Charlie Haeger stands on an island of irony.
Every fifth day the Albuquerque Isotopes hurler, who was recently named as the lone 'Tope on the Pacific Coast League All-Star squad, suits up as the paradoxical pitcher, shedding the orthodox methods and makeup of almost every other of his kind.
The difference is he is like no other. Haeger is a rare breed, bequeathed with one of the most absurd weapons in baseball, the knuckleball.
The irony lies in the lore of the knuckleball, a pitch that is more effective the slower it is thrown. It is the weirdest, wackiest, wildest pitch to hit, catch and, in Haegar's case, throw.
Haeger, who has found a dose of success with a league-leading eight wins halfway through the PCL season, developed the form as a solution.
"I couldn't get people out," he said, referring to the moment he realized he needed to make a change. "That is what it came down to."
Initially, that led to a year away from baseball for the Michigan native, however, Haeger returned to the mound in 2004, the year he said he began his first full season with the risky pitch in his arsenal.
"It was pretty much trial and error. I had messed around with the pitch while playing catch my first couple of years," he said. "It is just a pitch that is so unpredictable that it is tough sometimes."
Although a 2-9 season ensued, Haeger would find his rhythm, reaping the benefits of a knuckleballer in 2005. He split the season between Single A and Double A, amassing the most complete games in the Southern League (three in 13 starts) while also leading all White Sox farmhands in innings pitched and wins.
He honed the pitch in 2006 with the help of former big league knuckleballer Charlie Hough and in 2008, a year in which he was claimed off waivers by the San Diego Padres before being snatched by the Dodgers as a free agent in January, Haeger logged the most innings pitched in the International League with 178 over 28 games.
Because the pitch requires less arm exertion, its thrower can last longer and throw deeper into a game because his pitches are less taxing on the arm.
Case in point, Haeger finds himself in a familiar and obvious category, leading the PCL in innings pitched this season at 100.2 and has pitched six or more innings in 12 of his 15 starts. While the pitch is so effective because its motion disrupts a batter's timing, another irony is that the same advantage results in a disadvantage. The pitcher is just as unsure of how or where it will move resulting in a variety of pitching nightmares like wild pitches, passed balls and walks, another, less pleasing category Haeger ranks among the top 5 with 43.
"You get amped up out there and most of the time that is when I get bad," Haeger explains.
"Other guys get better when they get fired up and excited but I go the other way, so I just have to stay calm and collected and stay level."
So far, so good. He carries a 3.75 ERA, one that he has leveled off substantially since posting a mark of 8.44 after his first three outings. He stringed together four straight wins from May 22-June 6.
"Basically you just let him pitch," Isotopes pitching coach Jim Slaton said. "The experience of going out there every fifth day and competing. He had a little bit of a problem earlier in the season with the first inning, he had a hard time making the adjustment from warming up to going into the game and would have a lot of problems that first inning. This is about development, not just about winning."
Perhaps the most ironic feature of a knuckler is that despite the erratic, unpredictable and mysteriousness of the pitch, all of which are an instant recipe for frustration, the knuckleballer has to maintain the utmost patience.
Cue Haeger, who describes himself as the complete reversal of the qualities of his specialty pitch, which is complemented with the occasional fastball and slider.
"I am a pretty grounded, steady person, so I would say when comparing the knuckleball and me, we are like complete opposites," he said.
Slaton, whose first and only encounter with a knuckleball pitcher came with Haeger, echoes those remarks.
"He seems to have the right temperament for a pitcher throwing the knuckleball because he does have that patience," Slaton said. "He is a guy that doesn't want to come out of a game and really he has all the things it takes to be a big league pitcher."
The virtue of patience is undoubtedly one of the ten commandments of a baseball player, right there with consistency and level-headedness, yet for Haeger, equipped with the knuckleball that he said he throws for 85 percent of his pitches, patience takes on a whole new meaning.
"I have to think slow," Haeger said. "That is kind of what I tell myself out there. Not to let things get out of hand. I almost feel like I am lazy out there on the mound.
You want to be amped up, fired up and aggressive, but at the same time I can't be."
"You are not throwing the ball at maximum effort," adds Slaton. "He has to make sure he finds the rhythm that is right for him. The tempo that he has out on the mound is very big for him as well as being able to go out there and control that pace. And he has been able to do that. He does have that patience.
He has been able to slow things down. Actually throwing the knuckleball, what I have learned from him, is it is the same way as pitching, you are still hitting speeds on the knuckleball, you are trying to offset the timing. The thing is you just don't know which way the ball is going to move with the knuckleball and that is kind of the fun part of it."
The knuckleball may be whimsical and frustrating, but Haeger said he doesn't mind.
"I enjoy doing it. It is kind of a novelty," he said. "I wouldn't say that I have perfected it yet being that I am only 25, but it is getting there. It is a work in progress. Every day I am trying to learn something new with it. Every time I step on the mound. Now, perfected, I am far from that."
There's that irony again. The idea of perfecting a knuckleball.
Certainly ironic. But, for Haeger, not impossible.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.