’t. I went back to what I had been doing before. I was ready to go get my velocity back and just use the knuckler as an out pitch.

That whole winter in Panama, I think I only threw maybe four knucklers.

I was done with it.

Then, when I got to spring training in 2012, the Indians basically gave me an ultimatum. They told me that if I didn’t fully commit to the knuckleball, they weren’t going to have a spot for me.

They would have to release me.

***

Being a knuckleballer is like being part of a fraternity for a couple of reasons. First, there aren’t a lot of us. So by sheer numbers alone, it’s a pretty exclusive club. And second, just about every knuckleballer turned to the pitch out of desperation. To hold on. To save our careers. I mean, you’re not getting drafted as a knuckleballer. Teams are all about power and velocity.

The knuckleball is the exact opposite.

That’s why veteran knuckleballers are so willing to help young guys. They’ve been in our shoes — my shoes. They’ve been passed over for big league invites and on the verge of getting released and having the dream come to an end.

I had been working with Candy, and before the 2012 season, I had started talking to R.A. Dickey, who had also reinvented his career with the knuckleball. I also talked to Tim Wakefield, who wasn’t even a pitcher until he got to the minors and was told he’d never make it as a position player. He learned how to throw a knuckleball and ended up becoming a 200-game winner in the big leagues. I was trying to do what they had — and save my career in the process — so I was ready to listen to whatever advice they had. And they all told me the same thing.

“You gotta go see Charlie Hough.”

Charlie Hough is another guy who had basically been left for dead in the minor leagues before he discovered the knuckleball. And he went on to have a 24-year big league career. He was the knuckleball master.

And he was the one who made it all make sense.

When I first started really learning the knuckleball, Candy and I had worked on a lot of the basics. The grip, for instance. One thing about the knuckleball is, there is no one way to grip it. Everybody throws it differently. I mean, we’re all digging our fingernails into the ball instead of wrapping our fingers around it, pushing it forward instead of throwing it — but in terms of finger placement, it’s whatever’s comfortable. It’s such a feel pitch. It’s like … close your eyes and grab the ball. However you naturally hold it, that’s your grip.

I grip mine like I would a one- or two-seam fastball. I want to grip the ball with no seams so I can push it out straight without any rotation, so I have the seam in between my index and middle fingers on the top of the ball so my thumb can come underneath in the middle of the horseshoe. No seams. If I put my fingers on the top of the ball in the horseshoe, my thumb will land on the seam underneath, and I don’t want that.

FORT MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 28: Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox poses for a portrait during team photo day on February 28, 2016 at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Candy and I also worked on keeping my wrist locked. That’s another important component of throwing the knuckler. You want to throw the ball with your arm, not your wrist, and push it out with your fingers on the release instead of letting it roll off your fingers like you would a fastball or slider.

These are all things I picked up on pretty quickly because I had messed around with it for so long. They are the basics. My problem wasn’t throwing the knuckleball. My problem was throwing it for strikes. It’s such a chaotic and unpredictable pitch. So once you throw it, you don’t necessarily know where it’s going. But somehow you have to be able to throw it for a strike. It sounds impossible.

After 30 pitches with Charlie, I was already finding the zone more consistently.

But like Candy said: It’s all about repetition.

That’s where Charlie changed everything for me.

I think whenever you have a good teacher, it’s because they’re able to take something complex and make it easy to understand. That’s what Charlie did for me. He simplified everything. The way he explained it was, to throw the knuckleball for a strike, I had to throw it like I was throwing down a hallway. I had to keep my motion compact and bring my arm straight down and finish by my front foot, because the ball is going to follow my hand. So if I’m yanking the ball across my body, that’s where the ball is going to go. “Keep everything going in the direction of home plate,” he said. If you can do that, you’ll be near the strike zone. Then all you have to do is judge how much the ball is going to drop. So the only thing left to do is to get the right velocity on it so it drops right when you want it to.

It sounds a lot more complex than it really is, but that’s why Charlie has been such a great teacher. All these little mechanical nuances — he knows them so well. And because he’s able to spot even the smallest deviation in my motion and release, he makes it easier for me to dial in and repeat the same motion every time I throw.

After 30 pitches with Charlie, I was already finding the zone more consistently.

I thought, Imagine what I could do after 1,000 pitches with Charlie …

***

At the beginning of spring training in 2011 — a few weeks before I started working with Candy — Indians pitching coach Scott Radinsky was watching a group of pitchers in the bullpen when he called me over. He pointed to the row guys on the mound.

“Look at these guys,” he said. “They’re all between 6′ 1″ and 6′ 5″ and throw low- to mid-90s with a slider. But do you know what separates them?”

I didn’t.

“Opportunity. That’s it. Other than that, there’s nothing separating one from the others. And the knuckleball might be your opportunity.”

He was right.

Towards the end of the 2012 season, the Indians traded me to Red Sox, where I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work more closely with Tim Wakefield. He’s constantly evaluating me and is able make little adjustments to keep me consistent and within my delivery — a lot like Charlie does when I work with him.

Working with Wake has been one of the biggest factors behind the success I’ve had this season.

I think whenever somebody has success in life, they can look back and identify times when they either got lucky or just found themselves in the right place at the right time. If Frank Pastore never threw me that knuckleball when I was nine years old, maybe I would have never learned the knuckleball in the first place. If Coach Hibbard hadn’t seen me messing around before that side session in New Hampshire, maybe the Indians wouldn’t have even known I had a knuckler. If I had been pitching for another team that didn’t have a guy like Candy around to work with me, maybe I would have quit baseball after that 2010 season.

The Indians may have been the team that told me I didn’t have the stuff to earn a big league invite, but that’s just business. At the end of the day, without the Indians, I would have never taken the knuckleball seriously enough to pursue it and wouldn’t have been able to resurrect my career. I’ll always be grateful to the Indians organization for that.

And on top of that, if I had never been traded to the Red Sox — where I get to work so closely with Wake — I don’t know that I’d be where I am right now.

Wake was with the Red Sox for 19 years, and he always reminds me that there were maybe only four seasons where he went into spring training knowing he was going to be one of the five starters. Maybe he’d be in the pen. Maybe he’d be off the roster. He never really knew.

That’s what happens when you make a living throwing a trick pitch.

So now that I’ve found some success, I’m just enjoying it. It’s been a long process getting from the Ocho to the big leagues. Now, I’m just trying to find out how far this trick pitch can take me. I’m not getting caught up in what my stats are. I’m not thinking about next season. The only thing I’m focused on is the next pitch. Keeping my wrist locked. Bringing my arm straight down the middle, like I’m throwing it down a hallway. Keeping it simple.

Then repeating it.

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