MASTERING THE KNUCKLEBALL
I have updated the following article that I published in a previous column. In fact, I decided to produce a comprehensive book about the knuckleball. In the past few years, I have received calls from college and amateur pitchers who want to learn the pitch. The time is now right for such an instructional publication. Nothing like this exists.
I needed a cover. I wanted it to represent me from my earlier days while I was involved with coaching baseball. It was now time to call my friend Angelo Marino, one of the world’s finest sports artists. I sent him a few photos of me in Holland in uniform while I was managing in the Dutch major league. I told Angelo to make the pitcher look like me, but, crucially to depict the pitcher gripping the ball prior to its release. Most pictures of knuckleball pitchers show the pitcher after he has released the ball. I told Angelo to make sure the grip on the ball would be visible.
I had no idea of what to expect. Then, one day, I received an attached file from Angelo with an oil painting of me at age 34 throwing a knuckleball. I was amazed. It looks like me at that age and his depiction of the grip is precise. In other words, it was as close to perfection as possible. And, he painted the picture using old photos of me, but not in a pitching position. The "L" on the uniform and cap represent London, the area in which I learned the knuckleball. The project is slated to be done in late 2011 or 2012. I’ve included a scan of the cover of the book. Below is the story of how I learned how to throw the pitch in 1979. This will be included in the accompanying booklet as well as other information about the knuckleball, including information about famous knuckleball pitchers over the years. The following story is more of a human interest story than it is a technical dissertation on throwing a knuckleball, however I do discuss the mechanics. Without the assistance of a 16-year-old British girl, today I would still admire knuckleball pitchers, but I would never have been able to learn the pitch myself.
THE QUEST FOR THE KNUCKLEBALL
Tim Wakefield is a 45-year-old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. On September 13, 2011, he gained his 200th victory as a major league pitcher.
By the age of 45, most
major league baseball players are former major league players. They already had a special night at their home stadiums in
their last year, being awarded with the obligatory SUV and other gifts. Then, they become distributors for beer companies
or real estate agents, with the occasional appearance at an old-timers reunion where they sell their autographs. By then,
their protruding stomachs (which they never possessed in their playing days) are lying on the tables in front of them.
In 1995, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox, and in 2011 broke the 200-win career mark as a major league pitcher. In the history of the sport, with thousands of pitchers who participated in the major leagues, only 92 (inclduing Walkefield) have won 200 games or more in their major league careers in the modern baseball era. This number indicates excellence of all-time pitching statistics. So what? you may ask. The "so what" is that Wakefield is the only active knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues.
The pitch is much slower than other offerings of pitchers, such as a fastball, curve, or slider. But, it dances erratically on its trip to the plate, making it almost impossible to hit.
You may think this is a no-brainer: everyone should throw a knuckleball. It’s not that easy. Few people can make it dart in different directions consistently. And, most baseball managers and coaches do not understand the pitch and do not give anyone who throws it a chance. They always maintain that if the knuckler does not "knuckle," it will be a straighter-than-an-arrow offering that will be knocked out of the park. Rarely do they use the same logic for a pitcher who "hangs a curve" and gets hit hard.
True, if a knuckleball pitcher is having a bad day and the wind is to his back, he will not last long. This is a hazard for the knuckleball pitcher.
I read about the knuckleball in about 1960 when Hoyt Wilhelm was confusing batters with it. For the next three years, I tried to throw one. I read all the pitching books and followed the instructions to a tee, but it never did anything but travel to the plate in a slow, straight line. I gave up.
During the 1970s, I read the book Ball Four by former New York Yankee, Jim Bouton. It was a story, not an instruction manual. However, he mentioned the knuckler and he stated, "Make sure the ball is cupped in the hand with the fingers on top." Never had I read before that the ball should be against the palm of your hand. Most other pitches are thrown with the ball away from the palm.
This made sense. If the ball was against the palm of the hand and was pushed away, a vacuum would be created behind the ball making it change directions. And, a knuckler is not thrown with the knuckles, but with the fingertips. It is pushed forward by the fingers, and when the ball is on its way to the plate, there is no spin. Every other pitch in baseball requires spin to break in a certain direction. If a knuckleball spins, it will not break.
In 1979, at age 31, my playing days were behind me. However, I thought that I should learn a knuckleball to be able to teach it to aspiring pitchers. I was one of the few coaches in the world who understood the knuckleball and wanted to teach it to pitchers. At the time, I was living in England and running various baseball programs for players of all ages and playing levels.
I needed a catcher who would not complain about squatting down for a half hour at a time trying to catch my pitches that would be all over the place. A 16-year-old British girl who was a catcher in a mixed league (male and female) that I ran volunteered. Well, she volunteered after I asked her a few times.
She was a tall athletic girl who had no problem catching my slower offerings as I tried to master the elusive knuckleball. Her only quandary was chasing the balls I threw over her head or in the dirt in trying to gain some kind of mechanics for the pitch.
Almost every day at about 3:30 in the afternoon, I picked her up and brought her to the baseball field. The first few times were horrible. I did not throw one floater. The ball still had spin. But, I did not give up.
After about two weeks, I unleashed a pitch that had no spin. As soon as it left my hand, I knew I had found success. It seemed to take minutes to reach the catcher as it first broke left, then right and straight down. I did it.
The feeling of that first successful knuckleball pitch was indescribable. It was like a magnetic device was controlling the flight of the ball even though I threw it. Magic.
It took about three more weeks until I was consistent with the knuckleball. By then, most had no spin. But, as I was getting better throwing the pitch, it became more hazardous for the teenage female catcher.
Unlike other pitches in baseball, one cannot control the direction of the break of a knuckleball. A curve ball always goes away and down: a slider away, etc. Once the knuckleball is released, a pitcher can only hope it hops and it gets somewhere near the strike zone. By the time we were finished and I had accomplished my journey of throwing a knuckleball with consistency, the girl had bruises on every part of her body that a baseball could hit: primarily the forearms and thighs. And, a few bruised fingers as well. She never complained once about performing such an unglamorous task for those few weeks.
In 1981, I began to manage baseball in the Dutch major league, a circuit that was equivalent to about single A level minor league ball in the U.S. I took a young pitcher with promise and taught him the knuckleball. A 20-year-old Eric de Vries won the Most Valuable Pitcher Award in The Netherlands. When asked the reason for his turnaround, he told the press, "The knuckleball."
The following year, I was with another club. Eric, playing for a new American manager, had a mediocre year. I noticed he did not throw one knuckleball. When I asked him why, he said, "My new coach told me not to." Then I asked the reasoning and he told me, "He said that if it does not break, you’ll get hit hard." Some things never change.
Today, at age 63, I am stiff and sore from my years of playing sports. I recently had a hip replacement that once again made me part of the world of the walking. But, if I have it in me, I still will be able to warm up and throw a futhermucker of a knuckleball. All thanks to that 16-year-old British girl.
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