It's an exclusive club: Pitchers who rely on the knuckleball, and win, in Major League Baseball. It's one of the most difficult and unpredictable pitches in the game. Only about 80 players have ever used the knuckleball consistently in the major leagues. Even fewer have been successful.
New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is one of the few active starting pitchers in professional baseball who use this slower, methodical pitch. He's chasing 20 wins, and a possible Cy Young Award, in the 2012 season.
Typically, pitchers try to throw the ball as hard as they can and put as much spin on the ball as possible. With a knuckleball, the pitcher uses a special grip to take the spin off the ball and slow it down. The pitch then takes a long time to reach the plate, but it's hard to hit because the batter doesn't know which way the ball will break — and neither does the pitcher.
Dickey tells NPR's Neal Conan that one common misconception about the pitch is that it's thrown with the knuckles. But actually, he says, "they call it a knuckleball because you see the knuckles sticking straight up in the air when your grip is coming forward to the hitter. But at the same time, it's your fingernails that are dug into the surface area of the leather of the baseball that enable you to stabilize it in a way where you can release it without spin."
Along with famed Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, Dickey is one of the subjects of a new documentary, Knuckleball! He's also recently written a memoir, Wherever I Wind Up.
On how he learned to throw the knuckleball
"My grandfather showed me the first grip of a knuckleball when I was probably around 8 or 9 years old, and I just kind of played with it ever since. I think what I became enamored with right off the bat was he showed me a ... yellowed newspaper clipping of him striking out 17 or 18 hitters throwing nothing but knuckleballs. And from then on I was hooked."
On why the knuckleball is generally a pitcher's Plan B
"I really didn't have a need for a knuckleball because I threw the ball pretty hard and was going to be a first-round draft pick because I had the ability to throw the ball 94, 95 miles an hour, which usually puts you in as a top-round pick. And so I really didn't have a need for it. I could get guys out with the weapons that I already had. ...
"[Then, after] I had been a conventional pitcher for some time professionally and, you know, I had to come to terms with my own mediocrity. And that's a hard thing to do for an athlete. And thankfully I had shown the knuckleball enough in my practice sessions and occasionally when I threw it in a game where Orel Hershiser, the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, said I think you can do this the full time, because what you're doing now as a conventional pitcher just wasn't going to cut it anymore. And so I had to take that next step and I did that in 2005."
On why it's so hard to throw a good knuckleball
"I think a lot of people think it's an easy thing, because they see a ball coming up at 75 or 65 miles an hour and they think, 'Oh, I can throw that hard.' Well, to be able to take spin off of a baseball is very difficult. ...
"And also, you know, it takes a great deal of hand-eye coordination to be able to be comfortable with the feel of a good knuckleball. And what I mean by that is when I release the ball from the rubber or the mound, by the time it gets to the home plate and the catcher's mitt, I want it to have rotated about a quarter of a revolution.
"And so to be able to feel a quarter of a revolution come out, it takes a lot of repetition. And hopefully over the course of many, many years, you're able to build that repetition in where it becomes muscle memory and you don't have to think about it. It can become just an organic experience, if you will. And for me, that's what it took. It took about four years for me to really get comfortable in my own skin."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
It's been called a trick, a gimmick, a circus pitch and a freak. With most pitchers, the idea is to throw the ball as hard as you can and put a lot of spin on it. With a knuckleball, you take the spin off, and velocity usually ranges between slow and slower. The batter doesn't know which way the ball will break because the knuckleball pitcher doesn't know where it's going either.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KNUCKLEBALL!")
JIM BOUTON: You need the fingertips of a safecracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist as you throw the ball off of your fingertips. But if one of those fingers happens to catch on the ball or stay on it a little bit longer, it tumbles. And once the ball tumbles, you know, it's like batting practice. You know, here, hit it.
TIM WAKEFIELD: A lot of times it has a mind of its own.
BOUTON: It's going to do whatever it feels like doing, and you don't know what that's going to be.
WAKEFIELD: You know, you let it go and see where it takes you.
CONAN: That's an excerpt from a new documentary called "Knuckleball!" You heard two knuckleball pitchers there, Jim Bouton and Tim Wakefield. If you ever threw the knuckleball, who taught you? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets is also featured in that film. He spent years in the Minor Leagues before he mastered the knuckleball in his mid-30s.
