Courtesy of Richard Johnson, we have a new history of knuckleballer exploits this year in The Knuckleball Club: The Extraordinary Men Who Mastered Baseball’s Most Difficult Pitch. It starts about midway in that long history with the story of a beleaguered player who turned his career around by using the pitch.
It was in 1968 that Jim Bouton, whose throwing arm wasn’t what it used to be, turned (or returned) to the knuckleball to lengthen his career. Johnson writes:
Bouton had nothing left. His arm was throbbing. It felt like the end of the line. But as Bouton stood there wondering how he could get Robinson out, end the inning, and stop the pain, he thought about the knuckleball. He had taught himself how to thrown one as a boy and had been partial to the pitch ever since making a ball quiver in the air for the first time in a game of backyard catch, plunking his brother square on the kneecap. So as the Oriole’s star slugger stepped into the batter’s box, Bouton made what amount to a life-changing decision on the spot. He knew what to do, and so, as he wrote, “With my arm hurting like hell, I threw four knuckleballs to Frank Robinson and struck him out.”
That’s the sentence. That’s the one that bowled me over the first time I read it, as a kid….
Bouton had never thrown a knuckleball in the major leagues, but in his hour of need, in his state of desperation, against a great hitter, he decided he would throw one—and keep throwing them until Robinson either hit a home run or struck out. There was nothing else to do. No middle ground.
The book reports at least a few new knuckleball metaphors (new to us). For example, the columnist Jim Murray suggested that when Hoyt Wilhelm was pitching, “The ball [came] to the plate like a kid on the way to a bath.” Good one.
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In other news, R.A. Dickey’s team—though likely not the knuckleball pitcher’s team for much longer—has been steadily advancing in the playoffs. In the wild-card game on October 4, the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-2, allowing the Jays to advance in the playoffs.
In Game 2, held October 7, “Blue Jays put Rangers in biggest comeback hole of season,” according to the Star-Telegram. The Jays won 5-3 this time, with four home runs, “the most Toronto has hit in one postseason game,” as noted at the Rangers’ own MLB site.
In Game 3 on October 9, the Blue Jays beat the Rangers 7-6 to win the American League Division Series 3-0. No Games 4 or 5 necessary. The Blue Jays next go up against the Cleveland Indians, this Friday, October 14, for the first game of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. The Blue Jays made it this far last year, but did not advance to the World Series.