Eddie Gamboa, a right-handed pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles organization, is in his sixth professional season and fifth with the Double-A Bowie Baysox. Yet he's describing himself these days, in all sincerity, as a "28-year-old rookie."
And for good reason. A chance Spring Training tutorial with a Hall of Fame hurler has led to a near-total career reinvention, with Gamboa slowly abandoning his standard-issue repertoire in favor of that oddest of pitching oddities: the knuckleball. It's a tough transition, to be sure, but it just may revive a career that, in Gamboa's own words, had "hit a wall."
"If you're average, then you have to find something to make you not average," said Gamboa, speaking from Erie, Pa., after suffering the loss in an outing against the SeaWolves the night before. "For me, that's the knuckleball, something that might put me on a whole different level."
When good isn't good enough
Gamboa's career thus far serves as a reminder of just how hard it can be to distinguish one's self within the cutthroat world of Minor League Baseball. A product of UC Davis, he was drafted by the Orioles in the 21st round of the 2008 Draft and made his debut at the make-or-break Double-A level just one season later. Throughout his time as a professional, he has been nothing if not effective, ably shuttling between starting and relief roles en route to posting an ERA in the low threes.
But if there's one thing that Double-A-based career stasis will tell you, it's this: you're neither prospect nor priority.
"I always put up okay numbers, enough to keep getting a job again but not enough to get a promotion," said Gamboa, whose experience above Double-A amounts to four games with Triple-A Norfolk in May of last season. "My game was stuck, and I was doing what I could to figure it out."
Gamboa worked diligently on improving both his slider and fastball velocity over the offseason, but he was most likely headed for another season of the same old same old before fate intervened during Spring Training. The Orioles had invited a knuckleballer named Zach Staniewicz to camp, a 26-year-old Air Force reservist who had most recently played for the U.S. Military All-Stars. In mid March, legendary knuckleballer Phil Niekro arrived on the scene in order to provide Staniewicz with some personal tutelage, and Gamboa couldn't help but be intrigued. He had experimented with the knuckleball dating back to junior high-era backyard catches with his father but had never thrown one in a professional context.
"I was throwing [the knuckleball] back and forth with Zach in Spring Training. He thought that I had a good one and mentioned that Phil Niekro was going to come for a visit," recalled Gamboa. "He's a Hall of Famer, so I told Zack that I'd love to stand in with him and pick his brain."
He ended up doing more than that.
"After Zach threw for a while, Phil looked at me and said, 'How about it, Eddie -- want to throw a few?' I told him 'No, no, I'm okay' but he insisted, 'No really. Go ahead!'"
"So I got in there, threw a couple, and Phil liked it a lot. He talked to [Orioles vice president of baseball operations] Dan Duquette, who said, 'Well, if you like it that much, then we'll make him a knuckleballer.' That was news to me! So now here I am, trying to mix it into my repertoire and getting used to it as my primary pitch. ... The knuckleball was always something that I had practiced just in case, but I didn't think that just in case was going to be this year."
Everything old is new again
Gamboa is optimistic that the knuckleball will jumpstart his stalled career, but accepting this sudden new reality was a humbling experience.
"It's a shock to the heart. You come up hearing that your fastball explodes off of the mound and then all of a sudden it's, 'No, it doesn't explode -- don't throw the fastball,'" he said. "So this is something that I had to wrap my mind around, because usually [the knuckleball] is something that you try at the end of your career, and I didn't think I was there yet. But it's all about trying to help the organization. If they wanted me to throw left-handed, well, then I'd try my best to do that."
Gamboa has made four starts thus far, compiling an 0-1 record and 3.97 ERA over 22 2/3 innings pitched. Opponents are batting .200 against him and, perhaps most remarkably, he has only issued seven walks.
"My first pitch of the 2013 season I threw a knuckleball and hit a guy. Okay, well, that's not exactly how I wanted to start off the year," he said with a laugh. "When I throw one, I have no idea where it's going to go. I mean, I could give you an estimate of where I'm shooting for, but that thing has a mind of its own."
Admittedly, Gamboa isn't yet feeding hitters an all-knuckleball diet. He's mixing the pitch in with the rest of his repertoire, throwing his new signature offering approximately half of the time.
"In a way it's fun and in a way it's stressful, jumping back and forth [between pitches]. Starting off with the knuckleball, you can get behind so easily. Throw it once and it's one ball, no strikes. Throw it again and it's two balls, no strikes," he said. "I'm used to pitching to contact, the kind of guy who gets in and gets out. Now, with the knuckleball, I've got to get used to throwing a lot of pitches and running deep counts. ... The last thing I want to do out there is put everyone to sleep."
Gamboa is looking forward to speaking with other members of the exclusive knuckleball fraternity of which he is now a part, as they'll be the only ones who truly understand the challenges he's facing. Staniewicz is currently in extended spring training, and the possibility exists that he could one day be Gamboa's teammate. Meanwhile, Gamboa and Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright are both represented by the Beverly Hills Sports Council, which could easily facilitate communication between the two. And, schedules permitting, Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair has offered to set up a meeting with R.A. Dickey when the Blue Jays visit Baltimore.
In the meantime, Gamboa can be seen on the mound in a variety of Eastern League locales that have become all-too-familiar, trying to hone a pitch that is anything but.
"I wish I could hit 100 [miles an hour], but it is what it is," he said. "Not many people get to go to work every day loving what they do, knowing that they have the opportunity for their dreams to become reality. I just try my best and leave it up to faith and hope. Story of my life."