Former Democratic political operative hoping to make majors as knuckleball pitcher

06/30/2017 05:00 PM

FRANKFORT — Terrell Renfro has held jobs in various Democratic political campaigns and offices dating back to 2003, when he first volunteered for Ben Chandler’s gubernatorial campaign.

But employment opportunities have dried up as Republicans climbed to power in Frankfort, so the 32-year-old — who has worked in offices of the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor and state treasurer — is taking his extra spare time to pursue a dream he’s had since he last pitched competitively for Woodford County High School in 2001: making a Major League Baseball roster.

And he’s doing it with a pitch that many have tried to throw but few have mastered — the knuckleball.

It’s one of the trickiest pitches in baseball and has befuddled hitters and hurlers alike for decades.

“This is a lifelong goal of mine, and when I was a teenager, I said I want to be a knuckleball pitcher, and that’s just what I’m trying to do,” Renfro said in a recent interview. “And it could be a reality.”

Renfro has been working with Frankfort pitching coach Mark Wright for seven and a half months.

Wright was skeptical after first working Renfro out and seeing his mechanics.

“He said, ‘I want to try to make the major league. I want to try to be a professional baseball player,’ and what I saw was, after the first maybe half hour work, I knew we had a mountain to climb,” Wright said of his first workout with Renfro. “And I really didn’t expect to climb that mountain, to be honest.”

Renfro says he “needed some fine-tuning” when asked to assess his first pitching session with Wright.

“It had been a while since I’d been pitching, and I certainly needed some assistance,” he said.

But Wright and Renfro have seen significant progress since they started working together.

Renfro has taken to his coach’s instruction, changing his mechanics to a three-quarters delivery that Wright says will protect him from shoulder and elbow injuries. His fastball’s velocity has increased by about 25 miles per hour since they began and now hits the upper 80s.

Renfro has worked out for the St. Louis Cardinals in Frankfort, but pitching in front of Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro of the Atlanta Braves May 30 was a personal dream come true.

He had written to Niekro in high school asking his advice on throwing the knuckleball and got a letter back, and Renfro and Wright were encouraged to hear Niekro’s feedback after they wrapped up the Atlanta workout. They’ve kept in touch with the Hall of Famer via text messages and phone calls since.

Niekro’s emphasized to Renfro the need to keep his knuckleball from rotating so that it maintains its trademark dead-ball look and unpredictable flight path.

“Phil Niekro said to me, ‘It’s OK. It will spin. You can’t always have a perfect pitch.’ I want to have it more consistent, always dead, and it’s getting there,” Renfro said. “It’s really getting there, and it’s just a lot of work.

“I mean, the pitch is frustrating. Everybody says it’s frustrating, but it’s going to get there. As soon as you throw it, the more you throw it and you just get that grip down, and it’s just a thing of beauty when it’s working.”

Renfro’s been told to develop some consistency with the knuckleball, but once he does, his coach says the sky is the limit.

“I actually believe he’s going to be throwing in the majors in the next year to two years maximum,” Wright said. “It may be sooner.”

Renfro says he isn’t worried about his age getting in the way of an MLB deal.

He said Niekro, who retired at age 48, told him as long as he can throw a knuckleball, he can pitch until he’s 50.


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