You know it’s a bad year when you get hurt on an amusement park ride.
And to make matters worse, that wasn’t Charlie Zink’s only injury.
Allow me to go back to the beginning.
(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)
After spending eight seasons in the Red Sox organization and making it to Boston in 2008, knuckleballer Charlie Zink signed as a minor league free agent prior to last season with the St. Louis Cardinals. Things didn’t work with St. Louis and Zink was released at the end of spring training, but he wasn’t out of work for long as he joined the Twins’ Triple-A team in April.
But after three rocky outings with Rochester, Zink went on the disabled list.
“I felt some pain in my shoulder as far back as 2008,” Zink told me. “It never hurt bad enough to stop pitching – it was just a little pinch – but it was just enough to make it uncomfortable to actually throw over the top. Finally it got to the point when I mentioned something last year in Rochester. It wasn’t even my shoulder – my fingers were going numb. They thought I might need Tommy John surgery so I had to get MRIs done on my elbow and shoulder and that’s when they diagnosed the problem with my shoulder. Luckily it wasn’t Tommy John and I only needed a minor procedure.”
Following surgery to remove a bone chip in late May, Zink went to the Twins complex in Ft. Myers for rehab on his shoulder with the hope of returning to action in August.
That’s where the amusement park comes in.
“While I was rehabbing in Florida, they gave us a three day weekend and I wound up tweaking my neck,” Charlie said. “My fiancé came down to Florida to visit me and we took a trip to Universal Studios because we knew that the Harry Potter ride had opened up and we heard it was amazing. We went on so many rides that I guess it could have happened on any of them, but my neck started to hurt on the Harry Potter one. I had to go get an MRI on my neck for having a bulging disc.”
Five months later, Charlie is fully recovered from both injuries and ready to return to the mound. He recently signed with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic League where his manager will be former PawSox and Red Sox manager Butch Hobson.
“I love knuckleballers,” Hobson said in a news release announcing Zink’s signing. “Charlie was the International League Pitcher of the Year in 2008, and he still has something to prove. I think he is going to be outstanding for us.”
“My agent told me a lot of teams were scared away because of my surgery – a couple of teams were interested but wanted to see me throw,” Zink said. “Butch Hobson from Lancaster had been calling him multiple times to see if I would sign there with an agreement that I could get out of the contract if I signed with an affiliated team. He really wanted a knuckleballer and he’s seen me throw so I figured it would be a good opportunity.”
Zink spent parts of five seasons with Pawtucket, highlighted by an All-Star campaign in 2008. That season, Charlie went 14-6 with a 2.84 ERA for the PawSox and made his major league debut at Fenway Park in a wild 19-17 win over Texas.
“I accomplished my dream and I had a blast doing it,” Zink told me. “I’ve never had as much fun as I had with that whole team that we had in 2008 in Pawtucket, and I felt so welcomed as part of the Red Sox family. It was just amazing. I loved that team that we had there, and the guys were great to be around.”
That season, Charlie led the International League in WHIP (1.11) and ranked second in opponent batting average (.223). Zink says his knuckleball is back to 2008 form.
“It had been harder for me over the last couple of years to get my arm up high enough,” Zink said. “Every time I tried to throw over the top, my body said no because I’d feel the pain. So I started throwing from a three-quarter arm slot or even lower because it didn’t hurt. That made my knuckleball really predictable because when I throw it from a low arm slot it’s always going to move from right to left. I need to throw it right over the top to have it move either way.
“Now it’s consistently inconsistent. It’s moving all over the place and it never has a consistent movement. I’m throwing it again where it’s unpredictable, so it’s fun to watch.”
At the age of 31, Zink is not ready to give up the dream of returning to the big leagues.
“I haven’t had a whole lot of fun playing in awhile,” Charlie said. “It’s been a couple of down years and I want to see if I enjoy it anymore. My arm feels great and I’ve been killing catchers with my knuckleball. I want to see how it translates into a season. If it doesn’t work out, my golf game has gotten really solid and maybe I’ll get my pro card and become a teaching pro. But my window of opportunity in baseball is a lot shorter than my opportunity to play golf.”
Lancaster opens the season on April 29th and roughly one month later, Charlie and his fiancé Maddie are expecting the birth of their first child – a son. Perhaps the youngster will grow up to be a fan of the Harry Potter books. Despite the neck injury, his dad loved the amusement park ride.
“It was amazing,” Zink said. “We really want to go back, but Maddie is pregnant now so that means no rides. Maybe when the baby is a few years old, we’ll take him there.”
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