Pitcher Perfect

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin