By MARTY DOBROW
-- Charlie Zink, August 8, 2018
The game itself—the one played 10 years ago today, August 12, 2008—was unquestionably one of the strangest in Red Sox history, arguably even in baseball history.
Consider the basics:
- In the bottom of the first inning, the Red Sox took a 10-0 lead over the Texas Rangers, sparked by two 3-run home runs by David Ortiz.
- The Rangers rallied to take a 16-14 lead.
- The Sox responded, ultimately prevailing on a Kevin Youkilis 3-run home run with two outs in the 8thinning for a 19-17 win.
- The 36 runs scored tied a 58 (now 68)-year-old record for most runs scored in an American League game.
But what made this night truly bizarre, singularly weird under the baseball zodiac, Zany with a capital Z?
That would be the Red Sox starting pitcher.
The guy named Zink.
Baseball is full of odd journeys, but you would be hard-pressed to find one stranger than that of Charles Tadao Zink.
Consider first his family story. Charlie’s mother, Joyce Zink, is a petite Japanese-American woman with a ready laughter and a passion for gardening. The latter was picked up from her parents and two older siblings who had a small farm in California in the early ’40s—that is, before they were carted away to an internment camp following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Joyce was born after the war.
Tuned to injustice, she sought a career in corrections. Ultimately she worked as a guard at the Folsom State Prison, the one made famous by the Johnny Cash song. That’s where she met the love of her life, the associate warden of the place, a 6-3, 260-pound man all the inmates called “Cobra.” That was Ted Zink.
They would have only one child. For the first 18 months of his life, Charlie lived in a small house just outside of the prison, an environment his mom later described as “a gated community.”
Zink’s peculiar story goes much deeper than the background of his parents. Consider next the matter of his baseball heritage.
For those major leaguers who become pros out of college, a certain breed of program is common. Look at the current Red Sox, and you see plenty of evidence. Mitch Moreland went to Mississippi State. David Price went to Vanderbilt. Dustin Pedroia went to Arizona State. All are baseball powerhouses.
Zink played his college ball at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). It was, and is, a precious place: a majestic campus where sensitive souls study art history and architecture. After spending a year at junior college in Sacramento, Zink chose SCAD as his baseball canvas. In three years from 1999-2001, the results were hardly a masterpiece: a 9-17 record, an ERA of almost 4.
Then again, there was a certain maestro near the mound. The coach during Zink’s three years was none other than Luis Tiant.
El Tiante’s own oddball hardball journey—taking his pretzel delivery from Cuba to 19 years and 229 wins in the big leagues to 15 years of professional coaching and scouting—had landed him in his late 50s at the oasis of Savannah.
For Zink, college was a wild ride. He made some of the best friends of his life and loved playing for Tiant, who left for a job with the Sox after the 2001 season. When Zink returned to campus that fall, he figured he was done with the game.
In early 2002, Tiant called. The Sox were looking to sign a few “organizational players” to fill out roster spots in the low minors. Was he interested in coming down for a tryout?
To his astonishment, Zink was offered a contract. There was no bonus. He would make the minor league minimum of $850/month, just for the few months of a season. He gladly signed.
-- Charlie Zink, on the response from the occasional New England native who wants to buy a MINI Cooper in Sacramento
More unusual than his family background, quirkier than his college history, Charlie Zink’s journey as a pitcher in the Red Sox organization was singularly wacky.
He began, oddly enough, as what baseball folks call a “conventional” pitcher—meaning he relied on the usual array of pitches: a fastball, a curve, a slider, an occasional change. Sure, like any baseball player, he had messed around with an occasional knuckler on the side, but he had never thrown a single one in a game at any level.
He started out with the Single-A Augusta GreenJackets, not far from his college home. His SCAD buddies sometimes came out to watch and kidded him about one day traveling to Fenway to watch him pitch: “If you make it, we will come.”
The odds, of course, were prohibitively small. Ninety percent of minor leaguers never play a single big league inning, and for undrafted players like Zink the odds are far worse. Though he actually pitched quite well in those long relief stints (1.68 ERA), he could tell the Sox weren’t interested in him, focused instead on the high draft picks, the designated prospects like first-rounder Phil Dumatrait and second-rounder Manny Delcarmen.
It proved an emotionally grueling summer. The Monday immediately after Father’s Day, Charlie lost his larger-than-life dad, Ted Zink, to lung cancer. He spoke all the time to his mom, Joyce, who listened to almost every game on the webcast.
Late in the summer, the Sox minor league pitching coordinator, Glen “Goose” Gregson, was visiting the GreenJackets to assess the team’s prospects. Zink was idly playing catch in the outfield with the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Darren Wheeler. He decided to throw a knuckleball, and…shazam!
-- Goose Gregson, April 2, 2008
In spring training in 2003, the Sox imposed a knuckleball edict on Charlie Zink: you’re never going to make it as a conventional pitcher, they told him. You will throw this pitch 95 percent of the time.
