I’ll admit it: I’ve always thought of the knuckleball as more or less a stunt best reserved for baseball’s cabinet of curiosities. Which perhaps isn’t a surprise given that R.A. Dickey is already a credible candidate for the title of Most Successful Mets Knuckleballer ever. The only Met knuckleballer I can remember seeing is the briefly employed Dennis Springer; this dizzyingly comprehensive page says Bob Moorhead and Tom Sturdivant were also Met knuckleballers, and lists Rich Sauveur, Bob McClure, Dave Roberts, Warren Spahn and Jeff Innis as guys known to throw a knuckler as part of their repertoire. (Todd Zeile grimly throwing knucklers as a fill-in during blowouts doesn’t count; neither does the fact that Mickey Lolich learned the pitch during his thoroughly annoying Padre comeback.)
I always thought of the knuckleball as the last faith tried by every pitcher who finds himself in the foxhole of the minors: If you’re staring at your unconditional release, you may as well say, “But Skip, I’ve been working on a knuckler,” go out to the mound and hope for divine inspiration.
It generally doesn’t come.
But I’ve grown fond of Robert Alan Dickey, and not just because he’s led the Mets to two straight very welcome wins. I’ve grown fond of him because he’s the kind of player you have to root for. How can you not root for a guy who saw his signing bonus slashed by $735,000 after the Rangers’ doctors discovered he didn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm? Who had to fight not only that prejudice but a back injury that ended his days as a fireballer? Who fell in love with a girl in seventh grade, was stuck in the “just friends” category until they were seniors in high school, and wound up marrying her? (“I kind of went through an ugly phase, so she didn’t want anything to do with me outside of being my friend,” explains Dickey, who does look quite a bit like the Cowardly Lion.)
Heck, the man even reads: Before today’s game he was engrossed in “Life of Pi,” described by the Times’ Pat Borzi as being “about an Indian teenager who forms an uneasy yet necessary alliance with a Bengal tiger.” Points to Borzi for this wry addition: “Dickey has a similar arrangement with his knuckleball”. (Heck, Dickey has an ERA of 2.84. Right now Pi would be a bringdown.)
As I said, the knuckleball generally strike me as a sideshow: It’s amusing watching burly big-league hitters tie themselves into knots swinging over one as it dances past. It’s frustrating in extra innings knowing the other team’s pitcher essentially has no pitch count while your side burns through its middle relievers with terrifying speed. It’s alarming to remember that strike three may just be a prelude to the real drama, given knucklers’ tendency to escape not just the hitter but also the catcher.
What’s enticing about the knuckler, though, is how little it draws on those God-given abilities handed out so rarely that those who have them might as well be another species. Knucklers can be thrown credibly by old men, men without important ligaments, men laid low by back injuries, and baseball players who aren’t men in the first place. Knucklers combine nervous tinkering with pure feel, and they demand a quasi-Zen relaxation: The surest way to throw a bad one is to try and throw it hard. And yet, for all that, sometimes they desert you. And there are few sights more pitiable than watching a knuckleballer whose knuckleball isn’t working. They’re almost literally throwing BP.
Dickey fought through innings today in which his knuckler was AWOL, making for a tense contest whose middle innings were spent waiting for some new disaster to befall the Mets. (It helps that Dickey, unlike many knucklers, can still break out a semi-credible fastball.) But he hung in there long enough for the Brewers to excuse Randy Wolf, who’d exhausted himself throwing 114 pitches and overcoming the urge to strangle wet-behind-the-ears catcher Jonathan Lucroy during one of their 13,551 meetings on the mound. Instead, Ken Macha sent out Jeff Suppan, Wisconsin’s version of Oliver Perez. (Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t swap them in a heartbeat if given the chance.) Suppan was shredded by the Mets about 43 months too late, and the ninth saw the Brewers raise the white flag and throw poor Zach Braddock to the wolves. Braddock threw his first pitch to David Wright at 5:07 p.m. and didn’t record an out until 5:23, a painful performance that would have been a lot worse if he hadn’t located his slider some 30 pitches in.
Braddock is 22 years old, throws 95 and is left-handed, so he’ll be given plenty of opportunities to improve. Who knows what the future holds for him? Perhaps he’ll harness his errant curve, maintain his command of that slider and become someone’s star closer. Perhaps he’ll parlay a couple of good years into a big contract, come up short and trudge off mounds getting booed. Perhaps he’ll be perpetually wild and be exiled to mop-up duty while his front office schemes to figure out how to force him into a minor-league furlough.
Not that I wish this on him, but perhaps he’ll blow out his ulnar collateral ligament, have a run of bad luck and find himself squeezed out of the last roster spot in Double-A. If so, maybe he’ll say, “But Skip, I’ve been working on a knuckler.” Maybe he’ll think of R.A. Dickey, and hope for the best. It probably won’t work. But every once in a while, somehow it does.