Thursday, July 3, 2008

Knuckling Down

You don't catch the knuckleball, you defend against it ~ Joe Torre

I ran across a link to a good read over at SI about the dearth of knuckleball pitchers in this modern day and age. The piece is well written and a nice little history of knuckleballing pitchers, but it's premise is that somehow there used to be a ton of knuckleball throwers and now there aren't.

According to the article, there have been 70 pure knuckleball pitchers in baseball history. Let me tell you, that ain't many in over 100 years of the sport. So having only one currently (Tim Wakefield) ain't such a big deal. It is possible, though, that we won't see many for a while for a number of reasons.

First, there's too much organized sports now. Kids start playing ball around 4 years of age or something like that. They learn to throw fastballs. Lots of fastballs. In fact, in Little League, the ideal pitcher is the biggest kid on the team who can throw harder than anyone else. Kids are around coaches who teach them the basics: Fastball, changeup, and later slider and curveball.

It wasn't always this way. Pitchers used to pick up all sorts of pitches playing in sandlots, sometimes from other kids, sometimes from dads and granddads. By the time they got to the big leagues, they had palmballs, fadeaways, screwballs, forkballs, and other weird pitches. Of course, there were also those who had spitballs, greaseballs, and emery balls. Not legal, of course, but they had to catch you first.

I think I'd have loved the olden days when pitchers could throw just about anything. There's a turn-of-the-century story I read many years ago about a catcher who kept rolling the ball back to the mound after each pitch. The umpire finally asked him why he was doing that. The catcher said, "It's the only way I can get the goddam gum off the ball."

Gaylord Perry, of course, was the last of the great greaseball pitchers, but the pitch he threw I loved the most was the "puffball". He threw it in one game, against the Indians. When he came out to pitch, he picked up the "rosen" bag, which was about three times bigger than the usual bag and bounced it on his hand repeatedly, sending huge clouds of something into the air. The "something" turned out to be flour. When he released the ball, it came out of a puff of flour. Surprisingly, the Indians let him get away with it for a couple of innings before complaining. The umpire went out to the mound and took the flour bag away from a laughing Perry.

Beyond the standardization of pitching, another reason you don't see many knucklers is that it's a devilishly hard pitch to throw. It's not thrown with the knucles. It's thrown with the fingernails. Hoyt Wilhelm, perhaps the best known knuckleballer after Phil Niekro, once had to go on the disabled list due to a broken nail. At any rate, getting the release point right and throwing the thing with any degree of consistency is not easy and takes a lot of practice. I suspect any kid trying a knuckleball out in Little League or even high school would find himself getting chewed out by the coach.

The knuckleball may be hard to throw, but it's damn near impossible to catch. Years ago, Bob Sudyk, then Indians beat writer for the Cleveland Press, decided he'd find out how hard it really was. He arranged to have a little session with Eddie Fisher (the pitcher, not the singer) at Cleveland Stadium. The team insisted that he put on full catcher's gear, mask, chest protector, and shin guards. Sudyk objected, figuring he couldn't get hurt trying to catch a 45 MPH pitch, but the team insisted. It's well that they did. The paper published a truly hilarious set of photos. In one, Sudyk is reaching out to his right as the ball hits in the left shoulder. In another, he's reaching down as the ball caroms off his mask.

When Wilhelm pitched for the Orioles, someone got the bright idea to make a specilal glove for the catcher, which was basically two pieces of leather about the size of a large pizza sewed together. The catcher didn't try to catch the ball; he smothered it. The idea caught on, and other teams also developed larger and larger gloves. The mitts got so large that baseball had to pass a rule on the maximum size of a catcher's mitt.

To get a feel for how players have felt about the knuckleball, both attempting to hit it and attempting to catch it, check out this site. My favorite quote came from Rick Monday, who said, "It giggles as it goes by."

There was a period when we did seem to have a bunch of these pitchers. Wilhelm, both Niekros, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti and others who threw the knuckler less often seemed to proliferate like crazy threw the last four decades, but, for the reasons I've discussed, the pitch is out of favor now. But, all things seem to go in cycles. Probably, some pitcher will resurrect his career throwing the thing, and suddenly other marginal pitchers will decide it's a way to extend his big-league lifetime.

Then we'll get the fun of watching a pitch that giggles again.

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