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No-Spin Zone

Will R.A. Dickey spark a knuckleball revival?

Author Jack Cavanaugh

ILLUSTRATION BY WESLEY ALLSBROOK

THE GREAT SATCHEL PAIGE called it a “bat dodger.” Former Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer said trying to hit it was like “trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.” Catcher and commentator Bob Uecker said the best way to catch it was “to wait until it stops rolling, and then pick it up.” It is, of course, the knuckleball. And unruly though it may be, it might be on the verge of a renaissance, thanks to R.A. Dickey.

Playing for the New York Mets last season, the 38-year-old Dickey—the first knuckleballer to win 20 games since Joe Niekro did it in 1980, and the only such pitcher on a major league roster—became the first knuckleballer to win the Cy Young Award. His triumph raises an interesting question: Why aren’t there more knuckleball pitchers in the majors?

The first answer is the simplest: This pitch scares people—specifically managers, who are afraid of its tendency to go severely rogue. Josh Thole, a catcher with the Mets last year, has said that the first time he caught Dickey, the hurler’s first three knuckleballs hit him in the chest. He had to buy a softball catcher’s mitt because “I just wasn’t able to catch them with my glove,” he tells Hemispheres. That puts Thole, who was traded to Toronto along with Dickey this past winter, in the company of Hall of Famer Rick Ferrell, who led the American League in passed balls in ’44 and ’45 while catching a Washington Senators pitching staff that included five knuckleballers, and Geno Petralli of the Texas Rangers, who in 1987 tied the record for most passed balls in a game—six—while catching knuckleballer Charlie Hough. (Hough, incidentally, was a poster child for management’s unease with putting knuckleballers in the starting rotation. He spent all but the last of his 11 seasons with the Dodgers as a relief pitcher before being traded to Texas, where he became a starter.)

The second answer? That’s also simple: This pitch is hard to throw. “You’ve either got it or you don’t, and if you don’t learn it early on it’s even harder,” says Tom Candiotti, whose ability to master the knuckleball kept him in the majors for 16 years after he flopped as a conventional pitcher in the minors in the mid-1980s. “Fortunately, I started throwing it as a kid.” He also benefited from having future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (the only knuckleballer to win 300 games) tutor him when they were both with the Cleveland Indians in 1986.

Because the pitch is perceived as something of a misfit toy subject to limited demand, few knuckleballers start out that way. Often it’s more of a last resort for pitchers who get hurt or who just aren’t cutting it otherwise. In 1970, Charlie Hough, then in the Dodgers farm system, was floundering as a conventional pitcher after having failed as a hitter. So future Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and scout Goldie Hold taught him the knuckleball. “At first I couldn’t control it at all—but then, I couldn’t control my curveball either,” Hough recalls. “I also knew I was on the verge of being released, so I kept at it and then got called up by the Dodgers later that year.” Once up, Hough got some valuable advice from knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, who was then winding up his 21-year career with the Dodgers at the age of 49 (Hough retired from the game at 46, in 1994).

Similarly, Tim Wakefield was drafted out of Florida Tech because of his hitting prowess, but discovered early on that he couldn’t hit minor league pitching. When Wakefield was on the verge of being released by the Pittsburgh Pirates during his second minor league season, in 1989, a team instructor saw him fooling around with the knuckler (which Wakefield had learned to throw from his father) and recommended he be converted to a pitcher. “Then, when I got to the big leagues, Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti both helped me with advice whenever I saw them,” Wakefield says. “That’s one of the nice things about being a knuckleball pitcher: We’re all part of a very special fraternity.” Before retiring last year at 45, Wakefield won 186 games for the Boston Red Sox, behind only Roger Clemens and Cy Young.

So, too, goes Dickey. Before hitting it big with the Mets, the likable, erudite pitcher was a journeyman with the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins, with intermittent trips back to the minors. Though he started out as a heavily scouted prospect, his career never took off due to a missing ligament in his pitching arm. “I really thought about giving it up while going between the big leagues and the minors a few years ago,” Dickey tells Hemispheres. But he was encouraged by Hough and inspired by Wakefield and Phil Niekro to become a knuckleballer. He made the switch in 2005, and the rest is history. “Now I hope it leads to a new generation of kids who want to at least try the knuckleball,” he says.

Will it? Before Dickey came along, the perks of being a knuckleballer—genuine individuality, no arm pain, a career that goes on forever—had not been enough to grow the fraternity. But Wakefield, for one, sees Dickey’s success as the tipping point. “R.A. has validated the pitch, and he now has a chance to carry the torch for knuckleballers,” he says. Former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, who converted to the knuckleball late in his career after his arm “went dead,” is willing to go a step further. “Millions of kids are going to try to emulate R.A., and we’re going to have a whole bunch of knuckleball pitchers in the next 10 years or so,” he says.

Then Bouton puts forward an even more intriguing prediction. “I think the first woman to make it to the big leagues,” he says, “will be a knuckleballer.”

JACK CAVANAUGH is a longtime sportswriter and author who once struck out on a knuckleball that he swears took at least three seconds to reach home plate.

 

THE LONG GAME

Because the knuckleball is less physically taxing than ordinary pitches, its practitioners can often pitch well into their 40s. But in addition to longevity, durability is a hallmark of knuckleballers. Take Wilbur Wood, a pitcher for, most notably, the Chicago White Sox. The only left-handed knuckleballer to pitch in the majors in the last half of the 20th century, Wood completed a remarkable 114 games of the 297 that he started during his 17-year career. A relief pitcher for the first nine years, Wood led the American League in appearances from 1968 to ’70 (and in starts from 1972 to ’75), while averaging 80 games a season. “It was all because I threw the knuckleball,” he says.

A BRIEF WORD ABOUT NOMENCLATURE

“Knuckleball,” as it happens, is a misnomer. Only a few so-called knuckleballers have thrown with their knuckles actually on the ball. Indeed, it would be more accurate to call the pitch a fingernail-ball, since most pitchers use the first two fingers of their throwing hand to grip the ball, but not on the seams. From there, they push the ball forward, rather than hurl it, resulting in the lack of spin that gives the pitch its devilishly unpredictable trajectory.

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