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Pitcher Perfect

Chuck Kniffin steps out of the Arizona Diamondbacks dugout into the late-morning sunshine. The team's new pitching coach is accompanied by Randy Johnson, one of baseball's most towering figures, physically and by way of achievement. It's mid-May, early in the season, and Johnson wants to tweak his pitching windup, to...
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Chuck Kniffin steps out of the Arizona Diamondbacks dugout into the late-morning sunshine. The team's new pitching coach is accompanied by Randy Johnson, one of baseball's most towering figures, physically and by way of achievement.

It's mid-May, early in the season, and Johnson wants to tweak his pitching windup, to start with his hands much lower than they've been.

He stretches for a few minutes, then warms up his valuable left arm by playing long toss with a bullpen catcher about halfway down the left field line.

The catcher soon moves closer to Johnson, to about the regulation distance between a pitcher's mound and home plate — 60 feet, six inches. He squats, places a white towel in front of him as a makeshift plate and dons a protective mask.

"If I come down a little lower here, maybe just an inch or so, I won't give up anything," Johnson tells Kniffin, meaning he doesn't want to tip off a hitter that he's gripped the ball for a fastball, slider or split-finger pitch.

The coach nods, letting the 38-year-old pitcher work things out for himself. Johnson continues to throw, but he's not satisfied with how it feels.

"You trying to think too much, R.J.?" Kniffin asks.

"I'm not trying to think," Johnson replies. "I'm just trying to throw it. I feel like I'm tilting too much with my fastballs. Just trying something different. How's it looking?"

"Good," Kniffin says.

In the dugout a few feet away, struggling young relief pitcher Jose Parra observes Johnson intently.

"Look at that guy," he says. "Going right from here to the Hall of Fame, and working like a dog."

Kniffin looks at his watch, lets Johnson throw a few more pitches, then informs him that his workout time his up. The coach stays behind after Johnson saunters back to the clubhouse.

"That's a professional pitcher right there," Kniffin says of the eight-time All-Star.

Like Johnson, Kniffin is left-handed; he's a former pro pitcher himself. Both have competitive mentalities that mesh well with the game they love.

But that's where obvious similarities end.

Johnson makes $13.3 million a year, more or less the remarkable going rate for elite pitchers.

Now 51, Kniffin never earned more than $3,000 a month as a player — and then only in 1978, his last year in pro ball.

He labored in the minor leagues for 10 years — far longer than most players — but never got a chance at the big time. After it abruptly ended for him at age 27, a bitter Kniffin exiled himself from the sport for a decade.

Then, in 1988, he returned to the minors as a coach for a Wisconsin team. Thirteen years, seven more minor-league teams and a thousand bus rides later, he finally caught the professional break of a lifetime — an offer to be pitching coach for the newly crowned World Champions.

The motley crew that Chuck Kniffin oversees is the centerpiece of what has become a most entertaining baseball team. Thousands of neophyte D-Backs fans have embraced the squad since last year's monumental World Series, tossing off names such as Kim, Spivey and Schilling with the same élan that Phoenix Suns fans once did for Johnson, Johnson and Johnson (Kevin, Frank and Eddie — not Randy, who happens to be taller than all of them).

Notwithstanding the public-relations disaster that looms if the players strike later this summer, or the recent flap about the prevalence of steroids in the game, baseball in this winner-driven market is flourishing.

The dozen or so men on the D-Backs pitching staff (plus those on the disabled list) include hurlers from four nations with at least five different pitching styles. Their skill levels, experience and temperaments are equally diverse.

All are exceptionally well-paid: Kniffin's pitchers will collect about $52 million in salaries this year, $23 million of it going to Johnson and Curt Schilling.

Part of his unwritten job description is this: To know when and how to say something to one of his charges, and when to stay quiet and just let things happen.

"He's learning the mechanics of every pitcher here, and that's a whole lot of different mechanics," says Randy Johnson. "A good pitching coach is here to get you straightened out and back into that comfort zone, and really to head off things that are starting to happen before they happen."

That's the technical side. Kniffin is adamant that the mental part of the game is often more crucial to success at the major league level than are the mechanics.

"Nobody can help me with that, because I am who I am," Johnson says, before pausing briefly. "Then again, I've been around here for a long time. Other guys have different needs."

Across the room in the plush Diamondbacks clubhouse, 31-year-old Dominican Republic native Miguel Batista quotes Solomon, Socrates and Einstein (a photo of the latter hangs prominently in his locker) before offering his own philosophy of the art of pitching.

