On Tim Wakefield, Charlie Haeger and the knuckleball

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On Tim Wakefield, Charlie Haeger and the knuckleball

If you haven't read Joe Posnanski's fantastic piece on the knuckleball, do so immediately.

The knuckleball is a beautiful pitch. As Posnanski writes, "It is the only thing in sports I know of that is a constant surprise not only to the opponent or the fans, but also to the person who is actually initiating it." Every athlete, at least those who throw or shoot objects, knows what will happen if he or she executes their motion perfectly. A knuckleballer hopes.

Nobody goes out for a casual catch with their father or friend and says "let's throw a few split-finger fastballs." You toss a ball around all while messing with a knuckleball grip in the hopes of miraculously discovering the right way to throw it. Usually, the ball has just enough cruel rotation on it so that it doesn't work.

But when you get a knuckleball right, it's like you just won the lottery. Only instead of getting money, the little white orb you just threw doesn't have any spin. It dances, it dives, it does seemingly whatever it wants.

With Tim Wakefield announcing his retirement, though, there doesn't appear to be a true knuckleballer coming through the ranks. There doesn't appear to be the next Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield or Niekro ready to break through. Sure, R.A. Dickey throws one, but he only began to use a knuckleball when his regular stuff -- which was good enough for him to make the majors -- failed him.

Six years ago, Charlie Haeger was a young knuckleballer who had worked his way to the top level of the White Sox farm system. He was drafted in the 25th round by the Sox out of high school in 2001, back when his 90 mph fastball was good enough to get him picked. He left baseball for a year in 2003 to play golf, but before he did, he started messing around with a knuckleball.

In 2004, he was back in the White Sox organization as a knuckleballer. By 2005, he had reached Double-A Birmingham, where he threw two shutouts. In 2006, he posted a 3.07 ERA with Triple-A Charlotte and made his big-league debut. In the majors, Haeger posted a 3.44 ERA in 18 13 innings.

But Haeger, who spent plenty of time working on his knuckleball with Hough, never was able to find the touch with his knuckeball in the majors. After allowing 11 runs (nine earned) in 11 13 innings with the 2007 White Sox, Haeger landed in San Diego, where he allowed 10 runs (eight earned) in 4 23 innings.

Haeger had some stabs of success with the Dodgers in 2009 and 2010, but never was a serious threat to stay in the majors. His first two games with Los Angeles in 2009 went great, as Haeger allowed three runs in 14 innings with nine strikeouts and four walks. But he was lit up by the Reds in his next start and was booted from the starting rotation.

He began 2010 by striking out 12 Marlins in six innings, but was shuffled between the bullpen and rotation after that before being sent down to the minors for good in late June. Haeger was released and spent 2011 with Seattle's Triple-A and Boston's Double-A affiliates, marking the first time since 2005 he didn't throw a pitch in the major leagues.

Haeger's future is uncertain -- I can't find out if he's still with Boston, some other team or is a minor league free agent.

But hopefully he keeps on fighting the good fight, armed with a 70 mile-per-hour pitch and a prayer as to where it's going. Because, to steal a line from Theo Epstein, baseball is better with the knuckleball.

The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

Bobby Howry wasn't aware of the fact he was part of one of the more infamous transactions in White Sox history until a few years after it happened. 

In 1997, with the White Sox only 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians, general manager Ron Schueler pulled the trigger on a massive trade that left many around Chicago — including some in the White Sox clubhouse — scratching their heads. Heading to the San Francisco Giants was the team's best starting pitcher (left-hander Wilson Alvarez), a reliable rotation piece (Doug Drabek) and a closer coming off a 1996 All-Star appearance (Roberto Hernandez). In return, the White Sox acquired six minor leaguers: right-handers Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo, Keith Foulke, left-hander Ken Vining, shortstop Mike Caruso and outfielder Brian Manning. Only Foulke had major league experience, and it wasn't exactly good (an 8.26 ERA in 44 2/3 innings). 