They gave him a tutorial with the resident knuckle guru, Tim Wakefield, and let the experiment roll.
From afar, the knuckleball plan seems so darn easy. Rely almost exclusively on one pitch, throw it about 65 miles an hour. That was good enough to send Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm to Cooperstown. Good enough to make Wakefield the Sox’ third-all time leader in wins.
So why doesn’t everybody do it?
Because it’s almost impossible to command.
In astonishingly short order, Charlie Zink looked like a glittering exception to the rule. By midseason 2003 he was getting a lot of nasty movement and some absurd swings and misses.
Unlike the old-fashioned knuckleballers from the game’s early days, who actually put two knuckles on the ball, and unlike the modern practitioners, who used their fingernails, Zink employed a unique hybrid grip. He had his thumb under the ball, his index knuckle pressing in, and the extended fingernail of his third finger alone digging into the cowhide. That one middle digit—with three coats of nail hardener applied to the claw—was pointed at the batter after the delivery.
In the last month of the season, he was elevated to Double-A Portland, and the results were startling. He took one no-hitter into the 8thinning. In his last start of the year, he took another until two outs in the 9th.
-- Charlie Zink, June 1, 2005
2004, of course, was pure magic for the Red Sox. It was hellacious for Zink.
He lost all feel for the pitch and tumbled back to Single-A. At year’s end, his numbers were awful: 1-10, a 5.77 ERA.
It didn’t look any better in 2005. He started in Portland, pitched poorly, but actually got a brief promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket in May because of a raft of injuries to pitchers in the Red Sox organization. His first Triple-A start, in inimitable Zink fashion, came on Friday, May 13.
As disasters go, this one was definitely in the unmitigated category: two innings, eight runs, seven hits, four walks, a wild pitch, confidence shattered.
He was immediately returned to Double-A, and, worse yet, placed on the “phantom disabled list” for a groin injury he hadn’t suffered.
A few weeks later, on June 1, 2005, I first met Charlie Zink, for an initial interview for a book I planned to write about minor league baseball. I was startled at his candor as he talked about his exasperation with the pitch.
“Those are the days when I don’t have a clue,” he said. “Like I don’t even want to be a knuckleballer anymore. Honestly, I don’t know how I got it to move before.”
--Noah Zink, Charlie’s 7-year-old son, when the family donated some clothing to Good Will, and he saw a Paw Sox shirt in the bin for 50 cents
Late in 2005, the elevator started going back up. Zink was reactivated by Portland and began to pitch well. So, too, the following two years, as he worked at both the Double-A and Triple-A level. There were no near no-hitters, nothing dominant, no chance of a call-up, but some solid, consistent minor league pitching: 10-4, 3.86 in 2006, 11-6, 4.63 in ’07.
He had come to a certain peace with his knuckleball identity, telling me in 2007, “Now I know I have to be what I am. And I’m comfortable with that.”
At the same time, he was beginning to look eagerly toward a life beyond baseball. Towards the end of that season, he said, “I would trade everything right now for a marriage and kids, just have a steady job where I was making 80-grand a year doing something. I would trade it for that.”
Two-thousand-eight would be Charlie’s seventh year in the Red Sox organization. His salary was up to $2700 a month, paid from Opening Day to the end of the season. The Red Sox, coming off their second World Series championship, published a particularly thick media guide that year. It listed all the big league players, and 166 minor leaguers to boot. Charlie Zink was No. 166.
Alphabetically challenged, but feeling otherwise pretty good, he began the year in Pawtucket. In his first start, he took the loss with a brutal outing, giving up six runs on four hits with four walks in just three innings. Then, just like that, he caught fire.
By the All-Star break, he was 11-2 with a 2.22 ERA.
That year Zink also fell in love for the first time in years. He met a beautiful and vivacious woman who worked at a Providence restaurant. She had grown up on a farm in a Rhode Island town that seemed to fit the narrative well.
And her name?
She had vowed never to date a ballplayer, but this one grabbed her heart. She loved how sweet he was with her 2-year-old niece, Lilly, who always lit up when she saw him, announcing, “That’s Charlie Zink. He throws the knuckleball!”
Charlie Zink, August 8, 2018
Forget about the most peculiar family story. Disregard Tiant’s baseball misfits at SCAD. Look past Zink’s eccentric minor league career.
You want weird? Think about the game.
It was the first game of a critical homestand. The World Champion Red Sox were 68-51, four games out of first place. They were taking on the best hitting team in baseball, the Texas Rangers.
Joining the 444thconsecutive sellout at Fenway were a number of people from Zink’s life. Some of his friends from SCAD honored their long-ago pledge and somehow made the trip. His mom, Joyce, took a red-eye in from California. She sat on my right in Section 21, Row NN, behind the plate, with Madeline Munroe on my left. We watched with wonder.
