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Imperfect Pitch

Charlie Zink was supposed to be the next Tim Wakefield, maybe even a star. But if the Sox' minor league knuckleballer doesn't make it this season, his Hollywood-like tale may go down as Fenway's greatest story that almost was.

(Photos of Charlie Zink by Josh Campbell)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marty Dobrow
May 4, 2008

It's a long way from Tokyo.

On a drizzly Saturday morning in late March in Fort Myers, Florida, the minor league players in Red Sox uniforms are still slogging away at their baseball dreams. The big boys left three days earlier, following Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima back to their homeland, to open defense of their 2007 World Series title.

Charlie Zink, whose Japanese-American grandparents were taken from their California farm and sent to an internment camp during World War II, is perched on the far left of the pitching rubber. It is the first inning of a Triple A spring-training game played before 28 fans. Zink has a 1-2 count on the leadoff hitter, Alexi Casilla. Zink goes into his compact windup and delivers the ball with a locked wrist and a short stride, like he's throwing a dart. The pitch comes in without spin at a speed that wouldn't warrant a ticket on the highway. At the last second, it drops sharply. Casilla swings feebly and misses. The ball caroms off the glove of PawSox catcher George Kottaras, who sprints after it and flips to first for the out. Hard to hit, hard to catch; things are looking good for Zink today. He has what his teammates call his "filthy" stuff. His knuckleball is on.

Almost every pitcher has experimented with the knuckler, a pitch that is subject to the laws of physics and the whims of God. When it's going well, the knuckleball can make Barry Bonds look like Barry Manilow. When it's not, it can make Fat Albert look like Albert Pujols. It is a pitch whose success is predicated on its unpredictable journey.

The knuckler is famously hard to master. Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro have taken the pitch to the Hall of Fame. More recently, it made Tim Wakefield a Fenway favorite. Wakefield, the only knuckleballer on Opening Day Major League rosters, is in his 14th season with the Red Sox. Zink began the season as one of three knuckleball pitchers at the Triple A minor league level.

Back in 2003, he seemed destined to join Wakefield. After just one season throwing the knuckler, he became the Sox' lone top-50 prospect in Baseball Prospectus rankings. In an ESPN.com article that November, Rob Neyer dubbed him "easily the best young knuckleball pitcher in the world," saying he was "likely to have a career something like Tim Wakefield's. And he might be Phil Niekro." Then came the crash. Zink produced a 1-10 record in 2004 with an embarrassingly high ERA. He tumbled backward in the Red Sox minor league system. Early in 2005, the struggles continued: walks by the bushel, flat knucklers soaring over minor league fences.

Zink wanted to ditch the pitch, but the Sox wouldn't let him. The knuckleball was his way to the big leagues. The only way. The maddening way. "When I throw it without spin and it doesn't move, I don't know what to do," he admitted in June 2005. "I just don't feel that confident with it. I never really did. Even when I was having all that success, I wondered how people were missing the ball."

But in 2008, after two solid minor league seasons, Zink has come to grips with the vagaries of knuckleball life. And now he's aiming for the outside corner - the one at Fenway Park.

ZINK, 28, ARRIVED AT SPRING TRAINING this year with his thick black hair shaved to the scalp. The look accentuated both his part-Japanese heritage (his maternal grandfather was born in Japan) and his prominent features: dark, contemplative eyes, a mole at the center of his chin, perfect white teeth he gave up coffee to preserve. He sports an elongated nail on the middle finger of his right hand. That nail is the source of considerable attention. For years, he treated it with nail hardener purchased, rather awkwardly, from a California salon. These days he fortifies it by taking gelatin pills and, to the dismay of roommates, rarely washing the dishes.

On the mound, he plunges that nail into the hide of the ball alongside his index knuckle in a unique hybrid grip. (Almost a century ago, knuckleballers gripped the ball with their knuckles; ever since, pitchers have relied on fingernails to keep the ball from spinning.) When he came to the organization in 2002, Zink didn't use the knuckler. Relying on a fastball, curve, and change-up, he was a conventional pitcher.

Zink grew up in California. His father Ted Zink was the associate warden of Folsom State Prison, the one made famous by Johnny Cash. At 6-3 and 260 pounds, Ted was a commanding presence, towering over Charlie's petite mother, Joyce, who also worked in corrections at Folsom. Charlie spent his first 18 months in a little house on prison property, a place Joyce jokingly calls "a gated community." Later, the Zinks and their only child moved to nearby El Dorado Hills, about 20 miles east of Sacramento, where Charlie earned a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do, and with Ted's encouragement, broke par playing golf at age 12.

In high school, Zink was a fine pitcher, but no prodigy. He wasn't drafted, and he didn't earn a Division 1 scholarship offer. After a year at a local junior college, he transferred to a school in Georgia, the Savannah College of Art and Design. He was not drawn by the school's renowned programs in furniture design or jewelry making. Rather, he was intrigued by SCAD's baseball coach, a free-spirited Cuban fellow who knew his way around a pitching mound.

