SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Josh Booty reported to Diamondbacks camp Friday after winning MLB Network’s “The Next Knuckler” competition.
It does not appear to be a lark. Booty, 37, brought a 90 mph fastball to go with his newfound knuckleball, and he said he plans to be around for the long haul.
“I am not here to goof off,” Booty said. “My goal would be to pitch in a game. I feel I can turn some heads. I’ve always wanted to be a serious athlete.”
Booty, 37, has come full circle. A two-sport star at LSU, Booty was drafted as a shortstop by the Marlins in the first round in 1994 and as quarterback by the Seahawks in 2001, after he left pro baseball and spent two seasons at LSU.
“It’s writing the last chapter. I’ve been close a few times. I’m a rookie for the third time if I was able to get on the field. It’s crazy,” Booty said.
Booty has a confidante and sounding board in camp in Tom Candiotti, a member of the D-backs’ radio broadcast team and a pitcher who resurrected his career with the knuckler. Candiotti has given Booty his number and will be available at every turn.
“He’s got the best fastball of any knuckleballer I’ve ever seen. He can flat-out throw it. He has a tremendous arm,” Candiotti said. “The knuckleball, he can throw it, too. He has the ability to take the spin off the ball. He’s energetic, and he wants to get better with it.”
Booty beat out former Georgia quarterback David Greene in the finals of five-man “Next Knuckler” competition that was judged by knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough. The two threw three innings apiece against a college team in their last test three weeks ago, when the filming ended. The other competitors were Booty’s brother John David, Doug Flutie and Ryan Perrilloux, all former college quarterbacks.
Booty always wanted to play both sports, and he called joining the Marlins one of the toughest days in his life because they would not let him play football, with owner Wayne Huizenga saying, “You are going to have to lay down the football, son.”
“I cried the night I signed the contract, not because I didn’t want to play baseball but because I knew I wasn’t going to play football ever again,” Booty said.
Booty appeared in 13 games in three seasons with the Marlins from 1996-98, hitting .269 with four RBIs in 26 at-bats. He hit .198 with 62 homers in 468 minor league games.
Booty understands he has work to do in baseball, although he received positive feedback from Wakefield and knuckleballer Charlie Hough during the reality series and then during throwing sessions with them in Los Angeles and Florida. He worked out last week in Houston with major league hitters Adam Dunn, Lance Berkman and Jay Bruce, who did not want to face him. That made him feel good.
“That was a positive. No one wants to face a knuckleballer,” Booty said.
The D-backs would like to get Booty into a spring training game, but only if he is ready. In a best-case scenario, if Booty wants to continue and feels he is progressing, he would open the season in a minor league rotation. He was immediately placed in a workout group Friday morning, and he will do everything the rest of the pitchers do in camp to prepare him for a possible game appearance, manager Kirk Gibson said
“We are not going to put him out there as some gimmick. He’s serious about it. He’s passionate about it. He wants to try to do well, and we will give him every opportunity to do well. My job is to give him an opportunity to show what he can do,” Gibson said.
The subtleties of pitching — repeating the delivery, fine-tuning mechanics, working from the stretch, holding runners — are the things Booty will be dealing with for the first time, but he is embracing the challenge.
“Once your career is done, having an opportunity like this is amazing. To come back around, it doesn’t happen. I’m lucky. Yeah, I’m 37 years old, but I don’t have any wear and tear on my arm or my shoulder. I feel comfortable. My arm is healthy, and I think I can get it back to where I was when I was in my 20s,” he said.
“I’m going to have fun with it, to be honest, and get myself in shape and give myself a chance.”
One thing is certain: Perfection of the knuckleball is not required.
“To say that any of us ever mastered the pitch … I don’t think you can say that about anybody,” Candiotti said.
“When you get to know this guy, you are really going to root for him. He is very humble. He has all kinds of respect for the players and what they have done to get to this point, because he’s been through that and done that.”