Pitcher Perfect

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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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin