Up Close With R.A. Dickey and His Knuckleball

Jon HanfordContributor IMay 21, 2008

Baseball has a rich history of weird pitches. Most are illegal, like the spitball, to which saliva or some kind of lubricant is applied before throwing, and the scuffball, where the ball is doctored with abrasive material. Those pitches are designed to alter wind resistance and the evenness of the ball, causing it to move in an unpredictable motion.

However, there is another pitch that relies on wind resistance for movement that is legal.

It is the knuckleball, a pitch invented in the early twentieth century. The knuckleball is an unusual pitch. It sort of floats or dances slowly across the plate. The ball is gripped with the fingertips on a seam and a thumb for support and released by pushing off with them so it spins as little as possible.

Knuckleballers have been fairly uncommon throughout the pitch's existence, and now there are only four in professional baseball: Tim Wakefield and Charlie Zink of the Boston Red Sox, Charlie Haeger of the Chicago White Sox, and R.A. Dickey of the Seattle Mariners.

"You're dealing in an era, now, where faster is better, stronger is better…that’s what teams want," said Dickey, whom the Mariners called up from Triple-A Tacoma May 22. "It takes a certain regime to give [the knuckleball] a chance."

One reason that teams have not given knuckleballs a chance is that catchers have a tough time catching the pitch due to its unpredictable movement. Many of Dickey’s knuckleballs went to the backstop while Dickey warmed up with Rainiers catcher Rob Johnson in between innings during one of Dickey’s starts. Johnson had never caught a knuckleballer before.

"I’m still learning how to catch him," Johnson said. "You know, some days [his knuckleball] is working really well and then that's really hard to catch. But when it's not working too well, it's easier, because he'll go to the normal fastball, changeup and curveball, but then he won’t be as effective."

"Catchers take pride in their defense and not having passed balls," Dickey said. "It doesn't matter if you're [pitching to] the best catcher in the world, it's going to be really hard to catch."

Former catcher Geno Petralli once said that "knuckleballs suck" after allowing four passed balls while catching a knuckleballer.

The Mariners acquired Dickey this past offseason via the Rule 5 draft from the Minnesota Twins, envisioning him as a contender for a spot in their Major League rotation. Dickey did not make the rotation out of spring training, but the Mariners liked him enough to trade Minnesota catcher Jair Fernandez to retain his rights.

While starting in Triple-A, he has maintained an impressive earned-run average (3.44) despite bad run support that has led to a 2-5 record.

Dickey, 33, started his career with the Texas Rangers in 1996 as a conventional pitcher. But, in 2004, Dickey suffered a back injury, which affected the velocity on his pitches in 2005.

"I'd always thrown [a knuckleball] occasionally when I pitched conventionally, maybe three or four times a game," Dickey said. "I made the jump to throw it 85 times a game in mid-2005. (Former Cy Young winner) Orel Hershiser was my pitching coach at the time, and he suggested that may be a way I could prolong my career."

Knuckleballers have been known to be some of the most durable pitchers in baseball. Many, if not most, of them pitch into their forties, some almost to their fifties. Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro pitched until he was 48 and Charlie Hough, a successful knuckleballer, pitched until he was 46.

"That should give me about thirteen more years if a team will take me and give me an opportunity," Dickey said seriously.

So take the trip to Tacoma to see one of the rarities of today's game. Watch R.A. Dickey pitch so that you can see what the knuckleball is really like instead of just reading about it.