Friday, July 26, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Former Bear could be next knuckleballer

Leader sports editor

A well-made baseball documentary entitled “Knuckleball” was released a year ago featuring the only two knuckleball pitchers in major-league baseball, R.A. Dickey, with the New York Mets at the time the film was made, and Boston Red Sox legend Tim Wakefield.

The film ended with footage of the 46-year old Wakefield’s retirement ceremony at Fen-way Park. It then cuts to Dickey, 39, who pontificates on the need for someone to step in and fill the role of major-league baseball’s most awkward, misunderstood and feared style of pitchers.

Former Sylvan Hills Bear Blaine Sims is doing his best to be the one to fulfill Dickey’s dream of never leaving baseball without a knuckleballer. Sims is currently away from his high-A minor-league team, the Lynchburg Hillcats, and is at the Atlanta Braves spring training facility in Orlando trying to learn to master the difficult pitch.

Like nearly every knuckleballer in the history of MLB, Sims didn’t start his professional career with that in mind.

Sims’ minor-league career took a sharp detour two years ago when he went from a 90-mile-per-hour left-handed prospect—who was most likely just hoping for a chance to become a big-league spot pitcher, brought in to get left-handed batters out—to a major prospect and project for Atlanta.

His pitching coach at Lynchburg, Dave Wallace, noticed his knuckler during practice. Sims was shagging batting practice fly balls and as a goof, threw a knuckleball back to the infield. His teammate failed to catch it and Wallace wanted to see another one.

He got another ball and threw it again, and again his teammate couldn’t catch it.

Wallace asked Sims to throw a few to the bullpen catcher and never spoke of it again, until the end of the season. They asked him to work on the pitch through the winter, and then left him off the team the following spring to just practice the pitch.

“I didn’t know what to think at the time,” Sims told The Leader on Thursday.

The knuckleball is difficult to hit despite its slow speed, because it doesn’t spin or rotate, making it vulnerable to the slightest movement of air.

Being left off the team can be a confusing decision for a 23-year old prospect, but Sims knew the team had serious plans for him when they told him they were sending him to Georgia to work with the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time, Phil Niekro, who spent the vast majority of his 24-year career with the Braves.

Niekro’s first two years were with the Milwaukee Braves, and he was in the Atlanta Braves starting rotation for the first 17 years of the team’s existence. He pitched for the Yankees in 1984 and 85, the Cleveland Indians in 86, and the Indians, Toronto Blue Jays and finally back with the Braves for one last start in 1987. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 after winning 318 games in his career.

Niekro watched Sims throw two pitches and declared he had a major-league knack for the pitch. Sims said Niekro spent much more time talking with him about the philosophy of and approach to pitching, than actually working with him on pitching. But he was still overwhelmed with the vast knowledge and wisdom of old “Knucksie” as peers called him.

“The man is just unbelievable,” Sims said of Niekro. “It’s just unbelievable how much he knows about pitching and baseball in general. I learned so much in those few days. There’s more wisdom in that guy than I could ever ask for. I can’t wait to work with him again.”
Sims will get that chance soon. The Braves are bringing Niekro to Orlando to work him in the next couple of weeks.

Once the organization put him back on the mound against live competition, he enjoyed initial success at a lower level in the minors. Once he moved back up to High-A, teams began to hit him.

As Niekro knows, and as Dickey and Wakefield and every other knuckleballer knows, making it as a knuckleballer takes patience as much as anything else.

It’s come and gone for me,” Sims said of his control of the pitch. “The thing is, you have to live with it and you have to live by it. When it’s on it’s unbelievable. When it’s off, it’s like throwing batting practice.

Sims believes working with Niekro will help his consistency.

“He’s probably one of the best teachers I’ve ever been around,” Sims said. “He’s just unbelievable with what he knows about that pitch,” Sims said. “And not just what he knows, but how he can tell you how to use it to your advantage. He won 318 games in the big leagues. He knows something that’s worth learning.”

Sims understands that the knuckleball is very rarely mastered quickly, and takes notice of recent pitchers like Dickey and Wakefield, and their advanced ages before becoming good enough with the pitch to make it in the bigs.

Wakefield was a power-hitting first baseman for three years with the Pittsburg Pirates before his batting average nosedived and his career as a hitter ended. But just like Sims, a coach noticed his knack for the knuckleball while playing catch in practice, and they started him back in the minors as a project.

Dickey toiled not only in the minor leagues, but overseas as well before finally breaking into the big leagues for good in 2008 at the age of 34. He was a hard-throwing right-hander when he was drafted in 1996, but couldn’t get his career off the ground. In 2005, decided to perfect the knuckleball, which was one of many pitches he already threw.

Sims says he’s learned the pitch takes time to master, but thinks he’s got a head start on other knucklers in the past. “You’re definitely going to have to have patience,” Sims said. “It’s going to be a long-term commitment. The thing is, you have to have a foundation for this pitch, and I feel like I have a foundation. I just have to become more consistent with it. Once I figure all that out, hopefully I’ll be up in the big leagues.”