Braves Decline Option on Knuckleballer Dickey, Soon to Decide Whether to Retire

Dickey pitching for the BravesOn Monday, the Atlanta Braves announced that they were declining their $8 million option on 42-year-old knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey.

According to the Associated Press, “Dickey was the Braves’ most consistent starter this season, going 10-10 with a 4.26 ERA in 31 starts. He said at the end of the season he will meet with his family before deciding whether he wants to pitch in 2018. He gets a $500,000 buyout and becomes eligible for free agency.”

A few days earlier, the knuckleball pitcher had told The Tennessean that he’d decide whether to hang up his hat by November 14.

If whether the Braves would keep Dickey for another season depended primarily on whether he would still be in the game in 2018, it may be that he has already decided that he will retire—or, at least, that he was unable to give the Braves a definite Yes by the time they wanted to firm up their plans about next year.

Last year, after having been released by the Toronto Blue Jays, Dickey was happy to accept the sales pitch to play in Atlanta. For one thing, he’d grown up as a Braves fan. For another thing, Atlanta was close to his home in Nashville (“three hours, 15 minutes from doorstep to doorstep”). He was also reportedly “won over by an Atlanta Braves sales team that included two Hall of Famers, including a fellow knuckleballer [Phil Niekro].”

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Every once in a while we see a story about the almost-imminent demise of the knuckleball in the MLB. Dickey’s mulling about whether he should leave baseball has occasioned at least one more such premature obituary (“The knuckleball is dying out of baseball”).

“The only other knuckleballer in the majors this season,” writes AP’s Paul Newberry, “was Boston’s Steven Wright, but a knee injury sidelined him after just five April starts.”

But how do we get from a possible retirement and a sports injury from which it is possible to recuperate to the conclusion that the knuckleball “could soon be extinct in the big leagues”? Extinction is a very terminal sort of condition. The dodo bird is not coming back.

Newberry notes that for the last 117 years or so, anyway, we’ve always had at least one knuckler in the MLB:

As far back as the turn of the last century, essentially the start of baseball’s modern era, there’s always been at least one knuckleballer toiling in the big leagues each season. Heck, the Washington Senators had four of ‘em in 1945, surely causing all kinds of headaches for their poor ol’ catchers.

The peak came in 1970, when there were seven—Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil’s little brother Joe Niekro, then-rookie Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Jim Bouton and Eddie Fisher. They combined for 47 wins and 44 saves that year….

Unlike those who can whip it up to the plate at 100 mph, they had to prove themselves over and over again. There were always skeptics who viewed them as nothing more than fluky major leaguers, even those who hung around as long as the Niekros (Joe pitched until he was 43) or Wilhelm (who was 16 days shy of his 50th birthday when he threw his last pitch) or Hough (a 25-year career in the big leagues that lasted until he was 46)….

“It takes a unique and special athlete to become a knuckleball pitcher,” said Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black, a former big league pitcher. “There are a lot of hard knocks along the way. I just hope there are certain players out there who are willing to go through that. I think it’s rare that it’s taught in high school or college. It’s up to the pitcher to make that transition, and it takes a lot of work.”

Let’s hope there’s some young kid out there willing to put in the time.

Some young kids (and older kids), plural, are indeed putting in the time to learn the knuckleball right now in the minor leagues, Little League and elsewhere, and in Chris Nowlin’s knuckleball training program.

As long as there are folks around who know how to throw the knuckleball and are willing to communicate their know-how to up-and-coming knucklers, and as long as there are baseball organizations open to the pitch, there will be knuckleball pitchers and they will have an avenue to the MLB. The knuckleball won’t become “extinct.” The time for despair is not yet.

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