Since I was a young teenager, I have been fascinated with the knuckleball. Just the name - knuckleball - is enigmatic. A fastball is fast. A curveball curves. A slider, yeah, sort of slides, although the sharp, late-breaking sliders thrown by pitchers today probably don't resemble the sliders from 30 or more years ago. But a knuckleball? What does it do? Does it "knuckle"?
I grew up in rural southern Kansas, in a farm town whose population was around 450. My graduating class size (class of '82) was 9. Yes, nine. I've joked many times that I had the honor of being 2nd in my class, yet not in the top 10%. In this small town, summer baseball was, to use a baseball analogy, hit or miss. Sometimes we had enough boys of the right age to field a team, and sometimes we didn't. I hit it just wrong every year - we never had enough boys to play. So, I have never played a single game of organized baseball. (Later, in late teens I played some fast-pitch softball, and then in college and afterward I played slow-pitch softball, but never baseball.) So, I had to satisfy my baseball desires in my backyard with a pitch-back.
Sometime around age 15, I found, in "The Book of Lists" (I think), a list of guidelines written by Hoyt Wilhelm on how to throw a knuckleball. This list, plus a picture of the grip in an encyclopedia we had at home (which I now know is incorrect), sent me to the backyard to try to throw it. Over many weeks and several summers, I learned to throw a decent knuckleball to my pitch-back in my backyard, taking the spin off, watching it float, and occasionally watching it dip and break. It was pretty cool. Too bad I had no one to pitch to :-)
Years passed, and I would throw knuckleballs around during softball warmups, playing catch at picnics, and, eventually, to my two sons as we would play catch in our yard. I've never had the arm strength to throw hard enough to make the knuckleball do much of anything - at most, it would just look strange coming in to whoever was catching it, floating in without any spin on the ball.
Moving ahead to the Spring of 2011, I was pitching coach for my 13 year old son's team. He had pitched for several years in kid-pitch baseball, and was still a pitcher for his team, but arm strength issues (thanks, DNA) led to ineffectiveness when he had to pitch fastball after fastball. I was teaching a couple other boys change-ups, and they were throwing them pretty effectively. Sometimes, when thrown well in the right spot, they were extremely effective. My son, however, couldn't get the hang of a change-up. I think hand size had an impact, as his hands weren't big enough to vary the change-up grip from the fastball. There was not really a noticiable difference in velocity when he tried to throw a change-up.
Then, one evening in the front yard, I showed him how to throw a knuckleball. I showed him a grip that worked for me, and he started throwing them. Amazingly enough, he could throw them with enough velocity to get them to the catcher, and he could get them over the plate for strikes most of the time. Taking the spin off was the challenge - sometimes they had too much spin for a good knuckler, sometimes they had no spin at all - a beautiful sight.
So, I thought - why not have him throw this as an off speed pitch? He can throw a knuckleball instead of a change-up. At minimum, it's a change in velocity from the fastball. Even better, when most of the spin is off, it looks funny to the 13 year old batters who have never seen a knuckler. At best, every now and then, he would throw a beaut - no spin, letting the weird laws of knuckleball physics take effect on the pitch.
So we went ahead with that as the plan - my son would still be primarily a fastball pitcher, but he would throw an occasional knuckleball as an off-speed. And so he did. He threw them pretty effectively. He threw some for surprise strikes, got a few strikeouts, and gave the batters something else to think about while at the plate. And, a few times, there was too much spin and they floated in high, and they were hit hard. Thus is the life of a pitcher.
We continued this strategy the next summer in 14-year old baseball. He threw mainly fastballs, but worked in a knuckleball from time to time. To me, as a coach, I'm glad that he was able to develop an effective off-speed ptich and become a better overall pitcher. As a Dad, I'm thrilled that he learned a difficult and frankly entertaining pitch. It was fun to watch. The best part, though, are the memories that my son has and will always have. For at least two summers, he was a knuckleball pitcher. Who knows that the next few years will bring as he enters high school and tries out for the team? Will the coaches even entertain the thought of a knuckleball pitcher? Even if they don't, he'll play summer ball, I'll coach him, and we'll keep throwing the old knuckler...
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