He's now one of the best pitchers in the game. He's also the author of a memoir called "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball," and he joins us now from WFAN's broadcast booth at City Field in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
R.A. DICKEY: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And who taught you to throw the knuckler?
DICKEY: Well, you know, it was passed down through, I think, generation - generationally for me. My grandfather showed me the first grip of a knuckleball when I was probably around eight or nine years old, and I just kind of played with it ever since. I think what I became enamored with right off the bat was he showed me a - you know, this yellowed newspaper clipping of him striking out 17 or 18 hitters throwing nothing but knuckleballs. And from then on I was hooked.
CONAN: Yet you were, in high school and college, a conventional pitcher, throwing fastball sinkers.
DICKEY: Yes. I, you know, in fact, I really didn't have a need for a knuckleball because I threw the ball pretty hard and was going to be a first-round draft pick because I had the ability to throw the ball 94, 95 miles an hour, which usually puts you in as a top-round pick. And so I really didn't have a need for it. I could get guys out with the weapons that I already had.
CONAN: As the film points out, the knuckleball is generally everybody's Plan B.
DICKEY: Yes. In fact, that's one of the things, I think, that's necessary for you to be a good knuckleballer, is that you kind of, in some ways, have to come to the end of yourself to be able to embrace something like the knuckleball. I had been a conventional pitcher for some time professionally and, you know, I had to come to terms with my own mediocrity. And that's a hard thing to do for an athlete.
And thankfully I had shown the knuckleball enough in my practice sessions and occasionally when I throw it in a game where Orel Hershiser, the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, said I think you can do this the full time, because what you're doing now as a conventional pitcher just wasn't going to cut it anymore. And so I had to take that next step and I did that in 2005.
CONAN: It's relatively unusual for - Hershiser, of course, a great pitcher himself in his day, but a conventional pitcher, and - for pitching coaches to embrace the knuckler.
DICKEY: Yeah, it's difficult because, you know, I mean, a knuckleball represents a very small fraternity of human beings in that there's probably only been 60 or 70 knuckleballers that ever have walked the face of the Earth, I mean really, without being too dramatic - without being too dramatic about it.
So there's not a lot of people who've walked a mile in your shoes, so to speak. And one of the things that makes a good coach a good coach usually is their own experience with something. In this case, rarely will you find a traditional pitching coach with the knowledge of a knuckleball. You almost have to turn to each other. For me, it was Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefiled, some of the men that are featured in the documentary that's out. So, you know, it's tough. It can be tough. You have be your own best coach.
CONAN: And you have to be, as you said, willing to change your thinking again, not just from going - throwing hard - you're, in fact, throwing your knuckleball pretty hard, at least as far as these things go - but to throwing something that is completely unusual and outside the thinking you've done your whole life.
DICKEY: Yeah. It is a countercultural pitch. It really is. I mean, in an age where people embrace - you know, people that are fast and jump high and people that throw the ball hard, I mean, you're talking about trying to do the opposite. You're trying to talk about, you know, doing something that's erratic and slow. And how can you get big league hitters out with that particular pitch?
Now, it helps to have - for me, it has helped to have people who have really poured into me. I could not have done this myself. I am not a self-made man by any stretch of imagination. I had to really lean on the people who've come before me, and those men really helped me.
CONAN: And in a game that celebrates, in many ways, youth, this is a pitch that most people don't really master until their mid-30s, ancient by baseball standards.
DICKEY: Yeah. And I would be careful to use the word master. It's such a - I don't know if you ever master the pitch. Charlie Hough told me the first day I ever met him when I was learning the pitch, he said, it took me one day to learn how to throw a knuckleball, and took me a lifetime to learn how to threw it for strikes.
CONAN: Yeah. Throw it over the plate.
DICKEY: And so - yeah, exactly. I mean, it's hard to catch. It's hard to hit. It's hard to throw. And so that's why you don't see more guys doing it. It's a very difficult thing to do. I think a lot of people think it's an easy thing, because they see a ball coming up at 75 or 65 miles an hour and they think, oh, I can throw that hard. Well, to be able to take spin off of a baseball is very difficult.
CONAN: And the spin has to be off if you want the pitch to be moved around unpredictably by wind currents.
DICKEY: Yeah. Wind currents, I would say, and also, you know, it takes a great deal of hand-eye coordination to be able to be comfortable with the feel of a good knuckleball. And what I mean by that is when I released the ball from the rubber or the mound, by the time it gets to the home plate and the catcher's mitt, I want it to have rotated about a quarter of a revolution.
And so to be able to feel a quarter of a revolution come out, it takes a lot of repetition. And hopefully over the course of many, many years, you're able to build that repetition in where it becomes muscle memory and you don't have to think about it. It can become just an organic experience, if you will. And for me, that's what it took. It took about four years for me to really get comfortable in my own skin.
CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who've thrown the knuckleball, or tried. Who taught you? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And Richard's on the line with us from Fairfield Beach in Ohio.
CONAN: Hi, Richard. You're on the air.
RICHARD: Oh, wonderful. Yeah. When I was a young kid, Chuck O'Neal taught me to hit a baseball, which worked marvelously. And his idea of a knuckleball had both outside fingers extended and the inside fingers curled up in a slight outward motion at the end of the pitch, like a punch, to make us - to get the spin off the ball.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And did it worked?
RICHARD: You have to be very brave to throw that thing.
DICKEY: I would agree with that.
RICHARD: You have to be very brave, and I was always trying to throw it harder to get them out.
CONAN: That's fascinating. R.A. Dickey, in the film, at one point, you're having difficulties, and you meet with one of your gurus. He says: You have to be willing to throw it slower. And you say: It's so hard to ramp it back when I get excited.
RICHARD: Yeah, then you get excited.
DICKEY: Yeah. That's right. That's right.
RICHARD: And when you're having difficulty with exactly where you're placing the pitch.
CONAN: Control, yeah.
RICHARD: I can always throw, like, right on target four out of five times. And the fifth pitch, I hadn't the slightest idea where it was going.
CONAN: Well, Richard, thanks very much.
CONAN: And, R.A. Dickey, the - some of the fascinating parts of the film are watching you and your compatriots sitting around, talking. And this, as you mentioned, is a fraternity. And there's a great moment toward the end of the movie where Tim Wakefield is seen speaking at his retirement ceremony at Fenway Park.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "KNUCKLEBALL")
WAKEFIELD: Thank you to the Red Sox for giving me the greatest time of my life. Phil and Joe Niekro, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, thank you very much for welcoming me into your fraternity. R.A. Dickey, it's your turn to carry the torch for a while. Thank you, guys.
CONAN: And your turn to carry the torch. I think you're the only active knuckleball pitcher in the Major Leagues.
DICKEY: Yeah. You know, last year was Tim's retirement year, and so after he left the game, it left only me. And it was a sweet moment to see that in the film when I watched it myself, because he and I have become friends. And you certainly have an instant bond there when you're trying to do this for a living and you come across other men who have done it for a living. It's a real special relationship, and I'm certainly thankful for it.
CONAN: Let's go next to Doug, and Doug's on the line with us from Sioux Falls in South Dakota.
CONAN: Hi, Doug. Go ahead.
DOUG: I was about 10 years old, I met Wilbur Wood at a baseball card signing. He played for the White Sox, and he showed me how to grip a knuckler. And I didn't really use it until I was in my late 30s, and I started playing amateur baseball. And I lost my fastball and I had a little bit of slider, but I went back to knuckler. And it took a couple years to get so I could throw it so it looked like a butterfly. But I played until I was 48. And the looks on some people's face as I threw that, and a forkball, both, were just priceless. You know, the guys would swing and miss. They had no idea what it was. They'd never seen one before, these younger players.
CONAN: Sure, and in an amateur league, as well. Great satisfaction, you say, in fooling Major League hitters.
DICKEY: Yeah. You know, some of my favorite memories are memories of throwing a pitch in a game to a big-league hitter and having him swing and miss and the ball actually hit him, which is - it's fun to see the reaction on their faces. So I can certainly, you know, relate to that story, that anecdote. I think, you know, that's why - I would say some - for some of us, that's a real rewarding feature of throwing a knuckleball, is that there's something very chaotic to it.
And if I don't where it's going a lot of the time, there's really a good chance the hitter doesn't know where it's going. So if you throw a good one, you know it, and it comes out of your hands just right, perfectly. I don't know if anybody on Earth can hit it.
