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Las Vegas 51s pitcher Ricky Knapp learns from his No. 1 fan

As a young kid, Ricky Knapp would sit with his dad, Rick, and watch baseball games at night.

Ricky, now a starter for the 51s, would pay close attention, always trying to learn something new from his dad.

“He goes ‘He’s going to throw this and this is going to happen,’ and lo and behold the same thing happens and I’m sitting there thinking he’s a wizard that predicts the future,” Ricky Knapp said.

Rick Knapp might not be a wizard, but he is a well-versed baseball lifer, now International Pitching Coordinator for Major League Baseball after serving as multiple team’s pitching coordinators and the major league pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers. His son still pays close attention to what he says.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better relationship than we have,” Rick Knapp said. “Most kids won’t listen to their dad or they don’t think their dad knows anything or their dad is just their dad how could he be any good at anything? My son gave me the ultimate respect all the time and I mean he always listened to what I had to say.”

Rick never pushed Ricky, 25, toward baseball, but the younger Knapp grew up around it and it became a way to be around his dad.

On his first birthday, he got a batting tee and a whiffle ball and fell asleep face down on the carpet with his new bat and ball. At five, he played in his first league, and around 10 he started pitching.

For most of Ricky’s childhood, Rick was the pitching coordinator for the Minnesota Twins. For summer vacation, Ricky, his sister and their mother would pack up the car and head from Port Charlotte, Florida, to wherever Rick was.

As a pitching coordinator, Rick had some flexibility in his schedule, and with two of the Twins’ affiliates in Fort Myers, Florida, Rick could make the drive — around 45 minutes — south and plan to be home for his daughter’s dance recitals and his son’s baseball games.

Ricky spent plenty of time around the facility, too. The Twins, Rick said, were a family-oriented organization, so much so that they “basically saw Ricky grow up.”

“It was a great blessing for me to be able to go and be around the game at a young age,” Ricky said.

‘Student of the game’

Ricky Knapp thinks about baseball. A lot.

“(During) side work, he’s giving me a litany of what he has to do and what he’s been thinking about and so on and so forth, and that’s too much for me and I’m just a pitching coach,” 51s pitching coach Frank Viola said.

Ricky is constantly searching for whatever advantage he can to get hitters out. He pays close attention to how his teammates are approaching hitters. He watches major league games, trying to pick something up. He takes in advice from both Viola and his father.

“I think that when guys like him end up making it to the big leagues, it’s because of those things,” Rick said. “He has to pay attention, he has to be in tune with that he’s doing because he can’t wait to adjust. He can’t let it go. He’s got to adjust quickly.”

Ricky had a big advantage early in the form of his dad. The ability to sit and watch a game with someone who understood the nuances of the game has helped mold him into the pitcher he is today.

“He just looks at things different … He is a student of the game,” Rick Knapp said. “He’s not going to overwhelm anybody. He knows this is what he needs to do to be better. This is what he needs to do to be competitive. And that’s his way.”

That’s part of the reason why Ricky, 6-13 with a 5.97 ERA this season, is with the 51s to begin with.

The numbers might not look pretty, but Knapp has pitched better than the numbers reflect.

Since a 12-run outing against Fresno on July 17, Knapp boasts a 2.70 ERA across 33 1/3 innings. Four of those five outings have been quality starts as Ricky has been avoiding the one big inning that has derailed many of his starts this season.

“The big thing was just to get his head cleared out, let him get out there and throw the ball like he’s capable and that’s what he’s done the last four or five times out and he’s been outstanding,” Viola said.

Rick and Ricky talk after every start. Sometimes, he’ll pepper Ricky with questions: What were you feeling? What did you think was working? What did you see? What was your best pitch in the game? They talk about staying calm and composed in the presence of adversity. Sometimes Rick will point something out.

When Rick talks, Ricky still always listens.

“The relationship that we have obviously I’m going to say I’m his No. 1 fan,” Rick said. “I’m just trying to be supportive and make sure that I don’t get in the organization’s way of their plan but also try to give him things to help him succeed.”

More 51s: Follow all of our Las Vegas 51s coverage online at reviewjournal.com/51s and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact Betsy Helfand at bhelfand@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BetsyHelfand on Twitter.

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