Minor League pitcher Mickey Jannis' knuckleball story is one of family and inspiration
The lone player still on the field after Scottsdale's 3-0 win over Mesa was standing atop the dugout talking to a face in the crowd. Mickey Jannis was smiling as he and fiancée Emily exchanged words following his stellar performance on the mound: Across five innings, Jannis struck out five allowing just one hit and one walk on a rare cool Friday afternoon in the desert.
The Sparks, Nev., native is a rare gem in the Arizona Fall League. Sure, the 29-year-old doesn't fit the demographic in a league that caters to young stars, but more than that, he has a pitch you seldom see across baseball: The knuckleball.
This unicorn of a pitch elongated the careers of Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey -- and while many have attempted to learn it, few have succeeded. Jannis is one of the successors, but the story behind his introduction to the knuckleball is one of inspiration.
Jannis had been released by the Rays in 2011 following two seasons with the organization that bore little fruit. It was a scenario that was obviously difficult on him, but his confidence in his secret weapon never deterred. After washing out as a conventional pitcher, he adopted a new goal: To stand out in independent ball with the new pitch.
"I always knew I had a good knuckleball," Jannis, now in the Mets organization, told MLB.com. "I knew it was a longshot, but I felt more confident going that direction than sticking with what I was doing."
The decision was a family affair. His dad, a former high school baseball coach for three decades, along with his cousin and uncle, who have pro ball experience, assisted Jannis in the decision-making process.
"If we're going to do it, we're going to go all the way with it," he said.
He's certainly going -- and his confidence is along for the ride.
"Yeah, [my confidence] is pretty good," he chuckled. And rightfully so. Jannis approached Tom Candiotti, a pioneer of the knuckleball, for any advice he may have on mastering the pitch.
"I know it's tough as a knuckleballer -- there aren't a whole lot of people that you can really talk to who have been there, done that," Candiotti said. "I know on my way up I had a lot of help with guys like Joe Niekro, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough. These guys were willing to help, and if I have a chance to help somebody, I was going to come and help him out."
Candiotti, a 16-year MLB vet, was impressed with what he saw, calling it an "A-plus" pitch and welcoming Jannis into the knuckleball community with open arms.
It's not an easy club to join. Many pitchers don't even consider adding it to their repertoire, due to some trust issues with incorporating it into their standard pitches. But, so far, it appears to be successful for Jannis. And he has plenty of support -- including, of course, his future wife.
"He's been training hard in the offseason and doing everything he can to better prepare himself for the season and what's ahead of him," said Emily. "Baseball makes you move fast, especially when you're getting married the very next offseason."
The future is bright for the right-hander who will blow out 30 candles on his birthday cake in December. As for now, his goals are quite simple: He has an offseason wedding to attend to ... which will take place on Sunday.