Charlie started throwing in the tight confines of the bullpen: “I remember warming up in the outfield and being terrified I was going to hit a fan.”
When Ortiz approached him in the dugout before the game and told him he had to lead the team onto the field, he stared up at the diamond, and quietly told himself, “Please don’t trip up these steps!”
He knew he was going to be facing three All-Stars to begin the game: Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, and Josh Hamilton.
His first pitch to Kinsler bounced far in front of the plate. He now admits fearing, “I was not going to throw one strike, and I’m going to get pulled in like 10 pitches.”
He retired the trio 1-2-3.
And then, drum roll, please: the Sox put up 10 runs. Ortiz mashed one 3-run blast to right, another to center.
Oakland’s Jed Lowrie, then a Red Sox rookie, remembered this week that the atmosphere was utterly electric in the dugout with Ortiz absolutely radiating energy. “To have someone who has that oversize personality have that much success early in a game,” Lowrie said with a laugh, “he was in full Big Papi mode.”
For his part, Zink was stupefied as the inning went on and on.
“It was forever,” he recalled. He tried to get a teammate to throw with him to stay loose and was told everyone was busy: “Just go in the batting cage and throw balls against the wall.”
And so he did.
Then, of course, things didn’t go all that well. Zink was gone in the fifth inning, having surrendered eight runs and 11 hits. The bullpen was even worse. Somehow the Sox fell behind, 16-14.
“I just remember the wild swings of emotion,” Lowrie recalled. “Usually 10 runs is enough to win a game.”
But the resilient Sox rallied at the end of a long, long night to post the 19-17 win.
Charlie Zink was told right away he was headed back to the minors. Still, near midnight, he was as gracious and appreciative as a professional athlete—or perhaps any human being—could be.
-- Charlie Zink, August 8, 2018, on his family life
Ten years is not a long time in most adult human lives, but it’s close to a geological age in baseball. The game makes you old in a hurry.
Of the 34 players who played in that theater of the baseball absurd, only five remain active, and in some cases “active” is a relative term.
Jacoby Ellsbury, long since with the Yankees, hasn’t played a single game all season.
Dustin Pedroia, who got five hits that night en route to an MVP, has just one this year in three games with the Sox.
Chris Davis, who played for Texas that night, is in the midst of a historically rough year for Baltimore. He entered this weekend’s series with the Sox batting .159 - 29 points lower than anyone else in the American League with enough at-bats to qualify for league leaders.
Lowrie, then a rookie with the Sox and 2-5 that night with two RBI, has fashioned a very successful career. He made his first American League All-Star team this season, his 11thin the bigs.
And then there is the first batter faced by Charlie Zink in his one and only big-league game. With eerie symmetry, Ian Kinsler joined the Red Sox in a trade at the deadline just 12 days before the 10thanniversary of the 19-17 drama. He looked good in three games with the Sox before straining a hamstring and going on the disabled list.
As for Zink, he has been out of pro ball since 2011, and he seems quite happy. His life is uncharacteristically conventional these days.
He is a sales manager for Niello MINI Cooper in Sacramento after having worked for five years at a Mercedes dealership, making far more money than he ever did in baseball. He and Madeline Munroe are married. They have two kids, 7-year-old Noah and 5-year-old Scarlett. Charlie loves being home with them at the small farm they bought this year in the small town of Auburn.
“It’s right for me,” he says. “I’m not gone for 10 days at a time. I’m there every night.”
After not following baseball for years, he has gotten back into it a little bit. One of his former minor league teammates, Chris Smith, pitched for the A’s last year, and Charlie took his family to a few games.
“It got the blood flowing,” he admits. “It was fun to feel that energy in a real stadium.”
Noah wears Red Sox gear all the time and constantly wants to throw or hit with his dad. Charlie has followed with some interest the career of the Red Sox’ Steven Wright: the game’s only active practitioner of the knuckleball.
And this year’s team—the one making a hard game look so easy almost every night—has won him over.
“Who doesn’t like watching the Red Sox now?” he says. “This is incredible!”
He says he was gawking at the stream on his phone last Sunday night as he put his kids to sleep, watching the Sox rally late for another win over the Yankees.
Zink turns 39 later this month. Though knuckleballers like Wakefield, Niekro, Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, and R.A. Dickey pitched in the big leagues well into their 40s, Zink is not planning a comeback.
That said, he does keep a glove and ball at the dealership. Not long ago, he decided to have a catch with one of his top young sales associates, Jacob Smith, whom he describes as quite a good athlete.
When Zink uncorked the knuckler, an incredulous Smith said, “What the f--- is the ball doing?”
“I don’t know,” said Zink with a laugh. “I spent 10 years not knowing what it was doing, too. But if it’s coming at your face, get out of the way!”