Pitcher Perfect

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"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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin