Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Best Knuckleball I Have Ever Seen

It was the Summer of 2012, June to be precise, late in the season for my son's 14 year old baseball team.  My son had used the knuckleball for his off-speed pitch for two Summers now.  Usually it was fairly effective when we called it in the right spots, mainly to give the batters something else to think about, to put a strange looking offspeed pitch in their minds.  It was sometimes more of a mental pitch than a truly effective breaking, off-speed pitch.

My son and I had made a point to see Tim Wakefield pitch the previous year when the Red Sox came to Kansas City.  Wakefield pitched well in the game, only to see the bullpen blow the lead and the win (although my hometown Royals won the game).  We had seats in the upper deck but nearly right behind home plate.  We could see the truly awful swings the batters were taking at the knuckleball, and the efforts of the efforts of the catcher to corral the pitch.  My son really enjoyed watching the veteran knuckleball master work the pitch.

Our June game was against the one of the top upper division teams.  We were something like 27-9 on the year, playing against teams with similar records.  Good, quality teams with fine young players.  At 14, there are some young men who can hit the ball 310 to 320 feet.  One of our players hit a couple of these, and our pitchers gave up a few long balls through the course of the season.  And, at 14, some of the players are taller than the coaches.  These are fine young athletes playing some serious baseball.

So, my son came in to pitch against one of the top teams in our league, and one of our traditional rivals.  It's a team with very good players, coached well.  Our games with them are always close, usually decided by one or two runs.  This game was no exception - a close one.

I remember watching Phil Neikro pitch for the Braves on TBS when I was growing up.  Rarely, though, as we did not have cable in my hometown.  So, I caught highlights every now and then.  "Highlights" for Phil Niekro usually meant an exceptional night of knuckling.  I seem to recall an inning where he struck out four (or five?) batters, and at least two got on base due to dropped third strikes.  Phil's knuckleball was almost too good that night.

I believe that my son retired the first batter on just a couple pitches, fastballs, when the batter hit into an out.  Maybe he threw a knuckler - I don't recall for sure.  If he did, it was not memorable.  Then the next batter came up.  First pitch - ball one.  Second pitch - a fastball fouled off for a strike.

Now, the physics of a knuckleball are too complex to describe, or even understand.  Thrown perfectly, there is no spin on the ball, so the wind, the air pressure, the velocity, the humidity, and other unknown factors all affect the ball.  But, one fundamental physical factor is that, if thrown with enough velocity, and if thrown without spin, the laws of physics as the ball flies through the air will actually make the ball slow down.  When it slows down, it drops.  Fast.  You can count on that, at least 60% of the time.  Everything else is pretty much God's Will.

With a 1-1 count, I called a knuckleball.  I rarely called them with 2 strikes, trying to avoid a passed ball and the batter advancing.  So with one strike, the time was right.  My son is right handed.  The batter was also right handed, waiting in the box for the next pitch.  My son wound up and threw the knuckler.

The trajectory of the pitch was probably a fairly routine trajectory to be on the outside half of the plate, crossing the path of the strike zone, a righty throwing outside to a righty.  Trajectory was hard to determine from our dugout point of view.

The pitch started high.  Had it been a fastball, it would have been chest high or more.  It was obvious that the batter decided not to swing.  Then, the pitch must have started to drop, so the batter decided to swing.  Then he stopped, then he started again.  This knuckleball started high, crossed through the stike zone, and dropped like a shot put rolling off a table.  The batter started his swing way late, wound up ahead of the ball anyway, lunged for it low and outside the zone, and still swung way over it.  Our catcher managed to stop the ball.  Strike two, with the most uncomfortable swing I've ever seen.

I turned to another coach in the dugout.  He said "Was that a knuckleball?"  I nodded.  He laughed and said "I don't like to laugh at other players, but that swing was terrible.  There was no way he could hit that pitch."

This knuckleball was so good, even our fans (parents) in the stands were amazed.  Even the Moms (no offense, ladies) saw what an incredible pitch it was.  The crowd reacted and buzzed over the pitch.  This pitch was unhittable.

The next pitch was a fastball, high and inside, that probably looked like it was 90 miles an hour.  Swing and a miss, the batter shook his head and walked back to the dugout.

I've seen Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield, and R.A. Dickey throw their masterful pitches.  I've seen them make hitters look helpless and silly.  But I've never seen a knuckleball as killer as the one thrown that one evening in June by my son.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Me, My Son, and the Knuckleball

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...

Next Post: The Best Knuckleball I Have Ever Seen

Hot Times in Kansas City

This summer is one for the ages in Kansas City.  We're now in our second wave of 100+ degree heat lasting over a week.  It's about 105 here today, so far.  May get up to 107 or so.  In a few days it gets cooler - down to a crisp 98.  This is the hottest summer ever in my 26 years in Kansas City.  The only summer I can remember that was this hot was 1980, when I spent several weeks working outside at my local high school in southern Kansas.  Hot, hot, hot.

I just got back in town from a week-long vacation in Tennessee, including 3 days in the Crossville area and 4 in Memphis.  And, when in Memphis, you go to Graceland.  Now, I knew that Elvis' "The Wonderful World of Christmas" had been re-released last year in an extended 2-disc set, and that it was only available directly from the Elvis enterprises on the web.  That appears to still be so - it's not available on Amazon.  The re-release contains the entire original record, plus many alternate takes and a recording of "The Lord's Prayer".  One the drive to Memphis, the thought hit that I could probably get this CD at Graceland.  And, sure enough, there it was.  It isn't cheap, but it cost no more than the web price.  So, of course, I bought it :-)  Elvis is an iconic Christmas voice, and I'm very pleased to add this to my collection.  A future blog post will have some thoughts about this record.

Speaking of future blog posts, I have several queued up in mind that are not Christmas related.  There are a few CDs from emerging, independent artists that I want to review on the blog, and I also have a couple of posts related to baseball, and possibly a few others before I get back into the Christmas blog season.  I hope you enjoy them.

I've also acquired a few more Christmas records to post here during the season, and it's about time to start ripping and scanning.

So, dear readers, be looking for a few posts here soon.  If you like the non-Christmas posts, leave a comment.  No politics, nothing controversial, just some musings on various topics.

Thanks for visiting Merry and Bright!  Come back soon!