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Sparks' Mickey Jannis, a knuckleball pitcher, to make his MLB debut at 33

Mickey Jannis
Sparks' Mickey Jannis is slated to make his MLB debut at age 33. (Baltimore Orioles photo)

Mickey Jannis, who was born in Carson and went to high school at Spanish Springs, will make his MLB debut at age 33 after being called up to the big leagues by the Baltimore Orioles.

Jannis' contract was purchased by the big-league club from Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday. Jannis had spent the last 12 seasons in the minor leagues. When he makes his first appearance, Jannis will become the third-oldest player in Orioles history to make his major-league debut.

The 5-foot-9, 195-pounder right-hander is a knuckleball pitcher who developed the pitch to try and keep his career alive after being cut from the pro level. Jannis was a 44th-round pick by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010 after his college career at Cal State Bakersfield.

“It’s just the mentality I’ve always had,” Jannis said of his never-give-up mindset during a 2017 interview. “I have a strong group with my family and my fiancée. I met her when I was playing independent ball and she’s always supported me playing. It’s just kind of helped me keep getting after it. I really love the game and know I have the ability to pitch at the major-league level. I just have to trust the process. Sometimes that’s tough to do, but it’s just part of the journey.”

To keep his big-league dream alive, Jannis worked as a golf caddie in Ohio, a retail clerk in Sparks and even went to Australia to make ends meet. He’s been cut, traded and discarded, but has never given up, even spending nearly four seasons playing independent ball just hoping a big-league scout was in attendance. He's played for 20 teams over the last 17 years. The Orioles will be his 21st team in that time span and make all of the seasons of blood, sweat and tears worthwhile.

As a youth, Jannis was part of a powerful 1-2 punch on an undefeated 13- to 15-year-old Babe Ruth team in Sparks alongside Jake McGee, a 6-foot-3 flame-throwing, left-handed Reed High graduate who has spent the last decade in the big leagues, most recently as the San Francisco Giants' co-closer.

Despite his unlikely path to the big leagues, his family always believed in him.

“The big advice that I always gave him was, ‘Make them say no. Don’t quit. Make them tell you to go away,'" Jannis’ father, Nick, a long-time local high school coach said.

After playing for Spanish Springs High from his freshman to junior seasons, Jannis moved from Northern Nevada to Southern California to live with his grandfather for his senior season. The reason? He wanted to establish residency in California for cheaper college tuition because he knew he wouldn’t get a Division I scholarship and would have to go to junior college.

After his senior season at Arroyo Grande High in San Luis Obispo County, Jannis played for Cosumnes River College in Sacramento as a college freshman and Allan Hancock College in Santa Barbara County as a sophomore. He then earned two D-I scholarship offers: from Fresno State's historically strong program and upstart Cal-State Bakersfield.

“One thing I always told him was, ‘Go where you’re loved, not where you’re like,’” Nick Jannis said. “A lot of guys will like you. But the guys who love you will invest in you.”

Jannis believed Bakersfield loved him, so he committed to the Roadrunners, which had just created their program. As a junior, Jannis started the first game in program history. In 13 outings, Jannis was 2-8 with a bloated 5.76 ERA. As a senior, Jannis improved to 4-5 with a 4.74 ERA. Nothing spectacular, but Jannis was touching the low-90s with his fastball and had a sinker and slider that intrigued some scouts.

“I had a pretty good senior season,” Jannis said. “I finished really poorly with two bad starts, but my first 13 starts I threw really well. A couple of guys talked to me. A guy with the Blue Jays and a guy with the Rays. To be honest, nobody ever said, ‘We’re going to draft you if we get the chance.’ It was, ‘We like you.’ I never really knew for sure, so the draft was a stressful couple of days.”

Jannis was selected by the Rays in the 44th round of the 2010 draft, a round that no longer exists. Moved to the bullpen in pro ball, Jannis played two seasons with the Rays, topping out at Class-A. In 34 games over two years, he was 7-4 with a 3.00 ERA and five saves. But after the 2011 season, the Rays cut Jannis, who faced a professional crossroads. Quit baseball or carry on.

“It was definitely a tough day, but I never felt like that would be the end of my career,” Jannis said. “Even though I was released, I had put together two solid seasons with them and stayed healthy. They just didn’t have a spot for me or didn’t like what they saw. I knew independent ball was an opportunity.”

Jannis began fiddling with a knuckleball at age 12. Shortly after, he watched a show featuring Tim Wakefield’s knuckler and changed his grip from a three-finger attack to Wakefield’s two-finger approach. Jannis rarely threw the knuckleball in games. He’d mix in one per game in high school and during college summer leagues. It was pitch he toyed around with for fun. But, it always intrigued him.

Heading into the 2011 season finale with the Rays’ Class-A team, Jannis was told he’d pitch a couple of innings. A few days before that outing, Jannis asked his manager, former big-leaguer Jared Sandberg, if he could throw his knuckleball in the game.

“He said, ‘OK, let me see you throw it,’” Jannis said. “I threw it and the guy I threw it to squatted down and he completely missed it. It almost squared him up in the face. My manager said, ‘You can throw it.’”

As Jannis went to the bullpen to warm up for that final game, he was excited to debut the pitch.

“We were winning 2-1 and my pitching coach said, ‘We really want to win this game and end the season on a good note. We just want you to go out there and pitch normal,’” Jannis said. “I was, like, ‘Oh, c’mon.’ He said, ‘OK, if you get two strikes on somebody you can throw it.’ At the point I was over it. Being a young kid in pro ball, I just listened to my coach. I finished the game and he said, ‘You had two strikes on the last hitter. Why didn’t you throw it?’ He didn’t give me confidence to throw it, and in the offseason I got released.”

With his career in need of resuscitation, Jannis decided that rather than quitting he’d reinvent himself. He would ditch his fastball-sinker-slider repertoire and become a knuckleball pitcher (about 75 knuckleball pitchers have reached the big leagues since MLB was created in 1903; Jannis is the only active on at the MLB level).

Jannis pitched for the Mets' Double-A affiliate in 2019. After the pandemic killed the 2020 minor-league season, Jannis resurfaced with the Orioles' Triple-A team this season. In seven games in Norfolk (one start), Jannis is 0-1 with a 2.92 ERA and 1.257 WHIP in 24.2 innings.

When asked in 2017 what his emotions would be if his son made it to the big leagues, Nick Jannis said: “I had tears in my eyes when he was drafted. I was very emotional. I’m a very emotional guy. I would get very emotional if he got to Triple-A. When he was signed by the Mets, I got very emotional. The whole family did. You tear up. We just know how much he’s put into this. It’s an amazing journey whether he makes it to the majors or not, and we’re so proud of what he’s done.”

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