Sonnanstine working on knuckleball, comeback

Sonnanstine working on knuckleball, comeback

CLEVELAND -- Andy Sonnanstine has been seduced by the lure of the dancing medicine ball, and finding the magic of how to throw a knuckleball could punch his ticket back to the Major Leagues.

The former Rays hurler has been out of the Major Leagues since his final season with the Rays in 2011. Since then, he has sharpened his golf game to low single digits, and he has graduated from college. Yet baseball, and the idea of competing again, managed to crawl back into his consciousness this spring.

Sonnanstine, 33, took note when former Rays slugger Dan Johnson announced he planned to try and make a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher, even though he had never pitched in the Major Leagues.

"You know, right away, I thought, 'Good for him, he's prolonging his career,'" Sonnanstine said.

Shortly thereafter, the tumblers in his mind began to turn. Why couldn't he do the same thing?

After all, Sonnanstine won 28 Major League games, and he tied for the Rays' team lead in 2008 with 13 wins. He already knew how to pitch. He just needed to learn how to tame the elusive pitch. Physical requirements for throwing the knuckler are far less demanding than those needed for the typical Major Leaguer's variety.

Andy Sonnanstine is confident he can return to the Major Leagues if he perfects his knuckleball. (AP)

When a friend of Sonnanstine, who caddies on the PGA Tour, came to St. Petersburg in the spring for The Valspar Championship at the Innisbrook Resort, Sonnanstine played catch with him.

"As we're playing catch on the field, I started thinking about Dan Johnson," Sonnanstine said. "I told my buddy, 'Let me throw you a couple of knuckleballs.'"

The first couple he threw his friend did nothing. Sonnanstine then dropped down to sidearm, and something beautiful appeared.

"Two of the best ones I've ever thrown," Sonnanstine said. "The first one he had a really hard time catching. The second one drills him in the hip. He had to carry a [golf] bag [during the tournament] for 18 holes, so we kind of stopped playing knuckleball catch. That was kind of like inception. That was the spark that said, 'Hey, you really might be able to do this.'

"I'd read an article about Phil Niekro getting 180 wins after his 35th birthday -- why not me? I have superior hand-eye coordination -- why can't I get this done? That's kind of what got the ball rolling on a realistic basis for me."

Sonnanstine got to work. Balancing his studies to finish the work toward his degree in educational studies with a minor in marketing from Kent University, he embarked on the challenge of mastering the pitch that batters have difficulty hitting, catchers have a hard time catching, and pitchers have a hard time throwing for strikes.

Dedication is a trait that Sonnanstine has never lacked. He's been throwing 200 knucklers a day, six days a week. If he can find someone to catch him, great. If not, he throws at a net in his garage. He's become a student of the pitch. He watches Boston's Steven Wright and Toronto's R.A. Dickey pitch whenever he has the chance, putting his TiVo to good use so he can re-visit their deliveries.

Sonnanstine sits down Griffey

He has already received tips from the likes of Dickey and former Major League knuckleballer Charlie Hough. He hopes to meet Tim Wakefield, who does work for the Red Sox telecasts, and Wright when the Red Sox visit St. Petersburg.

"It's getting to the point where the movement is there -- it's moving, dancing, darting," Sonnanstine said. "I want it to be there 85 percent of the time. It's probably 45 to 60 percent-ish. That's good for a guy just fiddling around. But I'm to the point where I've gotten just about as far as I can go on my own."

He's hoping somebody from the dwindling tribe of knuckleballers will take him under his wing, and guide him on the final leg of his journey so he can reach his ultimate goal of pitching in the Major Leagues again.

"It can be done," Sonnanstine said. "And like I keep asking myself, 'Why not me?'"

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.