Perhaps it’s because of the lack of knuckleballers in the league, or perhaps it’s because it feels like Tim Wakefield has been around since the dinosaurs. Either way, Boston is prominently known for being a good home for a fan of the knuckleball.
By far the most mesmerizing pitch in the major league catalogue, the knuckleball has a storied history. The origins point back to the early 1900s and is scattered throughout the century with dozens of hurlers offering the pitch.
Most famously, Ted Lyons and Phil Niekro helped use the pitch to catapult them into the Hall of Fame.
Charlie Haeger can hope he becomes just as lucky.
After getting released by the Seattle Mariners earlier this year, Haeger signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox.
Haeger started for the Sea Dogs on Saturday during the annual Futures at Fenway game. Picking up a no-decision in the Sea Dogs loss, the Michigan native had a strong outing, going 6 2/3 innings while allowing two runs off seven hits and three walks while adding three strikeouts.
“I thought I threw the ball well until the seventh inning. I got a little tired there and walked a couple batters,” Haeger said of his outing. “I lost the strike zone a little with the knuckleball, but other than that it was a decent outing.”
If it seemed like Fenway Park was nothing new to Haeger, that’s because he’s been here before. Back in 2007 as a member of the White Sox, Haeger appeared in two games of relief, first retiring Mike Lowell, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis.
“It was pretty much the same,” he said. “It was a normal game. Although it was cool being at Fenway.”
In the second game, Haeger came on in relief for Jon Garland and toed the mound opposite Wakefield himself, marking one of the rare occasions that two knuckleballers squared off. While Haeger mentioned that he and Wakefield conversed a few years back when he visited Fenway, he hasn’t gotten a chance to chat with the best knuckleballer in the game.
“I haven’t had a chance to this year, but hopefully we can get together and work out,” Haeger said.
Before journeying through the West Coast for a little bit (with stops at San Diego and Los Angeles), Haeger spent some time in the Midwest, appearing in 15 games for the Chicago White Sox between 2006 and 2007. After a short stint in Seattle’s minor league system, Haeger joined the Red Sox to help fine-tune his game.
During his high school days, Haeger wasn’t seen as a knuckleballer. Pitching in the low 90s, Haeger didn’t have an issue of getting players out.
It wasn’t until his velocity started to dip that Haeger turned to the old knuckle.
“I was heading out of the game so I had to figure out a way to keep myself in baseball and that was my best option,” Haeger said.
While Haeger’s journey has been a difficult one strewn with injuries, he has shown promise at just about every stop he’s made on his way to Portland.
In his first start in 2010 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Haeger struck out 12 in six innings en route to his longest major league stint, sticking around for six starts while fighting arthritis.
After major back surgery this spring, Haeger says he feels good as new.
“I feel healthy,” he said. “My back feels good and everything feels strong.”
While you may think knuckleballers need to alter their daily routine — let alone their pitching mechanics to help adjust for the knuckleball — you are sorely mistaken.
“There isn’t much difference,” Haeger said of the pitching approach. “Mechanically we both have to be pretty good. Sometimes those guys can get away with a little more than I can but it’s pretty much the same.”
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