Over 19 big-league seasons, Luis Tiant pitched with rare panache. With his corkscrew delivery, he would turn his back to the plate, then pivot to release an array of pitches from every conceivable angle. In Boston, where he played for eight years, he was beloved as "Loo-ie," and helped lead the Sox to the 1975 World Series. After retiring in 1982, Tiant toiled for years as a scout and a minor league coach. In 1997, he took the coaching job at SCAD.

For three years, Zink pitched for Tiant, becoming the SCAD Bees' all-time strikeout leader, despite winning only nine of 26 decisions on a bad Division 3 team. After his college eligibility ran out in 2001, he signed with Arizona's independent Yuma Bullfrogs and pitched five innings that summer without distinction. He hated the whole experience. "It wasn't anything I wanted to do, ever again," he says.

Returning to classes his senior year, he didn't pick up a baseball for eight months. He bought an LSAT study guide. Then he got a call from Tiant, who left that year to take a minor league coaching job with the Red Sox. He told Zink there might be a roster spot in the low minors if he wanted to come down to Fort Myers and try out. The Red Sox signed him for $850 a month on April 1, 2002.

ZINK'S FIRST SEASON with the Single A Augusta GreenJackets of Georgia, then a Red Sox affiliate, proved tumultuous. Late on Father's Day, Zink flew home to Sacramento, making it to Folsom Mercy Hospital just hours before his father died of lung cancer. With his biggest fan gone, Zink still managed to pitch well in Augusta (his 1.68 ERA led the staff), but he was used as a middle reliever, a lowly assignment that reflected his standing as a non-prospect within the Red Sox organization. The player development staff thought he lacked "projectability," pitches that could dominate high-level hitters. But that changed late in the season. Before a game, the team's strength and conditioning coach, Darren Wheeler, suggested Zink throw a couple of knuckleballs, a pitch he had never used on the mound. The first few pitches sank. The next one soared at the last moment, glancing off the top of Wheeler's glove and slamming into his Oakley sunglasses, sending the lenses flying and the frame smashing into his head just above the left eye.

"Dude," Zink said, "you're bleeding." Wheeler needed three stitches to close the wound.

Sox minor league pitching coordinator Glenn "Goose" Gregson was in Augusta at the time. Then 52, Gregson had spent much of his life in minor league baseball, never getting to the majors as a pitcher but working steadfastly to give others the chance. One of the people he most admired was Charlie Hough, who had spent 25 years in the big leagues as a knuckleballer. Hough once told Gregson that any pitcher who could throw even one good knuckleball in 10 deserved a chance. Gregson thought of Zink. "When he opened this poor kid's face up," Gregson recalls, "I figured we had to at least give this a try."

Gregson and Ben Cherington, then the Sox director of player development, met with Zink at spring training in 2003 and told him his odds of making it to the majors as a conventional pitcher were overwhelmingly small. With the knuckleball, he had a chance. They wanted Zink to throw the pitch 95 percent of the time. They'd send Wakefield out to train him. Zink was stunned. "I had to go with it," Zink later said. "I didn't have any leverage."

Wakefield told Zink he'd have to relearn his pitching motion entirely: Develop a short stride, use a stiff wrist, lead with the palm. The key, Wakefield told him, is being able to repeat the fine movements of your delivery again and again. Wakefield gave one last piece of advice: "Don't get too high. Don't get too low."

While that is time-honored baseball wisdom, it has special significance for knuckleballers, and no one knew that better than Wakefield. Four years after he was drafted as an infielder by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1988, Wakefield became a dominant pitcher in the bigs, going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA and winning two games in the playoffs. Then he lost his touch. By the spring of 1995, he was released. The Pirates concluded that his brief mastery had been an aberration. Manager Jim Leyland later said: "It's just a freak pitch. It's the darnedest thing I've ever seen. We couldn't help him." Wakefield was salvaged from the scrapheap by the Red Sox in a move that would prove one of the great steals of the modern game. His first year started with a stretch of 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA, followed by a 2-7 descent with an ERA over 7.

Zink began the 2003 season with the Red Sox High A affiliate in Sarasota, Florida. After a few rough starts, he hit his stride. Some of the swings against him looked absurd, sending his teammates into fits of laughter on the bench. In late July, he was promoted to the Double A Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs. Two weeks later, he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. In late August, Zink made his final start of the year against the New Haven Ravens, then the Double A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. His knuckleball that night lived up to Hall of Famer Willie Stargell's famous description of the pitch: "a butterfly with hiccups." The Ravens finally broke up the no-hitter with two outs in the ninth.

"It was unbelievable," recalled Ron Johnson, then the manager of the Sea Dogs and currently Zink's skipper at the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox. "Maybe it was too good to be true. It was guys looking stupid for nine innings."

