Haeger took blue-collar route to big leagues
Knuckleballer gives Dodgers chance to win in first start
LOS ANGELES -- If home-opener starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw took the fast lane to the Dodgers rotation, knuckleballer Charlie Haeger took the cart path.
He wasn't blessed with a blazing fastball or the seven-figure bonus of a first-round pick like Kershaw, but he did get his parents' blue-collar work ethic. That, and the persistence to endure nearly a decade of bouncing around baseball's fringe, brought him to Sunday, opening his season as the fifth starter with a quality start against the Marlins, allowing three runs in six innings.
On the six-game opening trip east, Kershaw didn't make it six innings in his start and neither did Chad Billingsley. Vicente Padilla, the Opening Day starter, didn't make six innings in two tries.
Haeger out-did every Dodgers starter except for Hiroki Kuroda. Haeger's line had the typical knuckleball look to it -- 12 strikeouts, four walks, three wild pitches -- but he gave his club a chance to win, even left the game with a lead, and that's saying something for somebody who actually left baseball in 2003 to become a golfer. He is scheduled to start again Saturday against the Giants.
"He has a very good personality to throw the knuckleball. He's not afraid of it or afraid of the hitter," said knuckleball specialist Charlie Hough, a mentor to Haeger who pitched until he was 46.
"He can do this longer than I did. He has a better arm than I had. And I waited 12 years in the bullpen. He's 26. In knuckleball years -- they're like dog years -- he's probably 20 or 21. He can pitch longer than the average pitcher."
Haeger, drafted in the 25th round by the White Sox in 2001, almost wasn't any kind of pitcher. He bailed on baseball when he wasn't considered good enough to break camp with any of the White Sox Minor League clubs, skipping the 2003 season rather than be sentenced to extended spring training.
"Before the knuckleball, I was a normal pitcher and not a very successful one," he said. "I wasn't getting anybody out. I was frustrated, and I decided to go home."
He enrolled in Madonna University in his home state of Michigan, made its golf team and played the year hitting a ball that wasn't moving. When the golf season was over, Haeger knew it was time to return to baseball.
He had a knack for throwing the knuckleball on the sidelines since youth ball, but never in games. When the White Sox gave him a second chance in 2004, he came back committed to become the next Tim Wakefield. He struggled through that season at low Class A, but got a late-season callup to high Class A, and the knuckler started dancing.
"Somewhere in there from '04 to '05, something clicked with me throwing it," Haeger said.
He opened 2005 at Class A Winston-Salem, was promoted midseason to Double-A Birmingham and finished that breakthrough season a combined 14-5. The White Sox protected him on their Major League 40-man roster, and when he reported to Spring Training, Chicago had hired Hough to give Haeger a two-week tutorial in the art of the knuckleball.
"It was awesome," Haeger said. "I knew about Charlie. I had looked at the history of all the guys who threw the pitch. The one thing that I saw, numbers-wise, is they all threw a lot of innings, all of them. I pride myself on going deep into a game."
Haeger said Hough gave him this important advice.
"Charlie would just say, be patient and trust it," Haeger said. "I tell myself a lot to trust it. When you throw a 68-mph pitch to a Major League hitter, you better have confidence in what you're doing. I live and die with this pitch. It's what got me here. I can't shy away from it. It's all about trust."
Haeger said he couldn't explain the one tough patch he had Sunday, issuing walks to Cameron Maybin and Hanley Ramirez to start the fourth inning, then serving up a three-run homer to Jorge Cantu. Hough, now pitching coach for the Dodgers' Class A team at Inland Empire, was watching and came up with his own theory.
"When he started the game, he looked like he was trying to beat the batters with good stuff. But when he got the four-run lead, it looked like he was trying to protect it, like mentally he was trying not to walk anybody," Hough said.
"That's backward. When I got to the big leagues, [Dodgers manager] Walt Alston told me when I get a 2-0 count to throw a fastball. He'd say, don't walk this guy. That's a tough way to pitch, very negative. It looked like Charlie got into protect-lead mode, but he came right out of it after the home run."
Haeger's path to the Dodgers was circuitous. After brief callups by the White Sox in 2006 and 2007, he was claimed off waivers by the Padres in 2008, made four shaky appearances, then was non-tendered. But Haeger was on the radar of general manager Ned Colletti, and Haeger signed with the Dodgers instead of the Mets or Red Sox before the 2009 season. He spent most of last year as the best starter at Triple-A Albuquerque, but impressed management enough in three Dodgers starts to be part of the club's pitching plans for 2010.
Haeger doesn't spend time wondering why he doesn't have Kershaw's 95-mph fastball or why it has taken him almost a decade to break into a rotation.
"I feel that this was just sort of my path," he said. "Everybody has a path, this just happened to be mine. I don't feel slighted. I think it's great. I have a lot of pride that it was a hard road to get here. It's how I was brought up. My dad owned a small business, my mom worked in a print shop. Just blue-collar people, working hard -- nothing wrong with that."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.