On Tim Wakefield and the knuckleball

I know, I couldn't bring myself to upload a photo of him in Boston. I'm that petty.

I remember the first time I became aware of the knuckleball.

I was playing All-Star Baseball 99 on the N64. I didn’t really know much about baseball, but I liked the Oakland A’s because they were the local team. And I already pretty much knew I’d never be able to root for Barry Bonds.

One of Oakland’s best starting pitchers in that game was Tom Candiotti. His out pitch? Something called the knuckleball.

Intrigued, I pitched with him and watched as the knuckleball darted, danced, dipped and frustrated my friend Stuart or Lance. It was near impossible to actually control and I was pleasantly surprised when one of Candiotti’s knuckleballs landed in the strike zone, at around 65 mph.

It’s been said that the knuckleball is the everyman’s revenge. It doesn’t require a 6’6″ frame, an arm like a cannon or  laser precision. It just takes patience and hope.

When I really started to follow baseball, a year or two later, I started watching Tim Wakefield, one of the few remaining active knuckleballers. I recall there was Wakefield, then Steve Sparks, Dennis Springer and Jared Fernandez. R.A. Dickey was still (sometimes) confounding hitters with “The Thing,” and hadn’t switched to a knuckler style.

I watched Wakefield, a converted first baseman, strike out some of the best hitters in baseball with a pitch that wouldn’t get pulled over on any freeway. I admired that. It’s probably why I hold pitchers like Greg Maddux and (for a time) Barry Zito in higher regard than guys who could throw 95 mph. Wakefield’s fastball averaged 74.1 mph.

It’s kind of cool seeing the list of sluggers he did well against:

  • Jason Giambi, 120 PA, 21 K’s, .153 BAA
  • Jorge Posada, 95 PA, 18 K, .221 BAA
  • Bernie Williams, 86 PA, 14 K’s, .188 BAA
  • Jim Thome, 73 PA, 13 K’s, .185 BAA
  • Rafael Palmeiro, 72 PA, 14 K’s, .175 BAA
  • Edgar Martinez, 32 PA, 7 K’s, .053 BAA (just one hit)
  • Adrian Beltre, 21 PA, 4 K’s, .000 BAA

It was kind of inspiring when I was in high school. I tried out for the baseball team as a senior. I knew I wasn’t going to make it  — not a chance in hell. I had some friends on the team and I just wanted to see how far I could make it before getting cut. Lacking any kind of hand/eye coordination, I knew I wouldn’t be a position player. So I figured I’d go out for pitcher. My fastball (HA!) topped out at maybe 72 mph, but I tried throwing a knuckleball. Emphasis on try.

Naturally, I didn’t make it, but pitchers like Wakefield gave me a little bit of hope that there’s room in the game for guys who aren’t blessed with great arms. When I see pitchers such as Juan Cruz, who has basically made a career out of throwing hard without really knowing where the ball is going to end up, it makes me a little sad. Wakefield, R.A. Dickey (now the only knuckleball pitcher in the majors) and to a lesser extent, Charlie Haeger, are victories for the everyman. They’re victories against the radar gun fetishism that brings us super stars such as Stephen Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman and Justin Verlander (who are all great pitchers in their own right, don’t get me wrong). A lot of people like seeing triple digits on the stadium gun. I like seeing 60 mph floaters and euphuses. I’m weird.

The knuckleball isn’t a grip-and-rip pitch. Pretty much everyone who has thrown it places their fingers differently. Like the fastball, it requires rote muscle memorization, but a lot of patience. It’s a slowly thrown pitch, meant to bossed with little-to-no rotation on the ball. Basically, the wind plays with the baseball en route to the plate. It’s unpredictable. The pitcher, the hitter and the catcher have no idea where it will wind up. There’s no hope in controlling it, but even this takes years to master. This is why there are so few knuckleballers in the game today. It’s a trick pitch, a last-ditch effort to save a career.

A bad fastball can still find the catcher’s mitt. A bad knuckleball finds the bleachers. Watching from the stands, it looks so easy to hit. It’s just a guy tossing a ball with all of the strength of a plastic bag floating in the wind. You think you can do it, and that’s the beauty of it. I know that no matter what, I’ll never be able to throw a 98 mph fastball, a snapping slider or a circling changeup. But with enough patience and enough repetition… maybe, I can throw a knuckleball.

Via Joe Posnanski:

No other pitch is so wonderful. No other pitch so tantalizes the imagination. It’s easy to understand how a 99-mph fastball can get people out. It’s easy to see how a nasty slider or trap-door splitter or 12-to-6 curveball can stifle and defeat a hitter. But the knuckleball — that floating thing — it makes no sense.

I’ve always thought of the knuckleball as poetry. When it’s really good, it’s surprising and deep and almost impossibly awesome — you just can’t believe something could be so cool. A great poem, like a great knuckler, feels like it is breathing. And when it’s really bad — bad poetry or bad knuckleballs — yeah, it’s really bad.

Here’s the thing: Like poetry, I can’t help but feel like the knuckleball is on the verge of disappearing. Of course, neither one is really disappearing. It just feels that way. That’s why it struck me so funny and touching when Elizabeth talked about going into the poetry business. I know there IS a poetry business out there, I know there ARE brilliant poets out there, but I honestly don’t come across them much in my life.

And I believe that with Wakefield retiring that another knuckleball pitcher will emerge to tantalize hitters and amaze us all. Maybe it will be R.A. Dickey. Maybe it will be this 19-year-old woman from Japan, Eri Yoshida, who idolized Wakefield. Maybe it will be one of the knuckleballers kicking around in the minor leagues, trying to find that magic. Maybe it will be someone brand new … a converted outfielder who couldn’t hit enough … an old pitcher on a comeback … a young pitcher who found that when he threw the knuckleball it danced … and sportswriter who finally found his knuckleball at age 45.

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