Wright stuff: Knuckler hopes to follow familiar path
Trying to join select fraternity, right-hander to be taken under wing of Wakefield
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- For those who were gripped by "The Next Knuckler," a recent reality television series aired on MLB Network, there is an even more compelling story going on with the Red Sox.
While former Marlins prospect and NFL quarterback Josh Booty won the reality show -- and thus, an invitation to D-backs Spring Training -- it is Steven Wright who is truly aiming to become baseball's next knuckleballer.
At 28 years old and after putting up decent numbers in Cleveland's farm system as a conventional pitcher, Wright is determined to join the small but distinguished fraternity who have made a nice living throwing the knuckleball.
And in a big thrill, the right-hander had quite the audience on Monday at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
Tim Wakefield, who knuckled his way to 200 Major League wins, most of them with the Red Sox, huddled with Wright in Boston's clubhouse to go over the finer points of the pitch. On Wednesday in Fort Myers, there will be even more hands-on instruction, as Wright throws a side session under the watch of Wakefield.
It was perfectly fitting that the man who started against Wright was R.A. Dickey, the new Blue Jay who won the National League Cy Young Award with the Mets last season.
"I was a little nervous," Wright said. "I was not scared, just a little nervous, because you want to do your best in general, but to have guys with a keen eye for the knuckleball ... once I got out there, I felt pretty good."
In this one, Wright (two innings, two hits, no runs, three strikeouts) can even say he outpitched Dickey (two innings, four hits, two runs).
"I liked it because I was watching him the entire time," said Wright. "You see him on television, but it's nice to see him in person."
The one thing you quickly learn about the knuckleballers is that they all know each other. It's a tight-knit fraternity between Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Wakefield, Tom Candiotti, Dickey and the newest pledge -- Wright.
"I feel like they've already accepted me into that," said Wright. "Even two years ago when I first started to mess with it with Candiotti and Charlie, they definitely opened the door. I feel like I can pick up the phone and they'll call me right back or [send] text messages. It's nice to have those types of guys at my fingertips."
Though Wright has never worked directly with Dickey, there have been text exchanges.
"I'm pulling for him because I know how hard it is to do," said Dickey. "Now, it's kind of a double-edged sword because he's a Boston Red Sox and he's in my division. I don't know how good I want him to get. Maybe in a few years he can get really good. But I'm pulling for him, of course, because I've walked a mile in his shoes and I certainly have empathy as far as what it takes to endure that pitch. That's what you have to do with it, is endure it, until you get to the other side. I can relate."
Dickey is ever-grateful to Wakefield, who played no small role in his ascension as a pitcher. And even if Dickey appears to be on top of the world these days, a knuckleballer knows that a slump can occur at any time.
"Tim's a guy that knows me pretty intimately," Dickey said. "He knows the struggles I've been through mechanically, and he always has a good insight, so it's good to get with him when I can -- especially if he sees me pitch live, he can tell me if he sees something that's out of whack or not."
A long time ago, Wakefield was a first baseman struggling to survive in the Pirates' farm system. The knuckleball not only saved his career, it made him a postseason hero in 1992, an All-Star in 2009 and a two-time World Series champion (2004, '07).
Dickey and Wright both traded their conventional repertoire to become full-time knuckleballers. As Wakefield points out, only Niekro was drafted as a true knuckleballer.
So what can Wakefield offer to Wright?
"The same thing guys before me offered me -- just somebody to talk to who knows something about the pitch he's throwing," said Wakefield. "When I was just coming up, I had pitching coaches that told me, 'I don't know anything about it.' It's refreshing to be able to contribute to the legacy of a pitch by helping him out. I had Phil and Joe Niekro and Charlie and Candiotti around. I was learning. To be able to give back to somebody that's taken up the pitch, it's pretty special for me."
Upon Wakefield's arrival to Boston's clubhouse on Monday, he got right to work, engaging with Wright in a lengthy pregame conversation.
And it was far more than idle chatter.
"He actually came in and was working with me a little before I went in the game," said Wright. "And the biggest adjustment was I moved over to the first-base side of the rubber, which just allows my hand to stay in the window a little bit longer, and down to the center of home plate, and to lead to the center of home plate.
"Those two small adjustments, I felt, made a huge adjustment on my feel for the pitch and the ability to keep it in the strike zone."
Wright tinkered with the knuckleball in 2010, and began to get serious with it in 2011. By last year, he was all in.
Thanks to the longstanding relationship Wakefield had with the Red Sox, perhaps they were the perfect team to take on the Wright project. On July 31 of last season, the Sox acquired Wright for Minor League first baseman Lars Anderson.
The Red Sox look at him as anything but a long-shot project. Manager John Farrell could have easily taken a short bus ride to Port Charlotte for Monday's split-squad game against the Rays. Instead, he took a much longer journey to Dunedin, because he views Wright as someone who has a good chance of helping his team at some point this season.
"Today was very encouraging," Farrell said. "With Steven Wright, I thought he did a very good job of unloading the ball in good time. He didn't take too long in his release times. You know what, on a rare day when you've got two knuckleballers going, I thought he threw a darn good one."
Wright's knuckleball is in the mid to upper 80s, far more similar to Dickey's velocity than the 66-mph offering that made Wakefield the third winningest pitcher in Red Sox history.
But there are still plenty of opportunities for talking points between the teacher and the student.
"I know he throws it hard, which is fine," said Wakefield. "I wish I could have thrown mine harder, but I couldn't. I wasn't blessed with the arm speed. R.A. throws his just as hard [as Wright], and he won the Cy Young. I told [Wright], 'I don't care how hard you throw it, I don't care how you hold it, the big key is regaining your delivery and taking the spin off it consistently.'"
Before Monday, Wright had never seen Wakefield face-to-face.
"It was nice, to see Wake and finally to meet him and to work with him a little bit. I'll get to work with him more on Wednesday, so I'm looking forward to that," said Wright.
Though Wright's main quest is to turn the knuckleball into a career, he is also trying to keep alive the legacy of the fascinating pitch. Someone will have to carry the torch after Dickey retires.
Not only did Wakefield serve as the teacher in the MLB Network reality series, but he was the subject of a well-received documentary -- "Knuckleball!" -- that was released last season. And make no mistake about it -- he beamed with pride every time Dickey won a game last season.
"It's gained some popularity. It's not so much a freak pitch anymore," said Wakefield. "It's something that we all battled, from Phil to me to Wilbur Wood and everybody. In R.A.'s words, he brought the legitimacy of the pitch back by winning the Cy Young, and it made all of us in the fraternity proud that he was able to do that."
Wright views Wakefield's arrival in camp as no small gesture by either the Red Sox, or the retired pitcher himself.
"Yeah, it's definitely awesome to have them reach out to Wake and even have Wake come in," Wright said. "I know he's retired, so for him to come in and work with me, it makes me feel honored, to be honest. It makes me feel like I need to work even harder. I feel like with the resources they're giving me, I'm going to take full advantage."