Kaua‘i’s Nowlin Is Knuckling UpImagine walking into a meeting with a restaurateur and saying, “I’d like you to open a restaurant and make me the executive chef. I didn’t go to culinary school, and I’ve never cooked for anyone other than myself.” As if the investor’s initial bemusement weren’t enough, imagine following that up with “Oh, and my menu will consist of only one dish.”
Current Kaua’i resident Chris Nowlin is facing a similar task as he attempts to move down a path toward his dream of becoming a major league baseball pitcher. Having never played high school or college ball, Nowlin continues to climb the ranks, thanks to his unique weapon: the knuckleball.
Baseball players at the highest level typically hone their craft in a competitive atmosphere for the majority of their lives, but Nowlin’s route has been anything but typical.
“The first time I pitched on a big mound was professional baseball,” he says.
Growing up outside of Boston, Nowlin was a “basketball stud” in high school, but didn’t toe the rubber as a prep athlete. That’s not to say he had no interest in baseball. When his dad’s clients couldn’t use the tickets, he would head to Fenway Park with his father to catch the Red Sox in action. One night, after getting kicked out of Stephen King’s reserved seats, Chris found himself behind the plate to see Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
“What? You can do that with a baseball?” he remembers thinking, especially in between innings when the umpire wasn’t obstructing the ball’s dance on its way to the plate. “Then I was obsessed. They ran a full-page picture of his grip in the sports section, so I cut it out and put it on the wall and threw it religiously.”
Nowlin began perfecting the pitch while playing in nothing more than competitive wiffle ball tournaments, but he was convinced by friends to attend an open tryout for the Cincinnati Reds after high school. He made enough of an impression that it at least got him a walk-on spot at the University of Massachusetts, but he was cut after a couple weeks.
After college, despite still not having pitched in game action, Nowlin sold everything he owned for $500 and drove out to the West Coast to keep pushing toward his goal. When he hit an open tryout in Los Angeles, a chance encounter changed everything.There to meet a coach for a golf tee time later in the day was 25-year major league veteran Charlie Hough, one of the game’s most successful knucklers. He eyed Nowlin throwing and had some initial mixed reviews.
“He called me horse (excrement) with potential and gave me his phone number,” Nowlin says. “That’s how it all started.”
Invited to come out to a junior college in California to work out with Hough, Nowlin met the rest of the active knuckleball pitchers, including current New York Mets starting pitcher R.A. Dickey, who was just beginning to craft his knuckler. Dickey has since become one of New York’s most reliable arms with a 3.05 ERA in two-plus seasons with the team, including a 2-0 record with a 2.08 ERA through two starts this season. The two have remained good friends and acknowledge the tight bond they have with pitchers of their ilk.
“The camaraderie between knuckleballers is very unique because there’s not many people on the face of the earth who have walked a mile in our shoes,”
Dickey says. “So the fraternity is very tight. It’s almost like family. Any time I have a problem, I can’t just turn to (fellow Mets pitcher) Mike Pelfrey or someone else who throws conventionally and ask them what I’m doing wrong, I’ve got to seek out the people who have done it. Tim (Wakefield) and Charlie (Hough) and Phil Neikro are all part of my speed dial, and they have been incredibly generous with all of their acumen.”
Dickey’s own personal story is currently outlined in his memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, which was just released last month.
Those knuckleball bonds have now aided Nowlin, as he is set to head to New Jersey soon for a tryout with the Newark Bears, one of the most high-profile independent league teams, thanks to a few phone calls by Dickey and Joe Gannon, another pro knuckler who has had a long career in the independent and minor leagues.
Chris, now 30, already has had stints with the Lincoln Saltdogs, Calgary Vipers, Maui Na Koa Ikaika and Sussex Skyhawks. If he catches on with Newark, it will be his best shot to be seen by an MLB organization.
“I’m really close to breaking through, because all it takes is one good streak in indie ball and you get bought and you’re in Triple-A or the major leagues,” he says. “This is the first year I feel really, really locked in. Before I was (thinking) ‘I hope I’m doing this right, I hope this is happening.’ Now I know exactly what I’m doing, especially with a lot of help from Dickey and Phil Neikro.”
Despite his unusual route to this point, Nowlin has some very interested and invested eyes on him because, as he says, he’s the youngest knuckleballer currently in the professional ranks.
“I’m obviously hoping he’s going to be able to make the team and make an impression,” Dickey says. “But the knuckleball is a strange thing. It can be very capricious, it’s not really respected that much. We really make it respected. It’s not like scouts are going to look at the next Hoyt Wilhelm or the next Phil Neikro out there in high school somewhere.
“So it’s kind of like the ugly stepchild of pitches,” Dickey explains. “It’s a pitch born of desperation and because of that, it doesn’t get a lot of respect. But make no mistake about it, it’s got one design and one design alone, and that’s to get big league hitters out consistently, and that it can do when you throw it correctly.
“I’m pulling for Chris and I hope I can carry the torch long enough for him or someone like him to take it from me.”
If he does end up claiming the torch, Nowlin will certainly have come through on the second part of Hough’s early – and colorful – assessment. The path less traveled will have been well worth the navigation.