Howry was largely oblivious to the shocking nature of the trade that brought him from the Giants to White Sox until, before the 1999 season, he was featured in a commercial that referenced the "White Flag trade."

"I don't even know if I knew it was called that before then," Howry recalled last weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago at Cubs Convention. 

The trade was a stark signal that youth would be emphasized on 35th and Shields. Both Alvarez and Hernandez were set to become free agents after the 1997 season, and the 40-year-old Darwin wasn't a long-term piece, either. With youngsters like Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee rising through the farm system, the move was made with an eye on the future and maximizing the return on players who weren't going to be long-term pieces. 

Sound familiar? 

It's hardly a perfect comparison, but when the White Sox traded Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in December for four minor leaguers — headlined by top-100 prospects in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech — it was the first rebuilding blockbuster trade the organization had made since the 1997 White Flag deal. Shortly after trading their staff ace at the 2016 Winter Meetings, the White Sox shipped Adam Eaton — their best position player — to the Washington Nationals for a package of prospects featuring two more highly-regarded youngsters in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. 

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And there still could be more moves on the horizon, too, for Rick Hahn's White Sox (Jose Quintana has been the subject of persistent rumors since the Winter Meetings). But for those looking for an optimistic outlook of the White Sox rebuilding plans, it's worth noting that the club's last youth movement, to an extent, was successful.

Only Howry (3.74 ERA over 294 games) and Foulke (2.87 ERA, 100 saves over 346 games) became significant long-term pieces for the White Sox from those six players brought over in 1997. And it wasn't like Schueler dealt away any of the franchise's cornerstones — like Frank Thomas, Albert Belle and Robin Ventura — but with future starters in Lee, Ordonez and Chris Singleton on their way the White Sox were able to go young. A swap of promising youthful players (Mike Cameron for Paul Konerko) proved to be successful a year and a half later. 

And with a couple of shrewd moves — namely, dealing Jamie Navarro and John Snyder to the Milwaukee Brewers for Cal Eldred and Jose Valentin — the "Kids Can Play" White Sox stormed to an American League Central title in 2000. 

"It was great," Howry said of developing with so many young players in the late 1999's and 2000. "You come in and you feel a lot more comfortable when you got a lot of young guys and you're all coming up together and building together. It's not like you're walking into a primarily veteran clubhouse where you're kind of having to duck and hide all the time. We had a great group of guys and we built together over a couple of years, and putting that together was a lot of fun."

What sparked things in 2000, Howry said, was that ferocious brawl with the Detroit Tigers on April 22 in which 11 players were ejected (the fight left Foulke needing five stitches and former Tigers catcher/first baseman Robert Fick doused in beer). 

"About the time we had that fight with Detroit, that big brawl, all of a sudden after then we just seemed to kind of come together and everything started to click and it took off," Howry said. 

The White Sox went 80-81 in 1998 and slipped to 75-86 in 1999, but their 95-67 record in 2000 was the best in the league — though it only amounted to a three-game sweep at the hands of the wild-card winning Seattle Mariners. 

Still, the White Flag trade had a happy ending two and a half years later. While with the White Sox, Howry didn't feel pressure to perform under the circumstances with which he arrived, which probably helped those young players grow together into eventual division champions. 

"I was 23 years old," Howry said. "At 23 years old, I didn't really — I was just like, okay, I'm still playing, I got a place to play. I didn't really put a whole lot of thought into three veteran guys for six minor leaguers." 

White Sox Talk Podcast: Zack Collins discusses staying at catcher

White Sox Talk Podcast: Zack Collins discusses staying at catcher

White Sox 2016 first round pick Zack Collins joins the podcast to talk about his future with the White Sox, when he hopes to make the big leagues and the doubters who question whether he can be a major league catcher.   He discusses comparisons with Kyle Schwarber, his impressions of Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, why his dad took him to a Linkin Park concert when he was 6 years old and much more.