Monday, May 29, 2006

Knuckling Under

There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them work. ~Charlie Lau

I think Tim Wakefield is the only full time knuckleball pitcher around any more, and I think that's a shame. There have been many great knuckleballers, like Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm. Knuckleball pitchers can pitch until they're about 100 because the pitch requires no arm strength. And it is next to impossible to hit.

Contrary to its name, the knuckleball is thrown with the finger nails, not the knuckles. Pitchers like Niekro and Wilhelm would let the appropriate nails grow long, then cut them very square. People joke about how modern athletes can't play if they have a hangnail. One year, Wilhelm broke a nail and had to go on the disabled list for two weeks until it grew back. No one questioned him because everyone knew that without the fingernail, he couldn't throw his sinature pitch.

Fans are used to the power pitchers. There's something exciting about a 95 mph fastball popping into a catcher's mitt or whistling by a hitter's chin. But watching a 40 mph knuckleball dance for the entire 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher's hand to the plate is one of the wonders of sport.

Knuckleball catchers have huge mitts. Years ago, when Wilhelm was with the Baltimore Orioles, the catcher got tired of flailing away at his pitches, so he had a special glove made that was about the size of a large pizza. It had little padding, because it wasn't necessary. He didn't catch the ball most of the time; he smothered it. Other catchers struggling with pitchers like Eddie Fisher got the idea, and the mitts started turning up on other teams. They got bigger and bigger, so big, in fact, the Major Leagues had to pass a rule limiting the size of a catcher's mitt.

At one time, the Cleveland Indians, my team, unfortunately, when I was growing up, picked up a knuckleball pitcher. After watching catchers swatting at his pitches like they were drunken butterflies, a local sportswriter, Bob Sudyk, decided he'd like to take a try at snagging one.

He made arrangements with the team and dutifully showed up with his photographer. The first thing he was told was that he'd have to wear the full catcher's rig: Mask, chest protector, and shin guards. He protested that he surely wouldn't be hurt trying to catch a pitch that ran slower than the downtown buses, but the team insisted. So, Sudyk suited up, got behind the plate in the bullpen, and started flailing.

The pictures in the newspaper were some of the funniest I've ever seen. In one, Sudyk's glove is extended fully to his right side as the ball hits him in the left shoulder. In another, he's reaching up, but the ball is bouncing off his shin guard. In the last, he's reaching down and to the right, but the ball is glancing off his catcher's mask. He wondered how anyone ever hit the damn thing and how the pitcher every got the ball into the strike zone.

Well, as to the first, once in a while the ball doesn't knuckle, in which case it will be hit. Because it's so slow, though, the batter has to impart more force to hit it hard. As a result, knucklerballers don't give up a lot of home runs. But when the ball isn't ducking and darting, he is going to give up a lot of hits. On the second point, if the ball was in the strike zone, that was pure luck. To a man, knuckleball pitchers all say they have no idea where the crazy thing is going.

In bygone days, pitchers had an arsenal of pitches that depended on doctoring the ball. The spit ball and the emery ball (so called because an emery stick was used to rough up the ball) would dive right at the plate, leaving the batter screwing himself into the ground as he whiffed at it. Anything that a pitcher could do to doctor a ball was pretty much allowed. A story is told of a catcher in the 1910's or thereabouts who would roll the ball back to the pitcher rather than throw it. When the umpire asked him why was doing that, the catcher said, “It's the only way I can get the @#$%*!^ gum off the ball.”

All of this sort of chicanery was made illegal by the 1930's. Of course, such tricks have never completely gone away. Gaylord Perry (whose autobiography was called “Me and the Spitter”) used spit, Vaseline, and KY Jelly regularly in key situations. In one game, he unveiled his “puff ball.” There is a small bag of rosin on every pitcher's mound, which pitchers are allowed to use to enhance their grip. When Perry went out to the mound, he brought out a rather large version of the bag with him. As he bounced it on his hand, clouds of white something rose into the air. When he threw the ball, a huge puff of white came off his hand, making it hard for the hitter to pick up the ball in flight. After about three or four of these, the umpire went out to the mound. On examination of Perry's “rosin” bag, he found it filled with flour. Because there was no rule that exactly covered using a flour bag instead of a rosin bag, the ump didn't eject Perry,
but he did eject the bag.

Thus endeth the puff ball.

And then there was the pitcher, one Joe Niekro, brother of the aforementioned Phil, who was accused of roughing up the ball. When the umpire went to the mound to search him, the pitcher turned out his pockets. As he did so, he flipped an emery board behind him where he though the ump wouldn't see it. The ump, in this case, was not blind (nor were the TV cameras; this was an ESPN highlight for weeks). He picked up the board with one hand and shot his other hand into the air, thumb raised, sending the pitcher to an early shower.

The knuckleball is perfectly legal, thankfully, and will remain so, no doubt. I hope somewhere there are some young pitchers letting their fingernails grow and filing them square. There's nothing funnier than a batter who can't decide whether to laugh, scream or cry.

Rick Monday, speaking of Phil Niekro's knuckleball, probably put it best: "It actually giggles at you as it goes by."

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