- Phil Rogers
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Since the first laces were sewn onto baseballs, men have always wanted to throw them harder than anyone else. There's no weapon a major league pitcher would rather have than a blazing fastball.
It can also be handy to throw the ball the slowest.
Scouts might as well be trying to measure Tony Fiore's palmball with a sundial. It sometimes takes so much time to get from his hand to home plate that it doesn't register on radar guns.
Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has even given Fiore's changeup its own name. He calls it the "shawalla."
When Gardenhire talks about Fiore and the "shawalla," his eyebrows dance and his voice gets loud. "It's like those old cartoons you'd see about baseball,'' Gardenhire said. "A guy swings three times before the ball gets to the plate. He screws himself into the ground trying to hit it.''
Fiore, the son of a Chicago policeman, is hardly insulted by his reputation as the owner of baseball's slowest pitch. He figures that without it he might also be in a police uniform. He spent a full decade trying to earn a spot in the major leagues before the shawalla helped him establish himself during Minnesota's 94-win season in 2002.
"Everything I had worked so hard for finally paid off,'' said Fiore, who this year is 1-1 with a 5.22 ERA in 16 appearances. "To have the season I had, I couldn't have asked for anything more. It was the best team I've ever played on, and I felt like I was part of the team. It was a dream season.''
Minnesota's bullpen is considered the strength of a balanced team. Guys like Eddie Guardado, J.C. Romero, LaTroy Hawkins and Johan Santana have received a ton of praise in the last two seasons. But Gardenhire says Fiore deserves a mention, too.
"He deserves some respect around here,'' said the manager. "He picked us up last year, did a lot for us. I'm showing him some respect this year.''
Working in the shadows of his teammates, Fiore won 10 games and compiled a 3.17 earned run average over 48 appearances last season. He held opposing hitters to a .224 batting average.
"Our bullpen was huge for us,'' Gardenhire said. "Tony was a big part of it.''
Gardenhire has been patient as the 31-year-old Fiore has struggled to get the feel of his palmball this season. He may soon be rewarded. Fiore threw five innings last Sunday after Kenny Rogers was knocked out in the second inning by Seattle. He allowed only three hits and walked none.
While Fiore can still dial his fastball up to 90 on occasion, his trademark pitch is the palmball.
"He throws too slow for these hitters,'' catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "They try to sit on that changeup, but it never gets there.''
Fiore's palmball wouldn't get a ticket if it were traveling on the interstate. It is usually clocked in the range of 65-75 mph, but sometimes dips down into the low 60s.
"That guy is tough,'' the White Sox's Frank Thomas said. "I hate batting against guys who can throw the ball that slow. You start looking for something slow then they zip in a fastball and it looks like it's going 98. Hitters hate guys like that.''
With the different look he provides, Fiore is one more asset in a very good bullpen.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
Aided by a great palmball, Tony Fiore continues to sparkle as a member of the Twins' bullpen.