"Baseball is a tough game," he says softly. "When you're up here in the big leagues, your mechanics should be fine. The coach should only have to do a little of this and a little of that. It's more about learning how to be smart, about recognizing game situations, about giving your team a chance to win when you don't have nothing. Everybody can pitch good when you have your best stuff."

Batista gestures to the corner where Johnson and Schilling are sitting in front of their lockers. "Look at those guys. They're better than they've ever been, but not just because they're fast as lightning, overpowering. That won't help you if the pitch is in the wrong place."

Johnson and Schilling, of course, are the heart and soul of the D-Backs staff. It's no secret that the team surely would founder if either got injured, rather than having a bonafide chance of repeating as champions.

Then there's Byung-Hyun Kim, the boyish Korean relief pitcher with the oddball sweeping delivery. Kim endured never-to-be-forgotten horrors in last year's World Series but seems to have survived with his psyche intact (it helps that he hung on last week for a save against the hated New York Yankees). There's Batista, who continues to be quietly effective as a starter when the team needs him most, and Brian Anderson, the rock 'n' rolling southpaw with a rubber arm and a heart that too often seems larger than his ability to keep opponents at bay.

Another starter is new Diamondback Rick Helling, who until recently had been getting shelled like a batting-practice pitcher instead of a $3 million-a-year free agent signee.

Kniffin also tends to veteran relief pitchers Mike Myers, Greg Swindell and the ubiquitous Mike Morgan, who have appeared in more than 1,600 major-league games between them.

"Kniff had to deal with not getting a chance, never getting to reach his dream," says Morgan, a 42-year-old who celebrated the 24th anniversary of his first major-league appearance last week by shutting out the Yankees for a few innings.

"For him to finally get up here at the age of 51 has got to be a thrill. He's got to deal with all kinds of personalities, all kinds of situations, and he's doing fine. As for me, I don't need a lot of motivation from someone else — I've got it, or I'd have been out of baseball years ago. Chuck knows that."

Like all major-league teams, the Diamondbacks are trying to cope with a serious lack of pitching depth. The 30 franchises employ about 380 pitchers (including those on the injured list), and there just aren't enough good hurlers to be found.

For example, the D-Backs recently shipped two healthy but ineffective relief pitchers — Jose Parra and Cuban-born lefty Eddie Oropesa — to its Triple-A team in Tucson. Replacing the pair were young right-handers Mike Koplove and Bret Prinz.

Koplove pitched well for the Diamondbacks late last year, until a panicky outing in an important game against the Los Angeles Dodgers cost his team a game. Manager Bob Brenly has yet to put him in such a precarious situation this year.

Prinz is a strapping 25-year-old who started the season with the D-Backs, got sent down, then worked his way back to Phoenix. But he proved not to be an answer, getting pounded time and again — including the devastating late-inning grand slam he gave up in Yankee Stadium on June 10. (The Diamondbacks shipped Prinz back to the minors after that game, not even waiting for the road trip to end two days later.)

Most members of the D-Backs staff, however, are seasoned, mature veterans. Mike Myers, a 32-year-old, side-arming lefty, has pitched in more than 70 games in each of the last six seasons — a major-league record.

"I haven't been in a funk yet this season, so Chuck hasn't had to pump me up much," says Myers, knocking on an imaginary piece of wood. "He noticed a few technical things in spring training — I was dropping down a little too fast — that no one else would notice. A pitching coach can't come in and suggest massive changes, because that's not going to fly.

"A lot of it is knowing the personalities of the players. For example, if a coach comes out to the mound and flat jumps into me for not doing this or that, I'll get pissed off, wait 'til he gets finished, then go, 'You about done? Let me pitch.' My definition of a bad pitching coach is one who's your best friend when things are going well, but you can't find him when things are bad. I've had a couple of those. I started to play this game because of desire and passion. Still have it. Same with Chuck."

Kniffin counsels his pitchers before, after and during their outings. For example, during a May 17 game at the BOB, the Philadelphia Phillies scored three runs against Miguel Batista before he could register an out. After the fourth successive batter reached base, Kniffin walked slowly from the dugout for a chat. Recalls Batista, "He tried to help me relax a little bit, asked me what the problem was. I said, 'I don't have nothing on my ball.' He's a very funny guy, but this wasn't a funny time. He just said, 'Get out of this and keep us in the game.'"

