By In Stuff

Poets and Knuckleballers

My 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth has started to write poetry. I don’t really have other 10-year-old poets to compare, but her poems seem to me to be pretty good. They are very much from the heart. She wrote what I thought was a really good one about a lonely tree and … oh, wait, you don’t care about this. And this is not the point.

No, the point is that at some point last week she mentioned that one of her friends also writes poetry. And she said, “Hey, maybe we can go into the poetry business together.”

This, as you no doubt guessed, got me thinking about Tim Wakefield.

When I was a kid — which doesn’t seem quite so long ago — becoming a knuckleball pitcher was a viable dream. I don’t really have any memory at all of Hoyt Wilhelm, but I do vaguely remember Wilbur Wood’s good years, and very well remember both of the Niekros, Phil and Joe.* Charlie Hough was very much on my mind as a child, in large part because you couldn’t open a pack of a baseball cards in those days and NOT get a Charlie Hough card (along with a Sixto Lezcano). Tom Candiotti came along not too long after.

*You might not know this but when Joe and Phil Niekro turned 40 years old, their career records. were shockingly similar:

Phil Niekro: 197-171, .535 win pct.

Joe Niekro: 193-167, .536 win pct.

Phil had been a markedly better pitcher. His ERA+ at that point was a Hall of Fame worthy 124. Joe’s ERA+ was an exactly league average 100. Still, at that point in their careers, their win-loss record were absurdly close. Phil, though, went on to be one of the great old pitchers in baseball history — and he ended up with 318 wins. Joe fizzled out quickly and ended up with a final record of 221-204.

Unrelated — but this post will go all over the place — brothers Gaylord and Jim Perry have a similarly eerie won-loss connection. Jim Perry was older than by almost three years. And after the 1975 season …

Jim Perry: 215-174.

Gaylord Perry: 216-174.

How about that? Again, Gaylord was the clearly better pitcher — a 124 ERA+ to a 106 ERA+, many more strikeouts, fewer walks, fewer home runs per game and so on. Still, for those records of brothers to be almost identical, that’s pretty amazing. Jim Perry retired after that season. Gaylord pitched for another eight years, he won almost 100 more games, and went to the Hall of Fame.

You would have to say my childhood was more or less that Golden Age of knuckles. No, there weren’t A LOT of knuckleball pitchers around. But you didn’t need a lot. There weren’t a lot of daredevils around either, but just the one — Evel Knievel — made daredevil a viable career option for every kid I knew. There weren’t a lot of astronauts around, but walking on the moon seemed a viable career option too. You didn’t need quantity. You just needed someone to show the way.

Like every other kid baseball fan I knew, I was fascinated by the knuckleball and I would try to throw it every chance I could. I don’t know that I ever made a ball knuckle even a little bit. Sometimes it looked like the ball MIGHT have moved a little. Then again, maybe not. Still, I kept throwing, and I kept hoping that one day it would moonwalk and twist and do the mashed potato … and I would have that chance to pitch in the major leagues.

That is why I am sad that Tim Wakefield is retiring. For almost 20 years, he was my last, best hope … and whenever I happened to be playing catch with someone, I would try to throw a knuckleball. You never know.

I guess Wakefield is not the last of the knuckleballers. R.A. Dickey is still digging his nails into baseballs, and every now and again there is another player or two who emerges and tries to throw the knuckleball for a little while. There are a couple of knuckleball specialists in the minors, I’m sure. Still, it seems that something is ending with Wakefield. Maybe it always feels that way when a longtime knuckleballer retires, but you can’t help but wonder if another guy like him will emerge, another TRUE knuckleball pitcher who lasts for 15 or 20 years, who wins 200 games in the big leagues by throwing floating pitches that seem from the stands to be absurdly easy to hit … and then jump just out of reach.

What a marvelous and odd way to make a living. Knuckleballs are not like anything else in baseball — or in sports really. It is the only thing in sports I know of that is a constant surprise not only to the opponent or the fans but the person who is actually initiating it. When a knuckleball pitcher throws the pitch, he doesn’t know if the baseball is going to dive down, slide one way or another, take a surprising hop or — and every good knuckleball pitcher has felt this — do nothing at all, just casually stroll toward the plate at 65 or 70 mph where it will meet its maker like a wide receiver running blindly (and straight up) into James Harrison’s zone.

No, the pitcher doesn’t know, The hitter doesn’t know. The catcher certainly doesn’t know. I’ve written the story before about how Bob Uecker saved Phil Niekro’s career, but it’s worth repeating. In 1967, Niekro was a 28-year-old pitcher with this crazy trick pitch, a long and not especially interesting minor league career, and one career start in the big leagues. He pitched well in relief as the year began and on June 14, he made his second career start. Bob Uecker was behind the plate.

Uecker could not catch the knuckleball. Few catchers can — “You don’t catch the knuckleball, you defend against it,” Joe Torre said — but Uecker was particularly ill equipped to catch it. That year, he was a 32-year-old catcher on his last legs. The Phillies traded him to the Braves for Gene Oliver just a a few days before Niekro’s start. And what Uecker said to Niekro was something like this: “It’s your job to throw the knuckleball. It’s the catcher’s job to catch it.” In other words, he told Niekro to let it fly, to not worry about anything but throwing the most diabolical knuckleballs he could manage. That year, Uecker had 27 passed balls, which led the league.

