Wright on Road to Recovery; Is “Knuckleball” the Right Word?

On June 26, knuckleballer Steven Wright was returned to the disabled list because of his knee (subjected to surgery last year). But he has been upbeat about the problem. “I mean, it’s frustrating because you want to go out there and compete,” ESPN quoted him.

“But when I had the surgery, they kind of told me this was going to happen—you’re going to have really good weeks, you’re going to have really bad weeks and it’s going to come to a point where you’re not going to have to worry about it.”

In early July Wright suggested that dealing with the aftermath of the injury would be a matter of “trial and error for the next year or so” and that he was happy with how his pitching was going. He has also been able to keep in practice, as Bill Koch reported for the Patriot Ledger last week.

“Everything points to him being fine,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “Yesterday he threw a short bullpen in New York, so things are trending in the right direction.”

Wright (left knee inflammation) was placed on the disabled list last Tuesday, but he’s been able to continue his throwing program by playing catch before several games in the interim. Sunday marked the first time Wright was back on the mound, and Cora left the door open for his activation before the All-Star break in two weeks.

“Yesterday was a big step for him to get on the mound, and what they did today,” Cora said. “I’m not saying it’s 100 percent, but there might be a chance.”

Later reports have indicated that Wright’s return before the July 17 All-Star Game is not likely. With a strong pitching team to rely on, the Sox are being careful not to bring Wright back to the mound prematurely.

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Speaking of knuckleball… in the caption of a photograph accompanying her column, Deb Amien of The New York Times calls the word “knuckleball” a “misnomer”: “Pitcher Phil Niekro and his ‘knuckler,’ in a photo from 1979. The term knuckleball is actually a misnomer, because the pitcher grips the ball not with his knuckles but with the tips of two fingers.”

But the word “misnomer” here is itself a misnomer. Misnomer means “wrong name.” According to the American Heritage dictionary, a misnomer is “a name wrongly or unsuitably applied to a person or object.” How do we know whether the word we’re using is right and suitable with respect to its purpose, which is to clearly convey what we are referring to? That depends on the usage of a word as we have inherited it (or as we have created it, if we can make our neologism stick). To use a word rightly does not mean that our current usage of a word must exactly match how the word was used originally.  Indeed, the meanings of many words have undergone quite a dramatic transformation over the decades and centuries.

American Heritage defines “knuckleball” as “a slow pitch that has almost no spin and veers erratically, thrown by gripping the ball with the nails or knuckles near the tips of the index and middle fingers, and often the third finger.”

This definition of “knuckleball”—conscientious enough to mention both the nail grip and the literal but no longer used knuckle grip—can be quibbled over; but it conveys the essence unequivocally enough. If you throw the baseball a certain way with the consequence of dramatically reducing spin and inducing wobble, it’s a knuckleball. Otherwise, it ain’t. Thus, “knuckleball” is just the right word to specify Niekro’s knuckleball-like pitch.

So we don’t have to talk about “neo-knuckleballs,” “post-knuckleballs,” “fingernailballs,” or any other inexpedient alternative. We can just keep on referring non-misnomeringly to good old “knuckleballs.”

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