Knuckleball Pitcher R.A. Dickey Pursues a Braves Course; PLUS: Will Ohka Make His Way Back to the Big Leagues?

BravesNo, despite a Blue Jay manager’s tantalizing and maybe even a tad patronizing public suggestion that their knuckleballer might not be left off of the team’s 2017 roster after all (“We’re open to R.A. Dickey, even”), Dickey is not returning to the Toronto Blue Jays. And no, despite his own retrospective musing about the ups and downs of his career, he’s not leaving the game just yet either.

As the New York Times puts it, “R.A. Dickey Isn’t Done; Signs One-Year Deal With Atlanta Braves.” David Wallstein reports:

R.A. Dickey, the 42-year-old knuckleball pitcher, signed a one-year free-agent deal to pitch for the Atlanta Braves, a team with a rich history of knuckleballers.

Phil Niekro pitched with the Braves for 21 seasons, and his brother Joe spent two years there, 1973 and 1974. Hoyt Wilhelm also spent parts of three seasons with the Braves, in 1969, 1970 and 1971.

Dickey spent the last four seasons with the Blue Jays and contemplated retirement this year when he was not included on Toronto’s postseason roster. But after he became a free agent, he decided to sign a one-year deal with an option for another to pitch for a team that is about 250 miles from his home in Nashville.

Wakefileld Dickey NiekroIt seems that another famed knuckleball pitcher, Phil Niekro, was involved in bringing Dickey to the Braves. According to an Associated Press story posted at ESPN.com:

R.A. Dickey was won over by an Atlanta Braves sales team that included two Hall of Famers, including a fellow knuckleballer.

Dickey said he knew the Braves would be a good fit after meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, with a group that included manager Brian Snitker, general manager John Coppolella and two Hall of Famers—former manager Bobby Cox and knuckleballer Phil Niekro.

“I had a great feeling then; there was great hope I would be able to join the organization,” Dickey said Thursday after agreeing to a one-year contract with an $8 million guarantee.

He considers Niekro to be part of the “Jedi council of knuckleballers” who influenced his career.

“Phil and I have a good relationship,” Dickey said. “I consider him a friend. We filmed a documentary together.”

He gets a $7.5 million salary next year, and the Braves have an $8 million option for 2018 with a $500,000 buyout. The deal for the 42-year-old right-hander, the first of the 158 free agents to switch teams this offseason, is subject to a successful physical, tentatively planned for late next week.

We’re going to assume that R.A. Dickey’s missing ulnar collateral ligament—the deficit discovered during a physical exam that killed Dickey’s original MLB deal in 1996, right after college—has already been factored into the physical-fitness equation.

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Tomo Ohka Ready to ThrowAlthough there are usually several guys in the minors working on a knuckleball who could one day make the jump to the big leagues, R.A. Dickey and Steven Wright are currently the only two full-time knuckleballers in the MLB. Could former MLB man Tomo Ohka be gracing that select group one day soon? Bobby Mueller wonders over at CallToThePen.com:

Former MLB pitcher Tomo Ohka is hoping to make a return to the big leagues as a knuckleball pitcher. He threw in front of scouts from the Orioles, Royals, Rays, and Diamondbacks on November 2. Ohka has been working on his knuckleball since being released by the Yokohama Bay Stars after the 2011 season….

After his MLB career ended with the 2009 Cleveland Indians, Ohka returned to the Bay Stars in 2010 and 2011. He then started working on his knuckleball and did not pitch professionally for two seasons. Ohka was in Japan at this time and, according to the Japanese Canadian Community Bulletin, he was the first Japanese pitcher to throw a knuckleball. He looked for someone in Japan to teach him, but couldn’t find anyone so he took his research to the internet for instructional videos. He bought a net and threw hundreds of knuckleballs a day to refine his skills.

One of the early problems Ohka had was trying to throw the knuckleball with too much emphasis on his fingernails. He became more successful with the pitch when he developed a better feel with his fingertips. Like most knuckleball pitchers, a nail file became a necessity.

The Toronto Blue Jays brought him into camp during Spring Training in 2014 so he could work with knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey and provide another knuckleball pitcher to work with the Blue Jays’ catchers. He didn’t make the team and ended up signing with the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Independent Atlantic League.

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Answered at the Q&A site Quora.com: “Would a female knuckleballer have the best chance at becoming an MLB player?”

Respondent Doug Manning says that “being a knuckleball pitcher would probably provide a woman her best shot at playing competitively at the Major League level, since she wouldn’t be required to have the brute strength of a typical player.” But then Manning throws cold water on the prospect, suggesting that given the average lower stamina of female baseball players and prevailing prejudice against the knuckleball, a female knuckleballer in the MLB is extremely unlikely.

Chelsea Baker with her knuckleballFemale MLB players are a longer shot to begin with, obviously. But we know of at least a few teams who have proved hospitable to knuckleballers (Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays, the Atlanta Braves, for four). We’ve also seen plenty of female athletes demonstrate stamina. In the tennis world, didn’t Billie Jean King do okay against Bobby Riggs?

What about Chelsea Baker, the knuckleball pitcher who has flummoxed male batters throughout her Little League and high school career? Now in college, Baker is apparently “done with baseball as a full-time commitment,” according to Plant City Observer. But never say never.