SARASOTA, Fla. - Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro is one of the many connections made by executive vice president Dan Duquette that may pay off for the Orioles.
Niekro is working for the Orioles as a consultant of sorts, as he mentors knuckleballer Zach Staniewicz at the Twin Lakes Park complex.
Long story short: The Orioles signed Staniewicz, 26, after Niekro recommended him to Duquette. Staniewicz went to Atlanta on his own to work out with Niekro, who later contacted Duquette and said that the pitcher had "a lot of knuckleball" and Niekro would be interested in working with him if the Orioles signed him.
OK, the story is a little longer than that. Staniewicz came to Camden Yards last summer with the U.S. Military All-Star team, which got the ball rolling, so to speak. Niekro has worked with Tim Wakefield in Boston, which connected him to Duquette. And they "got to talking," as Duquette put it, when Niekro was in New York to present R.A. Dickey with the 2012 Cy Young Award.
All of this led Staniewicz to the Orioles and Niekro to Twin Lakes Park.
"Of course, Phil is a Hall of Famer and a great asset," Duquette said.
Niekro also knows a thing or two about the longevity of knuckleballers.
Said Duquette: "As Phil would say, he's young for a knuckleballer. He's probably got another 20 years left in him."
Baseball America's Matt Eddy wrote about the Orioles signing Staniewicz in late January and offered the following report:
Zach Staniewicz pitched for four seasons at Concordia (N.Y.) College, then spent a couple seasons in the low-level independent leagues, working as both an outfielder and right-hander. He put his baseball ambitions on the back burner to join the Army in '11, according to The Examiner, a media outlet based in Hudson Valley, N.Y., but he never stopped trying to master a knuckleball. Staniewicz crossed paths with Orioles GM Dan Duquette while serving in the military, and Duquette reportedly liked the knuckler's potential enough to give the 26-year-old a tryout and now a minor league contract. In any other organization, Staniewicz would seem to be the longest of long shots, but Baltimore did resuscitate the careers of Miguel Gonzalez and Lew Ford last year.
* Wilson Betemit reached on an infield hit yesterday as part of a 1-for-2 afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays. He played a good third base, which is worth mentioning, since I've pointed out every miscue.
Betemit is 2-for-19 with a home run this spring. He approached manager Buck Showalter about playing in Tuesday's intrasquad game, pushing for the chance to get his hacks in the cold and rain rather than enjoying the off-day.
"I came because I wanted to see more at-bats and see more pitches," he told me yesterday morning. "I felt a lot better, seeing more pitching. I always watch my videos, and I was jumping too quick to the ball. (Tuesday), I was waiting on the ball and recognizing the pitch when it was coming. I wasn't jumping at the ball. I'm trying to stay back and be more patient at home plate and look for my pitch to hit."
* Showalter was impressed by the willingness of Betemit, Nolan Reimold and Taylor Teagarden to join the lineup and bat every half-inning.
"It was a dreary, miserable day, and Nolan said, 'This is great. I'd like to do this a lot more,' " Showalter recalled. "It wasn't beneath any of those guys. They know that they've got to get some more at-bats and they got better as those at-bats went on."
* Silliest rumor of the spring, which I almost contributed to spreading: Chris Dickerson is the nephew of Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson.
Not true, says the Orioles outfielder. He's also been mistaken for the NFL Dickerson's son. He's been called "Eric." Nope, he's just plain ol' Chris Dickerson, non-roster invitee who's 6-for-20 with a home run.
* The Orioles reassigned utility infield candidate Niuman Romero to minor league camp yesterday, but Yamaico Navarro remains in major league camp and on the 40-man roster.
Navarro had a two-run double in Wednesday night's comeback victory over the Minnesota Twins and is 6-for-20 with three RBIs. However, he hasn't impressed the club with his play at shortstop, from what I'm gathering, and someone needs to serve as J.J. Hardy's backup. It won't be Manny Machado.
* Hardy went 0-for-3 yesterday and is 1-for-18 this spring. It would be less noticeable if he hadn't batted .238 last season. Not that the two are connected in any way - except in this blog entry. Never mind.
* Troy Patton is one of the better ping pong players in the Orioles' clubhouse. He's a left-hander on the mound, but he holds a paddle with his right hand.
Patton said he learned to play that way while having his left arm in a sling following surgery to repair a torn labrum. He always hits the ball backhanded because he says it feels more natural to him.
Where else are you going to get this kind of information?