Batista did, kind of. He lasted only five innings and surrendered three more runs, but he held on just enough to allow the resilient D-Backs to fight back and win, 12-9.

Kniffin's version of his visit: "I just told Miguel to shut it down right there. You don't want to dwell too much on the negative. Some guys, you can't give out too much information, or they'll think too much. A few words will do. You go out there and break up the rhythm a little bit. It's a dance, game within the game."

If someone told Chuck Kniffin in the late 1970s that, someday, he'd be pitching coach for the defending World Champions, he'd have chuckled.

By then, Kniffin was a relief pitcher who'd regressed from major-league prospect to minor-league suspect. His futility showed itself during his last years pitching for the Triple-A Oklahoma City RedHawks.

Kniffin's manager at the time was Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, now a U.S. senator from Kentucky, a demanding sort known as an intimidator during his own playing days. During one game, Bunning instructed Kniffin to walk a left-handed batter intentionally, with runners on second and third base. This vexed Kniffin, who prided himself on being especially tough on lefties.

"I took the ball and just threw it over the catcher's head to the screen, and the run scored," Kniffin recalls. "That kind of took the strategy right out of it."

That's what professional baseball can do to a man.

For every major-league pitcher now raking in millions of dollars, there are untold pitchers with stories akin to Kniffin's — guys who, for myriad reasons, never reached the top rung. Once upon a time, every one of them, including Kniffin, believed they'd be major-leaguers someday.

He grew up in a middle-class family in Rockville Center, Long Island, one of three siblings. These days, it's hard to get a rise out of the even-keeled Kniffin, who possesses the droll wit common to many veteran ballplayers. But when he mentions his late mother Evelyn, Kniffin drops any pretense of coolness, his eyes often misting as he speaks of her.

"She did everything for me," he says, "taught me how to play, took me to games and rang her cowbell straight through, yelling for me, probably driving people nuts. An all-star mom."

Kniffin was a good-sized youth, eventually reaching his current stature of almost 6 feet tall and about 200 pounds. He was a lefty with good control, which bode well for future success. And he also happened to love the game of baseball.

After high school, Kniffin pitched his junior-college team, Nassau Community College, to the national championships in Colorado — a state that later would become his home. After that season, in the spring of 1969, a Philadelphia Phillies scout offered the 17th-round draft choice a $2,000 signing bonus and a starting salary of $500 per month.

Kniffin's first stop was Pulaski, West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, where Calfee Park, a venerable structure, was built in a hollow in 1935. The 18-year-old lived at a rooming house for awhile, then moved to an apartment above a tavern.

"It was a lot of fun," he says. "And I was getting paid for it."

Kniffin was a starting pitcher for Pulaski and crafted a decent 6-3 record with a low earned-run average. He attended the University of Tampa when he wasn't playing ball and earned his bachelor's degree in 1972, with a major in criminology and a minor in psychology.

"One thing I noticed after my rookie season," he recalls, "was that only four or five of us were still around for the second year [at Single-A Spartanburg, South Carolina]. It started to occur to me that we all weren't going to make it up there, or anywhere. I was just a little naïve."

After two tough seasons at Spartanburg (one of them mostly lost to a bout with pneumonia), Kniffin shone in 1972, posting a 13-1 record en route to winning the Western Carolina League's pitcher-of-the-year award. It would prove to be his best year in pro ball. He was 21.

Kniffin also pitched winters in Mexico and Venezuela during the early 1970s, making a few extra bucks and testing himself against the tough Latino hitters.

By 1977, Kniffin had moved up to Triple-A — one step below the majors — now as a curveballing relief pitcher instead of a starter. He looked the part, with long hair and pork-chop sideburns that were in vogue during the era. Trouble was, the Phillies already had an entrenched left-handed closer, the famed Tug McGraw, and Kniffin wasn't about to dethrone him.

The Phillies released Kniffin after a forgettable 1978 season during which he threw just 44 innings. He was 27, young in most professions but not necessarily in baseball, where there are always younger and stronger prospects for management to embrace.

Kniffin often had pitched hurt during his 244-game, 839-inning career, and he subjected himself to more pain-disguising cortisone shots than he should have. When it was over, the most palpable remnant of his pitching career was a grotesquely misshapen left elbow.

"You don't see many guys playing that long in the minors," he says. "You stick around for the same reason — love of the game — and maybe get a chance at doing something. But I didn't get that chance."

