• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff 16

Versailles native enters no-spin zone

TERRELL RENFRO took it easy during a Monday pitch-and-catch session at Big Spring Park, which may have saved the photographer a broken lens or bruised kneecap. Of his knuckleball, the 2003 WCHS graduate said, "I have that specialty pitch - that always increases your chances." (Photo by John McGary)

For most of the last 14 years, Versailles native Terrell Renfro worked in and around state government, a place where people are known to apply a little spin on things from time to time. Now, with employment opportunities for Democrats far fewer than they were before last November, he's chasing a dream that will end in a hurry with too much spin. Renfro, 32, is trying to become a Major League Baseball player by throwing the knuckleball, a pitch that, unencumbered by rotation, darts about unpredictably as it nears home plate. As hard as a good knuckler is to hit, it's even harder to throw and, when thrown improperly, is often air-mailed by batters to distant bleachers in a great hurry. When it spins, it soars. Only a few people have made a career in Major League Baseball by throwing the knuckleball, and Renfro might be the longest shot of all: Before last summer, he hadn't pitched since his sophomore year at Woodford County High School. Still, he'd never forgotten about the pitch with which only a few dozen big leaguers have been able to carve out a career - or the ESPN documentary about them that he'd recorded a few years before. "In the summer of 2016, I watched it. And I said, 'You know what? I should try this. I know I can throw it, and I should just try it and see if it can get me a look (from baseball scouts).' I just wanted a look," he said. Renfro began throwing at a chair, watching the knuckler wobble - sometimes. In September, he met Mark Wright, a Frankfort pitching instructor who's married to a cousin of his. "I went by and I could have done a whole lot better, but it had been so long really since I'd pitched from a mound," Renfro said. "Mark said, 'Listen, you've got a long way to go, particularly if you want to get a look. We need to just kind of restart.'" Wright overhauled his wind-up, helping him get his legs more involved in all his pitches, and suggested a different grip for the knuckler. Renfro visited weekly and threw by himself. Wright said Renfro has done far more than shake off a decade-and-a-half of mound rust. "I work with high school kids and younger kids and he just kind of came in and asked me if I could help him. We started and I was surprised at how well he did," said Wright, a pitching coach for the last eight years who said he's helped several kids get college scholarships. Wright said since Renfro started working with him, his knuckleball has become more accurate and breaks more sharply, and his fastball has increased from the low 70 mph range to as high as 87 mph. "He's got a ways to go. It's not like it's going to happen tomorrow. I'm thinking that if he keeps coming the way he's come in the last six months, he could . get to the minors in a year or two. And if he's good enough to throw in the minors with a knuckleball, he's good enough to throw in the majors," Wright said. Not long after Renfro began working with Wright, a change in the political climate in Frankfort darkened his chances of continuing a career in state government - but also gave him more time to throw. "I tried and tried and tried to get jobs in the private sector and it was a little different for me. I was so used to government opportunities, and of course, when all that changed, the jobs totally went away, unfortunately," Renfro said. He paused his daily workouts to reach out to several members of the small fraternity of big league knuckleballers, among them "Ball Four" author Jim Bouton and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Renfro still has an encouraging note from Niekro he'd received in 2001 and pictures from his May 30 visit with Niekro in Atlanta, during which the 318-game winner watched him throw and suggested a grip change. Renfro said in mid-May, he had a tryout with a Cardinals scout who told him, "You just need an accurate knuckleball." By early this summer, Wright felt his protégé was ready to face hitters. He sent him to Philadelphia for a tryout with an amateur league – and said Renfro gave up no hits in a two-inning outing. "That's the only pitching that he's done. That's one thing that I'd like to see him do, and get into a summer league or league where he can throw some, get a little bit more experience," Wright said. Fielding, hitting and baserunning aside, it's the movement and location of the strangest pitch of all that will determine whether Renfro has a new chance at an old dream. Renfro said he knows the odds against someone who hadn't pitched for half his life are long - but that he's not spinning when he predicts a future with him on the mound somewhere, sometime soon. "I think I can get into the minor league system, no problem. . But obviously, I'm going to have to work really hard to make it to the major leagues," he said. He's also capable of joking about his chances. "Well, I've got a fresh arm, number one," he said with a laugh.

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