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Zink looks for silver lining after dismal season
by Alan Schwarz
NEW YORK—For a guy whose pitches flutter hither and tither, you won't find a guy more right down the middle than Charlie Zink.
"My view on being a knuckleballer," he says, "was that it was the easiest job in professional sports. I figured I had it made."
Eight months ago, that was a reasonable appraisal. Few minor league pitchers entered the 2004 season with more promise and intrigue than Zink, a 24-year-old in the express lane to Fenway Park. None of the great, modern knuckleballers—not Phil Niekro, not Charlie Hough, not Tim Wakefield—looked as natural with the pitch as this kid. It was as if a Divine Being had chosen him from above and bestowed him upon the Red Sox (perhaps to make up for a few practical jokes along the way).
Not quite. Zink's season rusted from the start, corroding a right shoulder that he had considered exempt from the indignities of pitching, i.e. soreness and preventive exercise. The carnage was conspicuous: a 1-10, 5.77 record that looked remarkably good compared to the 81 walks and 123 hits in 108 innings. You'd think he was throwing BP to Aaron Boone.
Add to that a sore arm he brought upon himself through equal parts vanity and laziness and it's fair to say that Zink, with legions of new fans following him, squandered a full season of his development right when it mattered most. Fair to say, because he says it himself.
"I thought I didn't need to work out right," he says into his cell phone at instructional league. "I was absolutely wrong."
All Aboard The Hype Train
Making such a fuss over some minor leaguer whose pitches wouldn't dent tin foil would seem a tad undue, but Charlie Zink's story has made him something of a celebrity. First, you had an undrafted roster filler discovering the knuckleball while screwing around in practice, and immediately taking off, almost throwing a no-hitter in Double-A. Then you have his background as more of a tae kwon do prodigy, surfer and golfer, before pitching for (where else?) the Savannah College of Art and Design under (who else?) Luis Tiant. Oh, and did we mention that his parents were wardens for Charles Manson?
Zink became a favorite of such sister outlets as Baseball Prospectus and The New Yorker, anointed for imminent stardom. Then his shoulder began to hurt, thanks to what he calls his "beach workout," which is just what it sounds like.
"I did a lot of chest, bench-pressing 235—I didn't really think it would matter," says Zink, who began at Double-A Portland and finished at Class A Sarasota. "My chest was so strong my shoulder got real weak in the back. It felt like it was coming out of the socket. It was real loose."
Trying to compensate, Zink changed his delivery in a desperate attempt to regain a comfort zone, eventually throwing the knuckleball with effort rather than letting it find its own path. The resulting path was usually either out of the strike zone or onto the outfield grass start after start after start, until he landed on the DL.
"I think it was a good developmental year," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein says, completely seriously. "I don't think anyone really expected him to go through the minor leagues without some regression and without struggles, and learn to conquer those struggles. This year was part of the process. It's not so important that this season happened, but how he responds to it.
"All pitchers aren't predictable. Most pitchers will struggle and then improve. They would not improve had they not struggled. That's the way I look at it."
Ups And Downs
As predictable as the intrigue with knuckleballers can be—they're great to pair with fastball pitchers, and have pricelessly durable arms—their career path can be as winding as their pitches. The Red Sox converted Cardinals castoff Joe Rogers, a lefthander, to the knuckleball and watched him relieve promisingly at Class A Sarasota. Then again, the Devil Rays tried the same thing with Mark Comolli and he led the minor leagues with 131 walks (not to mention 25 hit batters and 25 wild pitches).
Zink probably still has more potential than any minor league knuckleballer, though, because he has dominated before, and knows why he didn't in 2004. He attended instructional league to get back to basics and hopes to pitch in the Mexican Pacific League to make up for his lost season.
"I think this year will be huge for me," he says. "My first year I didn't learn anything because nothing went wrong. Now I know what to do to stay healthy and keep my arm strong.
"I think I can (reach Boston) next year, if I can get it back like it was and feel as confident, feel strong again. I don't see anything holding me back."
One year later, it looks like that Divine Being gave something to Charlie Zink even more valuable than his knuckleball—a fastball, right at his head. He'll spend the winter dusting himself off.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.