By then, Kniffin had been living in Colorado with his first wife during the off-seasons. He found work there as a driver for United Parcel Service and settled into a new lifestyle.

"Closest I came to a ball was playing a little slow-pitch with a UPS team," he recalls. "I tried not to think about baseball, and how bad I felt about what had happened to me — every year, the same group of coaches, no way to break through."

In the winter of 1984, an old ballplaying buddy of Kniffin's invited him to play a season in Florence — Italy, not Arizona. Divorced by then and childless, Kniffin gave UPS two weeks' notice, then flew to Europe.

In Florence, Kniffin played outfield and pitched a little and soaked in the rich Italian culture, taking cooking classes and learning to make pasta. He returned to Colorado after that idyllic winter and tried selling real estate.

In 1986, Kniffin married his second wife Catherine, whom he met in Colorado Springs after returning from Italy.

"All she knew about baseball was that I had played it at one time," he says. "I never watched a game for years, never followed anything."

But in 1988, onetime teammate Ron Clark — then a coach with the Chicago White Sox — asked Kniffin over dinner if he'd ever thought about coaching. Kniffin said he hadn't.

Undaunted, Clark told his old pal about an opening for a pitching coach in the Seattle Mariners chain. On a whim — and because Colorado's real-estate market was shaky — Kniffin applied for and got the job with a Low-A team based in Wausau, Wisconsin. He says he earned just $18,000 for the short season, but he found that he loved being back at the ballpark.

Though he didn't know it yet, Kniffin was embarking on his second long stint in the minors. Needing money, he again began to spend his winters in the Mexican League, this time as a pitching coach. During the 1990s, he coached in West Palm Beach, Harrisburg, Ottawa, and High Desert, California. Then, in 1998, the spanking-new Arizona Diamondbacks hired Kniffin as pitching coach for their Triple-A franchise in Tucson.

For the next four years, he'd again remain just one step from The Show.

Baseball is fraught with nepotism, which may be a blessing or a curse, depending on where one sits.

In Kniffin's case, having plenty of contacts from the old days still hadn't opened the door to a job in the majors. He says he didn't think he was in the running for the D-Backs pitching coach job after the team fired incumbent Bob Welch late last year.

For one thing, he says, he barely knew Bob Brenly. And he already had agreed to become pitching coordinator for the D-Backs' minor-league franchises — a step up, but not the one he coveted.

"I was planning to work out of Colorado, and I was fine with that," he says. "Planted a vegetable garden, was hanging out, and then I got called in for an interview with [general manager] Joe [Garagiola Jr.] My wife did a mock interview with me, grilling me, until I finally said, 'Honey, let's drop this. They know what they're gonna get from me. This is it.'"

On January 2, 2002, the Arizona Diamondbacks officially named Chuck Kniffin as their pitching coach.

"Not to cast any stones," Brenly says, "but our previous pitching coach wasn't strong on administrative duties, and that was something we were looking for. Of all the guys we were looking for, we were leaning to bringing in someone already in the organization. It sends a great message to bring in a lifer of the game, like Kniff had been. We felt comfortable that he wasn't going to bump into any situation up here that he hadn't experienced somewhere already, as far as the professional part of his job."

During spring training and early this season, Brenly says, he got to see another side of Kniffin. "He takes his job very seriously. But I don't think he takes himself very seriously. He's got a dry sense of humor, and he's a guy who makes connections easily with everyone he works with. That's just what we were looking for."

As befits his deliberate nature, Kniffin took his time getting to know each pitcher personally during his first months on the job. He says it honestly doesn't faze him that he's working with a staff whose least experienced pitcher has logged more big-league service than he has.

"I don't care if it's Randy, Curt or anyone," he says. "If I have something to say as a coach and don't say it because I'm intimidated or whatever, I'm not coaching. It can go in one ear and out the other, but I'll say what I have to say."

On opening day, several members of Kniffin's family, including his father Vance, sat proudly in the stands at Bank One Ballpark as the public-address announcer introduced the team's new pitching coach. Kniffin says his thoughts wandered to his mother, who died in 1996, as he stood before the throng on the third-base line.

"I was thinking that she had the best seat in the house," he says. "Then I went to work."

On a beautiful Saturday evening in mid-May, Curt Schilling strides purposefully to the pitcher's mound for a start against his old team, the Philadelphia Phillies.

