CONDITIONED AS they are to believe that there is no greater sin than surrender, athletes are not easily convinced to give up—on a game, on a career (see Favre, Brett) or on their own image of themselves. This is largely why Shaquille O'Neal refuses to try underhanded free throws no matter how many times his shots clank off the rim, for instance, or why a high school quarterback might spurn major programs that want him to change positions and go instead to a small college that will let him stay behind center.
It takes a healthy self-awareness, humility and more than a little courage for an athlete to abandon his career path for a new and uncertain one, which brings us to Brad Ziegler. You may not have heard of Ziegler, a 28-year-old rookie who until he was called up on May 30 was an obscure reliever in the Oakland A's system. You probably have heard, however, of Christy Mathewson, the Hall of Fame pitcher with whom Ziegler now shares the distinction of having pitched 39 consecutive scoreless innings as a rookie, the second-highest total in history. Ziegler's string of perfection, which was two innings short of Grover Cleveland Alexander's alltime rookie record, ended on Aug. 14 against Tampa Bay, but by then he had already broken the major league mark for scoreless innings at the start of a career, set by the Phillies' George McQuillan in 1907.
Ziegler, now Oakland's closer, never would have earned such a distinguished place in history had he not reinvented himself as a submarine-style pitcher in 2006, after three years of bouncing around baseball's back roads with a traditional overhand delivery. More than any other sport, baseball offers a second chance to those who are willing to commit to an extreme makeover, and several current big leaguers have made the most of that chance. Some have gone from pitcher to position player, most notably the Cardinals' Rick Ankiel. Ankiel's path is now being followed by Adam Loewen of the Orioles, who will try to make it back to the majors next year as an outfielder after arriving in '06 as a pitcher. Arm problems forced Loewen to make the change, grudgingly. "I've been pitching since I was nine years old," he said in July, when he decided to leave the mound for good. "It's going to be tough to let it go."
Rangers reliever Warner Madrigal made the opposite move, from hitter to pitcher, a switch that seemed prudent after he batted .247 and .235 in consecutive minor league seasons. The transformation of pitcher Charlie Zink, recently called up by the Red Sox, was from a fireballer to a knuckleballer, a change that helped him go from an undrafted, sub-.500 pitcher at the Savannah College of Art and Design all the way to Fenway Park.
August 31, 2008
They all took a leap of faith in one way or another, none more so than Ziegler, who wasn't entirely sure that his career was in such dire need of resuscitation. Drafted by the Phillies in the 20th round in 2003 after earning a degree from Southwest Missouri State, he was released less than a year later after pitching only six innings in the minors due to shoulder tendinitis. Ziegler then caught on with the Schaumburg Flyers of the independent Northern League before signing with Oakland and joining their Class A affiliate in Modesto in '04. Even though he was fairly successful, finishing second in the Double A Texas League with a 3.37 ERA in 2006, he was still just a nondescript righthander until Ron Romanick, Oakland's minor league instructor, suggested near the end of the season that he try dropping down to sidearm. Romanick had seen Ziegler mix in the occasional sidearm delivery against righthanded hitters, and he liked the sinking action on those pitches. He also knew that Ziegler needed something to make him stand out. A fastball that topped out around 90 mph wasn't doing the trick.
At first, Ziegler had the typical athlete's hesitation. "I was absolutely not open to it," he says. "I had just posted good numbers in consecutive seasons, and I felt that if the way I was doing it wasn't good enough, what was the point of making such a big change at that point of my career?" But after assessing the state of his career—he was 26 and had never spent a day in the big leagues—Ziegler decided to attempt the transformation.
He didn't immediately become the pitcher he is today: A nasty sinkerballer who doesn't strike out many hitters (only 21 in 44 innings this season) but induces almost all of them to beat the ball into the dirt—which is why, remarkably, Ziegler hasn't allowed a home run since he began throwing sidearm fulltime in 2007. There were months of fine tuning involved, "most of it through trial and error," he says. He had to relearn how to warm up, after realizing that he would spend so much time working on his mechanics in the bullpen that he was fatigued when he entered a game.
The breakthrough came when Ziegler found he had more velocity when his release point was closer to his knee than his ankle, but before that there were indignities involved in the transition. The first came during the Arizona Fall League in 2006, where the other players at the A's facility in Phoenix stared at Ziegler as he practiced his new delivery over and over—without a baseball. Romanick wanted him to work on the mechanics empty-handed, for fear that adding the weight of the ball to the unfamiliar motion might lead to a sore arm. The result was that Ziegler looked like he was playing the baseball version of air guitar. "A lot of people were looking at me like, What is this guy doing?" he says.
Players who attempt to reinvent themselves often draw such stares, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of pity, because their attempt at a new approach usually means that the old one has failed for some reason. "People see you as the poor guy who's down to his last chance, the guy who's so desperate to get to the big leagues he's taking one last crazy shot to make it," says Ankiel.
Sometimes crazy shots pay off, and sometimes the difference between a career minor leaguer and a record-breaking major leaguer is a few degrees, from overhand to sidearm. As Ziegler can attest, one of the keys to reaching the top is to realize that there is more than one path.
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Only baseball allows its failed players to RETURN IN A DIFFERENT FORM.