Zink's performance attracted notice. One night in September, he sat next to first-year general manager Theo Epstein at Fenway to watch Wakefield up close. Then came the attention from ESPN, and the startling place among the top 50 up-and-comers in Baseball Prospectus. Several would go on to become big-league stars: David Wright, Alex Rios, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Grady Sizemore. There, on that list was Charlie Zink, so close he could taste it.

2004, A YEAR OF UNFORGETTABLE SUCCESS for the Red Sox, was an unmitigated disaster for Zink. Beginning the year in Portland, he didn't think he was doing anything different, but his control was erratic and hitters were teeing off . After one disaster in Trenton, New Jersey, Zink opened up the newspaper to see the headline "Zink stinks." He couldn't disagree. After going 1-8 with a 5.79 ERA at Portland, he was demoted to Single A Sarasota and fared no better (0-2, 5.65). At instructional league in October, his arm was tired, his spirit shaken. When the staff rolled televisions into the clubhouse to watch the Red Sox in the postseason, Zink just wanted to go home. "I was lost," he says.

In 2005, he continued to struggle. In one galling start, he lasted just one inning, surrendering five runs on two hits and four walks. But with his ERA at 6.65, he received some startling news. He was getting called up for the first time to Triple A. Boston had sustained some injuries and required reinforcements from Pawtucket, giving Zink an opening to shake the funk at a higher level. He pitched one game in relief, allowing seven of 11 batters to reach base. Then he got a start against the Toledo (Ohio) Mud Hens. He was knocked out after two innings, surrendering eight runs. "I just remember going out there and feeling like I was overmatched," said Zink. He referred to the knuckleball as "a pitch that has just driven me crazy for the last three years."

His agent, Jim Masteralexis, was at the game and brought his 5-year-old son to see Zink afterward. Outside of the locker room, in a corridor lined with photos of former Paw Sox and Triple A opponents who went on to the big leagues, Masteralexis tried to console his client, who was fighting back tears.

Zink was sent back to join Portland on the road. Ben Cherington called Zink at the airport and told him that the organization was trying to be patient, but that he was running out of time.

MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL IS A RUTHLESS BUSINESS. Approximately 90 percent of minor leaguers - a highly elite crew of athletes - will never play a single game in the majors. By the end of the 2005 season, 11 of the 19 pitchers from Zink's 2002 team in Augusta were already out of professional baseball, none voluntarily.

Patience is particularly hard to summon with knuckleballers. But it can pay off. Tim Wakefield has been the most versatile and enduring member of the Sox staff, having helped the team as a starter, in long relief, and as a closer. At 41, he is the third-winningest pitcher in Red Sox history, and given the slow tick of the knuckleball clock, he stands a chance to eclipse the two guys in front of him: Cy Young and Roger Clemens.

Despite Zink's extended periods of poor performance, the Sox hung on. "The path of the knuckleballer," Cherington explains, "is rarely linear."

To a significant degree, Zink steadied over the past few years, shuttling back and forth between Double A and Triple A. He was the top winner for Pawtucket in 2006. Last year he spent most of the season in Portland, where he made the Eastern League All-Star team. His success has not been like the wild spree of '03. It's more measured, more sustained.

Zink says that late in 2005 he got better command after seeing a picture of Phil Niekro throwing the knuckler, which inspired him to shift the way he held the ball. He adopted a more rigorous conditioning program and fine-tuned his delivery with Wakefield in spring training. Most of all, he committed to the knuckler: "Now I know I have to be what I am. And I'm comfortable with that."

Over the past few years, Boston has stockpiled pitchers, perhaps the biggest reason for the two World Series titles after the 86-year hiatus. Zink's path to the top is blocked every time free agents like Daisuke Matsuzaka are signed, each time prospects like Clay Buchholz break through. He believes his performance would warrant a big-league call-up if he were with some other organizations. He also believes other teams would have cut him loose long ago.

This is Zink's seventh season, his last year under Boston's control. If he is not added to the team's 40-man roster, he will become a minor league free agent at year's end, meaning he will be free to sign with anyone. Goose Gregson, who still works in the Sox minor league system, believes Zink is poised to break through: "He's right there on the cusp of being able to say that every piece of this hard work and struggle has been worth it."

Cherington is noncommittal, but adds that for the first time in Zink's minor league career he'll be in Triple A as a "solidified member of the rotation from Opening Day. He's got that opportunity. We certainly hope he runs with it. We expect he will."

As for Zink, he looks back and ahead with candor, speaking, as he pitches, without spin. He says that the meteoric rise and precipitous fall were a blessing, "a great learning experience, seeing how easily it can be taken away."

He knows that the mastery of this pitch is endlessly elusive, but it remains his quest: "When I think about how few guys in the history of baseball could ever throw a knuckleball, it's just mind-blowing to me that I could be that close."

Marty Dobrow teaches journalism at Springfield College. He is working on a book about minor league baseball. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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