Schilling's preparation for this game has been years in the making. A noted computer geek, the 35-year-old pitcher incessantly watches videotapes of opposing hitters and studies his precisely constructed files about who hits what, and where they usually hit it.

As game time nears, he follows a regimen that tries to leave nothing to chance: It includes a pregame meeting with the coaches, during which Schilling sits with pages of notes at the head of the table and describes how he plans to pitch against each hitter. He also says where he'd like his fielders to position themselves for each Phillies hitter.

On this day, however, two events — one probably intentional, the other coincidence — throw something of a wrench into Schilling's best laid plans.

First, the intentional, according to Kniffin: "With Schil being an ex-Philly, they know his habits. Just to mess with him, they didn't get their lineup for the game over to us in time for our meeting. He didn't like that. A little head game."

Schilling's obsessiveness continues as he makes his way from the dugout toward the bullpen 30 minutes before game time. First, he walks around left field for a few minutes, pulling himself together.

Normally, he'll then cross the dirt warning track and touch a facsimile of Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson's jersey, with its number 42, which is painted on the left-field wall just inside the foul pole. Then, he'll be ready to do a little running — forward, sideways and backward.

But on this night, thousands of uniformed Boy Scouts are standing on the track during pregame ceremonies, from foul pole to foul pole. Schilling will have to make his way through the sea of Scouts to touch Mr. Robinson's painted jersey. He and Kniffin have discussed it and decide to forgo that part of the ritual.

Schilling starts to throw in the bullpen exactly 20 minutes before game time. He knows the first inning often sets the tone and tempo for an entire game, and he strives to be sharp from the start.

Kniffin positions himself near Bob Brenly in the home team's dugout, notebook in hand, as Schilling throws his first pitch, a 94-mile-an-hour fastball.

Schilling gives up just one hit in the first and second innings, a single by left-fielder Pat Burrell. But he gets hit hard in the third, as Philadelphia scores four runs on five hits, including a triple by Burrell.

One of Kniffin's tasks during the game is to tell Brenly after every half inning how many pitches someone has thrown — and how things look from his perspective. The manager doesn't need his coach to tell him that this easily has been the big righty's worst inning all season.

In a testament to Schilling's doggedness, he settles down and allows his team to creep back into the game.

"Schil keeps working, no matter what," Kniffin says. "He's in the dugout, trying to figure out how to pitch Burrell. He's working on the same page with [catcher] Damian Miller; he's all about determination and focus."

Schilling leaves after eight innings with the game tied, having shut the Phillies out for five innings after his rough start.

In the bottom of the ninth, Junior Spivey hits a monster home run to left to win the game for the D-Backs, 5-4.

A few Sunday mornings ago, life seemed sweet in the sanctum of the Arizona Diamondbacks clubhouse. The word "clubhouse" doesn't do justice to the luxurious room, which features several overhead TV sets, black sectionals, spacious lockers (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling merit two each), and a bevy of clubhouse boys eager to serve up towels, balls to autograph, clean uniforms, whatever.

Johnson was scheduled to start against the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 1 p.m. game. He got to the BOB at about 9 a.m. and watched some television from the leather lounge chair in front of his lockers.

Mark Grace sat on one of the couches in the middle of the expansive room, smoking a cigarette and working a Sunday crossword puzzle. He walked over to his locker and stuck the butt in the standing ashtray (where it joined dozens of others), before playfully shoving teammate Steve Finley out of his way.

Luis Gonzalez autographed a bunch of posters. Greg Colbrunn joked with Erubiel Durazo and injured relief pitcher Matt Mantei. Mike Morgan talked to anyone within earshot. Curt Schilling, his back to the room, typed away on his laptop.

A sparrow somehow found its way into the clubhouse and caused a momentary stir. It flew boldly across the sprawling room, took a left at Rick Helling's locker and headed toward Randy Johnson.

But even the little bird seemed to sense that Johnson is best not approached by strangers on game days. It continued to injured pitcher Todd Stottlemyre's locker, and landed. A clubhouse attendant soon captured the bird, then released it outside without harm.

Chuck Kniffin walked over from the coach's room to remind a few pitchers of their workout schedules for the morning. He looked around the room, the scene of such a grand celebration mere months ago, and smiled.

Kniffin says he's already slept on a couch in this clubhouse after a late-ending game or two, rather than make the long drive home to north Scottsdale — because he can.

"Thirty people in the whole world have this job," he says, "and one guy is the pitching coach of the World Champs. Right now, that's me."

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