Nine months ago, knuckleballer Steven Wright wasn’t sure he could make it all the way back from Tommy John surgery. The hill he faced seemed too steep.
“I probably was on the fence, like, ‘Do I do this? Do I not?’” Wright said Monday after agreeing to a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I’ve had a great career.”
On the field anyway. Off it was another matter entirely.
The former All-Star knew his transgressions — a 15-game suspension in 2018 for violating the league’s domestic violence policy and an 80-game ban in 2019 after testing positive for Human Growth Hormone — placed a very large asterisk next to his name whenever it came up.
“It’s not the way anybody wants to go out,” Wright said.
So Wright didn’t. He found a group in Nashville, Tennessee, to work out with and suddenly all the progress he’s made in his personal life over the last few years — which he said includes therapy and trying to help other men like him who have bottled up emotional problems — coalesced into progress in his professional life.
The right arm that has baffled hitters for years grew stronger. The pain in his left knee that had served as a constant companion vanished. His confidence returned.
“I don’t want to look back 15 or 20 years from now and be like, ‘Damn, I should have given it one last shot,'” Wright said.
He held a personal showcase for scouts in February. While it went well, his phone didn’t exactly start blowing up with offers from teams looking to bring in a 36-year-old three seasons removed from being effective who carries a fair amount of self-inflicted baggage.
Eventually, the Pirates reached out thanks in part to Wright’s long relationship with Pittsburgh general manager Ben Cherington, one that dates back to Cherington’s lengthy stay in Boston in a variety of roles, including general manager.
Cherington is in the midst of an organization-wide overhaul. The major league roster is in serious flux, and Wright’s versatility — he’s been both a starter and a reliever during his seven-year career — plus the uniqueness of his signature pitch could serve as the baseball equivalent of duct tape.
Wright credited the Pirates for doing a “very extensive job” of vetting him and insists he was transparent during the process.
“I gave them all the information because I wanted them to be comfortable knowing what had happened but that’s not who I am,” he said. “It’s a dark past, it’s something I’m definitely sorry for not only myself but the game of baseball and my family. But we’ve moved past that.”
What exactly the way forward holds is unclear. Wright — who is 24-16 with a 3.89 career ERA — says he feels great but has yet to discuss what kind of role he might fill if given the opportunity. With barely over a week to go before the regular season starts, he may have to catch up quickly. He believes he’s up for it, stressing he is pain-free and ready to go.
“Throwing bullpens doesn’t correlate as much to throwing to hitters (in) games, so a lot of it is going to be reps,” Wright said. “But so far, I feel really good physically, mentally I feel like I’m in a good spot, so now it’s going to be getting some more reps and getting into games.”
Wright believes his knuckler is at its best when he’s throwing it in the low 70s. He can reach back and hit the low-80s with his fastball but is well aware he’s at the mercy of whichever way his main pitch flutters. He’ll take his chances. So will the Pirates.
“If I didn’t feel good, you wouldn’t be seeing me here,” he said. “I wouldn’t have tried to get signed. I wouldn’t have done the showcases. I wouldn’t even have picked up a ball. But I feel good. I want to go out there just leave it all on the field, so when that time does come — because it comes for everybody — I’ll have no regrets.”
Notes: Tickets for the first two homestands at PNC Park go on sale Tuesday. The team is anticipating at allowing 25% capacity for the games, around 7,800 fans per game. Pittsburgh’s home opener is set for April 8 against the Chicago Cubs.
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