CONAN: And a forkball, for those not initiated, is a way to throw a changeup that also sinks. So, Doug, thanks very much for the phone call.
DOUG: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets, one of the candidates for this year's Cy Young Award in the National League, currently leads the league in earned run average. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And in your book, you make the argument that learning to throw the knuckleball required learning to come to terms with yourself emotionally, as well.
DICKEY: Absolutely. It was no coincidence in my own life that, you know, they paralleled one. My growth as a knuckleballer and my growth as a human being kind of paralleled one another. And what I mean by that is when I really started to embrace who I was and what made me unique in my own personality and not be ashamed of that, it really allowed me to step deeper into my craft as a knuckleballer.
And I was thankful for people that had taught me to be self-aware enough to know that there a lot of things in my life that I could get better at. And, you know, that really helps me perform in my career, as well. And so, yeah, I would say for sure that those things coincided.
CONAN: And that through struggles of a 35-year-old man, at one point, sent back down to the Minor Leagues, where most of those kids are in their mid-to-low 20s.
DICKEY: Yeah. You know, I was married and had three kids at the time and was living upstairs in an above-garage apartment, making, you know, $1,400 a month, or whatever it was, just for the months that you're playing. It's hard to live that life and feel like you're being a responsible husband and parent. Thankfully, I had - I have an incredible mate who would not allow me to have a regret. And so she followed me all over this good country.
CONAN: Let's go next to Nate, and Nate on the line with us from San Antonio.
NATE: Yeah. How are you doing?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
NATE: Good. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
NATE: I (technical difficulties) about my grandpa, he played Minor League baseball till he was mid-30s or so. And anyway, when I came along and my dad and he would take me out to the sandlot and he tried to teach me to hit a knuckleball. He was pretty good at throwing one. And I probably spent five or six years growing up constantly going out, never could hit a knuckleball.
CONAN: It's a difficult thing to do. I can't hit anything, much less a knuckleball. But it's a difficult - the parts of the film that are satisfying, R.A. Dickey, as you mentioned, was watching all those batters strike out. But we also see Darryl Strawberry hit a ball, oh, about a million miles off a knuckle.
NATE: Yes, sir.
CONAN: It's interesting. Nate, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
NATE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And if you're the last one in the Major Leagues, R.A. Dickey, is it your chance to be - your turn also not to just carry the torch, but to become the evangelist for the knuckleball, to proselytize the art?
DICKEY: Oh, that's a good metaphor. You know, I think I feel a little responsibility to share what I do with people who want to learn it, that's for sure, because that's what was - that was what was done for me, you know, that kind of pay it forward-type mentality. I think for us, as knuckleballers, at some point, we've all have somebody inject themselves into our life from a career standpoint that really helped us get to the next place.
Fortunately for me, I had, you know, a hall of famer and a couple of guys that had won 200 games really pour into me. And so they knew what they were talking about, and I was just like a sponge when I was around them. And they really helped me take the next steps. I'm telling you, if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be talking to you now.
CONAN: Because at one point, you completely changed your grip.
DICKEY: Yeah. You know, I mean, the first thing that Charlie Hough did when I met him was change my grip. And, of course, the knuckleball - one common misconception is that the knuckleball is thrown with the knuckles. I mean, they call it a knuckleball because you see the knuckles sticking straight up in the air when your grip is coming forward to the hitter. But at the same time, it's your fingernails that are dug into the surface area of the leather of the baseball that enable you to stabilize it in a way where you can release it without spin.
And so he helped me change my grip on the baseball. So I went from gripping it in one place, to behind the horseshoe of the baseball. There's a side of the baseball that looks like a horseshoe. So I take my fingernails and I grip them in right behind that seam.
CONAN: Well, R.A. Dickey, thank you so much for joining us today. Again, the film is called "Knuckleball," and R.A. Dickey currently has 18 victories on the season and three starts left. Good luck to you.
DICKEY: All right. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets joined us from the WFAN broadcast booth at Citi Field in New York. The Mets host the Phillies there tonight. The documentary "Knuckleball" premiers tomorrow in New York City. It's also available now iTunes and video on demand. Tomorrow, how people of different faith view atonement, repentance, confession and forgiveness. It's the TALK FO THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.