July 26, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Charlie Haeger: the fickle fate of a knuckleball pitcher

Posted by Mason Kelley

TACOMA -- Life in the minor leagues often provides a fickle future, especially when success hinges on one pitch -- the knuckleball.

Charlie Haeger has learned this throughout his nomadic professional baseball career. The realization of just how quickly things can change hit me this week, when I noticed Haeger had been released by the Mariners, signed by the Red Sox and sent to Class AA Portland, Maine.

That roster move made a feature I had written on Haeger moot before it was published. It shows just how quickly things can change with a player trying to find a long-term home on a major-league roster.

The 2011 season has been rough on the 27-year-old. He had back surgery in the spring and was tentative through his early season starts for Class AAA Tacoma. During a start in late June he made a decision “You’ve got to go out there and do it.” With his ERA moving in the wrong direction, he took the mound for a game against Colorado determined to take a step forward.

“Either your back is going to hurt or it’s not,” Haeger said. “Just start throwing the way you know how to throw, the way that feels natural to you.”

He went out that night and threw seven solid innings. He gave up four runs and struck out six. He wasn’t perfect, but he felt better. For the first time in the 2011 season, the right-hander found the flutter that a good knuckleball needs to frustrate hitters.

“His good knuckleball is plenty good,” said former big-league knuckleballer Charlie Hough, who has worked with Haeger several times. “We’ve seen it. We’ve seen him win big-league games and it’s a matter of being able to repeat it.”

That performance was a starting point. His best performance came against Reno on July 7. He gave up one earned run on four hits over seven innings, but it wasn’t enough for the Mariners to keep him in the organization. He wasn’t even around long enough to get a feature in the paper, but his story is compelling enough that it should be shared, even though he is no longer pitching in the Mariners’ system.

Haeger never planned on parlaying the knuckleball into a playing career. Few players do.

“It is hard to do,” Hough said. “It’s hard to get a chance to do, because no club is going out and going, ‘Boy, we sure could use a guy with a bad arm.’”

Haeger never threw one in a high-school game. Back then he was throwing in the low 90s, so he had no trouble getting hitters out. On days he didn’t pitch, he played third base and would warm up throwing knuckleballs to teammates, “just messing around.”

He was drafted out of high school by the Chicago White Sox in 25th round in 2001. He signed right away. He wanted to get his professional career going as quickly as possible. The transition to minor-league baseball wasn’t a smooth one.

“I just wasn’t accustomed to having difficulties like I was in the first couple seasons,” he said.

One day, while pitching in the Arizona League he was warming up with his pitching coach, who started throwing a split finger. Haeger started throwing his knuckleball. After dropping more than half of the six Haeger threw, the pitching coach was impressed. He told Haeger to hang onto that pitch.

Still a teenager at the time, he largely disregarded the advice. Then his velocity started to tumble and he decided his baseball future hinged on the knuckleball.

There were only a few weeks left in the season and Haeger gave it a shot. The White Sox were impressed. Haeger, however, started to think it was time to get an education. He was only a couple of years into his playing career, but he walked away from baseball, well, for one season anyway.

He spent that year at Madonna University in Livonia, Mich., where his brother, Greg, coaches baseball. Haeger joined the golf team. He thought his baseball career was over.

Then, before the start of the 2004 season, the White Sox called. “We’ve got a job for you if you still want it.”

At first, he turned it down. But baseball beckoned. He gave it one last shot. Since then he has been a minor-league all-star three times and has pitched in the majors for the White Sox, Padres and Dodgers, compiling a 2-7 record with a 6.40 ERA over 34 appearances (10 starts) in five seasons.

During his first start in 2010, he struck out 12 in six innings against the Marlins.

“You don’t do that without a good knuckleball,” said Hough, who didn’t crack a starting rotation until he was in his 30s. “I think he’s going to get it. He’s just got to get healthy again.”

Last season, Haeger had his longest stint in the majors, making six starts for the Dodgers while dealing with arthritis in his back.

“My entire leg would go numb,” he said. “I couldn’t feel anything pretty much from the hip down my left side.”

He kept pitching until his back couldn’t take it anymore and he had surgery. Once he was healthy, he needed to get comfortable. Now that he’s comfortable, he plans to pitch his way back to the major leagues.

Considering Hough pitched until he was 46 and Tim Wakefield is still pitching at 44, Haeger is relatively young for a knuckleball pitcher.

“My thought is you’re already five years younger than your actual age,” Hough said. “If he’s 27, I think of him as a 22-year-old, 21-year-old, because if he gets it, he’ll pitch as long as the 22-year-old will.”

Every knuckleball pitcher has certain things they focus on, things they need to do for the pitch to baffle batters. For Haeger, it’s staying behind the ball.

“I feel like I have my best chance to be successful when I get behind the baseball properly,” he said.

Haeger’s goal remains getting to the point where he can consistently get major-league hitters out.

“I’d like to hopefully get a chance in the major leagues and, hopefully, get on a roll once I get there,” Haeger said.

Hough believes Haeger will get there. It just won’t be with the Mariners.

“There is hope,” he said.

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