But, that year Phil Niekro also led the league with a 1.87 ERA. He went on to become a Hall of Fame pitcher. And he always credited Bob Uecker for giving him the confidence to do that.*

*You want to feel bad for a catcher … how about poor Geno Petralli in 1987? He had 35 passed balls. THIRTY FIVE! That is the most for any catcher since 1890s. And he set that mark in only 63 games as a catcher.

How did this happen? Well, it’s actually a fascinating tale. See, Geno Petralli had the misfortune of become Charlie Hough’s personal catcher for two months when Hough might have thrown the most uncatchable pitch in the history of baseball.

It went like so: Hough had his usual knuckleball, which was always difficult to catch as well as hit. But then on May 29, 1987, that pitch suddenly became a buzzard. I’m not sure what happened — maybe it was the humidity, maybe Hough just figured out something, who really knows? But Don Slaught was behind the plate that day and he had three passed balls. The Rangers manager was Bobby Valentine, and he freaked out about it. The next game he put Petralli behind the plate, and Geno had two passed balls. He tried Slaught again the next time out — this time Slaught had FOUR passed balls.

Yikes. Well, now what? Valentine tried Mike Stanley back there. He had two passed balls. He put Petralli back there — one passed ball. Then Stanley again, and this time, Stanley did not allow a passed ball. Hey, Valentine thought, he might be on to something. But the next time out, June 23, Stanley had two more passed balls.

Back to Petralli: One passed ball and next time out, on July 11th, ZERO. That was the one that had to stick in Valentine’s mind. On July 11th, Hough had pitched 6 2/3 innings, and there weren’t any passed balls, and that germ of an idea of Petralli as Hough’s personal catcher must have been hatched.

But it didn’t happen right away. Stanley went back out there — three passed balls. Slaught’s turn — three passed balls. These are real numbers. Stanley’s next shot was July 16th — he had FIVE passed balls. On July 20th, to prove it was no fluke, Stanley had three more passed balls.

Don’t worry, I’ll add them up for you at the end.

Well, that was it for Stanley and Slaught. Now it was Petralli’s show. And he held up pretty darned well for about a month. He caught Hough the next six games and had a total of five passed balls — never more than one in a game. Well, Valentine and the Rangers could live with that. On August 22nd, Petralli had 13 passed balls — 10 of them against Hough — and while under normal circumstances that would be absurdly high, it was pretty good with the way Hough was throwing his knuckleball. Petralli was now officially a knuckleball catching specialist.

Then, it broke down. On August 22nd, Petralli had five passed balls. You can pin everything to a single inning — the seventh inning that day against the White Sox. Ozzie Guillen led off win a single. Donnie Hill was the batter. And Petralli allowed a passed ball that moved Guillen to second. He then allowed another passed ball that moved Guillen to third. Hill then homered. Two batters later, Ron Hassey struck out — but Petralli’s passed ball allowed him to go to first. The next batter, Petralli allowed his fourth passed ball of the inning. It was after this game that he reportedly uttered the immortal quote: “Knuckleballs suck.”

And that was that. Petralli was toast. His next time out, he had two passed balls. On August 30, he had six passed balls. Yeah, that’s right, six, what of it? Three runs scored directly on those passed balls, and one more run scored indirectly — a runner moved to third and scored on a ground out.

After fighting Hough’s knuckler to a draw his next time out — he had only one passed ball — he allowed four more his next time, two the time after that, and then one each in his last two starts as Charlie Hough’s star-crossed personal catcher of 1987. Stanley and Slaught caught the last two games, combining for three more passed balls, as the season ran out.

In total: From May 29 through the end of the season, Charlie Hough’s catchers had 58 passed balls. FIFTY-EIGHT in four months. That’s more than Randy Johnson had IN HIS CAREER (50). It’s more than Roger Clemens on Tom Seaver had in their career s(35). It’s more Greg Maddux (28) and Tom Glavine (15) COMBINED for their careers.

Here’s one: Dan Quisenberry’s catchers, in his 1,000-plus inning career, had ZERO passed balls.

The knuckleball, Willie Stargell said, was a butterfly with hiccups. Jimmy Cannon called it a curveball that doesn’t give a damn. Hitting the knuckler is like eating jello with chopsticks (Bobby Murcer), like eating soup with a fork (Richie Hebner or it’s just plain impossible (“There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball … unfortunately, neither of them works,” Charlie Lau said). Catching it is like trying to catch a butterfly with tweezers (Tim McCarver) or it’s just impossible (“The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait for it to stop rolling and then pick it up,” Uecker said). Knuckleballs are like snowflakes — no two alike (Jason Varitek).

There are many more quotes. What other pitch has such wonderful quotes? None. But that’s easy: 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.

In any case, I’m sad that Wakefield is retiring because he was just so much fun to watch. But I believe that there will be another great knuckleball pitcher. Why? Well, I think of the last line of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” a line I often use when talking to my daughter. You’ve got to have a little faith in people.

4 Responses to Poets and Knuckleballers

  1. Joe, if you find your knuckles, I am willing to be your personal Catcher.

    On poetry, you’re out of luck.

  2. Joe, if you find your knuckles, I am willing to be your personal Catcher.

    On poetry, you’re out of luck.

  3. gavin says:


    This is my first blog piece I’ve read by you. After reading it, I subscribed via Google Reader. A sportswriter who writes so romantically about the knuckleball, something I adore very much, must have good taste.

    Thanks so much for the post. It’s something I’ll bookmark and come back to again and again.


  4. […] The Knuckleball Thought of the Year comes to us from […]

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