Standing around outside the Mariners’ clubhouse on Wednesday, I had a welcome opportunity to catch up with an old friend, Kirby Arnold, who covered the Mariners, excellently, for years for the Everett Herald. Kirby is now retired and living most of the year in Arizona, but he spends part of his time out here and was working on a freelance article.
In the course of the conversation, Kirby casually mentioned that he was friends with Steven Wright — not the deadpan comedian, but rather the Red Sox pitcher who, by good fortune, had been recalled from the minor leagues by Boston that very day. Kirby had just over come from the Red Sox side, where he had gone over to say hello to Wright. The Red Sox were having bullpen issues, and they were hoping the 28-year-old Wright, who had been pitching effectively as a starter in Pawtucket, could help them in long relief.
Kirby then told an amazing story about how he befriended Wright through a chance meeting at a golf course, and how he had wound up impacting his career, indirectly, in a positive way.
In the winter prior to the 2012 season, Kirby was playing golf at the Palm Valley Golf Club in Goodyear, Ariz., which isn’t unusual. Kirby’s a golf nut, and in fact now runs a website called golferswest.com with a couple of other retired Seattle sportswriters, Bob Sherwin and Jim Street. Kirby was solo that day, and so was, it turned out, Wright, whose wife, Shannon, happens to work at the golf course. They struck up a conversation, which led to a round of golf together and the beginning of a friendship.
It didn’t take long for baseball to come up, and for Wright to reveal he was a pitcher in the Cleveland Indians organization, at the time. A former second-round pick of the Indians out of the University of Hawaii in 2006, Wright was stymied in the minor leagues and had in fact been demoted from Triple-A to Double-A that year. At Double-A Akron, he had begun dabbling with the knuckleball, impressively enough that his pitching coach, Greg Hibbard — yeah, the ex-Mariner — urged him to stick with it. But now Wright was eager to learn more about the nuances of the pitch.
Arnold told him that he just happened to be acquainted with R.A. Dickey, whose success story is an inspiration to all aspiring knuckleballers. Dickey and Arnold had hit it off during Dickey’s stint with the Mariners, and they had remained in contact over the years as Dickey eventually blossomed into the Cy Young Award winner. Kirby told Wright that he could get him together with Dickey, who is always happy to “play it forward” after Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough helped him immensely in his own career. Wright took him up on the offer, the connection was made, and Dickey wound up talking extensively to Wright about the technical and psychological aspects of throwing the knuckleball.
And then last year, Wright’s career began to take off. He went a combined 10-6 with a 2.44 ERA in the minor leagues with Cleveland and Boston, which acquired him in an unheralded July 31 trade with the Indians for first baseman Lars Anderson.
This season, Wright started the year in Triple-A Pawtucket, got called up by the Red Sox to make one appearance on April 23 in a rain-shortened game in Oakland, allowing five runs in 3 2/3 innings in his major-league debut. Back Wright went to Triple-A, where he was on a run of 17 2/3 scoreless consecutive innings when the Red Sox called him back up to the majors on Wednesday.
Flash forward to yesterday, when Red Sox starter Ryan Dempster was knocked out in the fourth inning. With two on and one out, in came Wright, who promptly gave up an RBI single to Kyle Seager. But Wright got out of the jam and went on to blank the Mariners — who had been blasting the ball all over Safeco Field so far in the game — over the next five innings. The result was his first major-league win and presentation of the game ball after the Red Sox rallied for a run in the 10th to win it, 8-7.
A couple of Mariners commented that Wright’s knuckleball reminded them of Dickey’s — a little bit harder than the traditional floater. Considering the tutelage he had received from Dickey, courtesy of a helpful sportswriter from Everett, that’s not a surprise.