Dan's Dugout: Return of the Knuckleball • Latino Sports


Dan’s Dugout: Return of the Knuckleball


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The knuckleball is the most confounding pitch in baseball.

Hitters can’t hit it, catchers can’t catch it, and pitchers can’t predict where it’s going.

As Muhammad Ali would say, it moves like a butterfly and stings like a bee.ALI quote

Whenever a knuckleballers work, catchers bring out oversized gloves in the hopes of preventing passed balls and wild pitches.

Former catcher Bob Uecker, still in the Milwaukee Brewers broadcast booth, said the best way to receive it is to wait for it to stop rolling before picking it up.

Thrown at speeds that range from slow to slower, the knuckleball is so difficult to handle that few teams allow it.

There are two exceptions, however: the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox.

R.A. Dickey's pet pitch hasn't been the same with the Blue Jays

R.A. Dickey’s pet pitch hasn’t been the same with the Blue Jays

The Jays acquired R.A. Dickey immediately after he won the National League’s Cy Young Award with the New York Mets in 2012. Since they parted with blue-chip prospects named Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud in that deal, the Jays got fleeced.

Dickey has not come close to duplicating his career year, which included a 20-6 record, 2.73 earned run average. and league leadership in both innings pitched (233 2/3) and strikeouts 230).

He’s had two 14-13 seasons but has been in obvious decline since, perhaps because he’ll turn 43 in October.

The Red Sox, remembering that Tim Wakefield won 186 games in his 17-year tenure with the team, stumbled upon another knuckleballing stud this spring.

Steven Wright, whose pet pitch kept him in the minors for most of his career, was not even supposed to be part of the 2016 rotation.

Now he’s the team’s best pitcher, thanks to disappointing starts by free agent signee David Price and holdover Clay Buchholz.

At age 31, Wright was pressed into service when Eduardo Rodriguez dislocated his kneecap during

Steven Wright has been a godsend to the Red Sox

Steven Wright has been a godsend to the Red Sox

spring training after catching his spikes in the grass. He started as the No. 5 starter but quickly zoomed to the head of the class.

His complete-game win at Yankee Stadium May 8 was his third straight three-hitter. After the game, his ERA shrunk to a microscopic 1.52. Given better support, he’d be 6-0 by now.

“He’s been extremely dependable,” said Boston manager John Farrell, the team’s former pitching coach. “You have a pretty good sense of what he’s going to give you each time he walks to the mound.”

The man with the Wright stuff stayed so long in the minor leagues that he compiled a 64-61 record. Originally signed by the Cleveland Indians, he was swapped from the forgettable Lars Anderson at the July 31 trade deadline in 2012. After leading the International League with three shutouts the following year, Wright reached the majors. But it was a yo-yo of a ride — up and down — every season since until this spring.

He’s virtually certain to make the American League All-Star team but would AL manager Ned Yost dare to start him? Yost’s years with the Atlanta Braves, where Phil Niekro rode his knuckler to the Hall of Fame, could be a clue.

Phil Niekro is the only knuckleballer in the 300 Club

Phil Niekro is the only knuckleballer in the 300 Club

Niekro, the only knuckleball pitcher to win 300 games, was not the first practitioner of the pitch to reach Cooperstown. He was preceded by Jesse Haines, Ted Lyons, and Hoyt Wilhelm — a relief pitcher Paul Richards was reluctant to use whenever the other team had a runner on third.

So it is with Wright, whose pitch was dancing during an electrifying win over the Atlanta Braves in Fenway Park April 27. There were passed balls, wild pitches, and batters reaching first when both they and the catcher missed strike three. But it was a typical night’s work for Wright.

“His ball moves everywhere,” said former MVP Dustin Pedroia of the pitcher. “Right now, he’s just locked in. There’s not much you can do offensively when he’s on.”

In the game at New York, the Yankees notched their lone run in the ninth when Brett Gardner homered on a knuckleball that didn’t knuckle. It looked like a flat, fat fastball.

Neither Niekro nor Wakefield ever won a Cy Young — a trophy reserved for R.A. Dickey among the knuckleball fraternity — but both came close. Unfortunately for Niekro, he won 23 games in the same season Tom Seaver won 25. And Wakefield couldn’t maintain his 1995 start (14-1, 1.65 in his first 17 starts) with a strong finish.

Joe Niekro, Phil’s younger brother, was one of three knuckleballers named Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News, along with Wilbur Wood and Dickey.

The pitch puts so little strain on the elbow that Wood, who worked for the White Sox, once started both ends of a doubleheader. Wakefield once appeared on consecutive days. And Phil Niekro pitched in the 1982 NL Championship Series with only one day of rest.

The pitch has been part of baseball since Eddie Cicotte — latter banned from baseball for his part in

Eddie Cicotte is widely considered "the father of the knuckleball"

Eddie Cicotte is widely considered “the father of the knuckleball”

the Black Sox Scandal — cracked the rotation of the 1908 Detroit Tigers. His “dry spitball” was so good that he posted a career ERA of 2.38 and earned the nickname “Knuckles.”

Phil Niekro answered to “Knucksie,” a moniker he heard long after his retirement at age 48. Wilhelm was even older when he finally hung up his spikes. Wakefield and Charlie Hough were also ancient mariners, both in the vicinity of 45 when their legs finally gave out.

The pitch even enabled Jim Bouton to return to the big leagues eight years after retiring.

Although Dickey’s retirement will be sooner rather than later, Wright is 10 years younger. And, like many of his knuckleball brethren, it seems he’ll have a bright future despite a late start.

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About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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