SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – This would be so odd if Josh Booty's prime hadn't already followed the same impulsive path traced by the pitch that could bring him back. If, at 37, he hadn't already soared and wobbled and dipped and dived in not one sport, but two.
Hell, what's life strapped to a knuckleball when you're the fifth pick in the entire baseball draft at 19, only to retire at 23 after having hit .198 in the minor leagues? What's a life of fingertip randomness when you've been drafted to be an NFL quarterback and retired never having thrown an NFL pass?
At least the knuckleball, cranky old soul it may be, starts in your hand before running off on its own plan. At least somebody usually, eventually, throws it back.
These years later, Booty seems to have one regret, and that is that he left baseball too early, or returned to football too late, that he'd been caught in the middle of two loves and, perhaps, appropriately honored neither. Not that he didn't try hard to be great at both; he did. But he left five years of football on baseball fields in Elmira and Kane County and Charlotte and, over 26 at-bats, even Miami. Then, he killed off years of baseball on football fields at Auburn and Florida and Mississippi State and even Cleveland.
What's a man to do? On the day he accepted a then-record $1.6 million bonus to play baseball for the Florida Marlins, he cried. Not out of joy, but because he knew he'd miss football so terribly. Eventually, he did return to football at LSU and as an NFL backup, and then that was over, too.
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So when the phone rang and the invitation was to a reality show that could earn him one last shot at baseball? Josh Booty had two questions: When and where?
He'd learn the knuckleball, outlast four other former quarterbacks – brother John David Booty, Doug Flutie, David Greene and Ryan Perrilloux – and on Friday morning, by the rules of the MLB Network show, "The Next Knuckler," walked into Arizona Diamondbacks camp as a non-roster invitee. He'll earn $179.43 per day to cover food, housing and other expenses, just like the other NRIs. Only MLB Network, not the club, will cut his checks.
Standing on dewy grass on a chilly morning, Booty appeared fit and, considering the ridiculous odds of what he was attempting, reasonably confident. He'd learned the pitch under the likes of Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough, then come to Arizona to find Tom Candiotti. The notion that a 37-year-old and long-ago third baseman and quarterback could in a single winter transform himself into a capable knuckleball pitcher strains the imagination. But, here he is, respectful of the game, drawn to the pitch and committed to the chase.
Booty smiled at it all.
"It's kind of writing the last chapter," he said.
He took the number 94. While it happens to be the year he was drafted by the Marlins, that's not the significance. It's the reverse of 49, the number worn by Candiotti, Hough and Wakefield. He took a locker in a room with a sign beside the door: Major League Support Staff. Those would be the clubbies. The Diamondbacks ran out of lockers in the major-league clubhouse this week when they traded for outfielder Tony Campana.
Then, on a day he was not scheduled to throw his knuckleball, Booty fell in with a group of pitchers, practiced his pickoff throws, hit from a tee with coach Mark Grace, got some bunts down with coach Brett Butler, ran some sprints and introduced himself to new teammates.
To some, he was that Josh Booty, as in, "I always wondered what happened to Josh Booty." To others, he was that Josh Booty, as in, "Josh Booty was in a reality show?" And to still others, he was just a guy who showed up late in camp wearing a few gray hairs and a big number.
The fact is, he's a wonderful athlete. And, according to Candiotti, the knuckleball is pretty good. Booty throws it hard and with a unique grip, which is fine, because in the ways of the knuckleball there are no rules, only guidelines. Also, Candiotti said, Booty can push 90 mph with his fastball. He's found Booty to be curious, which is good, and humble, which is better. Often, as in the ways of, say, the belly putter, you don't find the knuckleball, it finds you.
"When you get to know the guy," Candiotti said, "you're really going to root for him."
The plan for the Diamondbacks, essentially, is to see what they've got in Booty. Run him through the drills. Get him out there against some minor-league kids. Keep him, they hope, out of danger. So, they'll play along.
"We don't want to put him out there as some gimmick," Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said. "My job is to give him an opportunity to show what he can do."
That's fine by Booty. More than fine, actually. Even with the reality show diploma, he doesn't feel like a gimmick. He feels like a lucky man who was given another shot, no matter how long that may be. He'll rush that tiny fraternity, throw that funky pitch and ride along with it as long as it will carry him.
"In my mind," he said, "I'm taking it serious. I've always felt like I want to be a serious athlete."
Anyway, what's one more unpredictable pitch? Somebody'll just throw it back.
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