Hitting Knuckleball Not Enough, Sandoval Swipe Confirms; Plus: Dickey’s Early Knuckleball Tutorials

“Pablo Sandoval Swings at Knuckleball Above His Head, Makes Contact” is a story about giving in to temptation in a way that doesn’t pay:

It’s not very difficult to tempt Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval to swing at a high pitch. And when you’re a knuckleball pitcher, it’s even easier.

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey threw a high floating knuckleball to Sandoval during the second inning of Monday’s game, and Panda just couldn’t resist.

“Sandoval grounds out to shortstop,” is what the announcer says. M.MLB.com has the video.

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Knuckleball openingWe came across an interesting Wall Street Journal article about R.A. Dickey’s conversion to full-time knuckleballer, published before our time—in 2010, also before the 2011 season that is the subject of the documentary “Knuckleball!” and Dickey’s Cy Young Award−winning 2012 season performance.

The subject is the help Dickey got in mastering the pitch. Did we say “mastering”? According to WSJ’s Mike Sielski:

No one ever really masters a knuckleball, but Phil Niekro came as close as anyone: 318 victories, induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the nickname “Knucksie.” So in 2008, when R.A. Dickey was a member of the Seattle Mariners and was three years into his own self-taught tutorial on the capricious pitch, he called Mr. Niekro and sought his counsel….

Since Mr. Dickey was already using the pitch in the major leagues, Mr. Niekro agreed to meet with him. Mr. Niekro was accustomed to getting such requests by mail, but “you can’t write back and tell someone how to throw a knuckleball,” he said.

The two rendezvoused at a batting-and-pitching complex near Mr. Niekro’s Atlanta home—Mr. Dickey drove down from his home in Tennessee—and their meeting proved an important step in Mr. Dickey’s rise into the folk hero he’s become for the Mets this season….

To maintain control of his knuckleball—with his index and middle fingers and his thumb, he grips the ball along its horseshoe stitching—Mr. Dickey had to do away with his natural motion and learn a new way not just to hold a baseball, but to throw it.

In his days as a fastball-first pitcher, Mr. Dickey rotated his upper body and hips to generate torque and power as he released the ball. As a knuckleballer, he opens his shoulders toward home plate, as if he were throwing a dart at a corkboard.

“It’s a whole different mentality, throwing that pitch,” Mr. Dickey said.

Also mentioned is the help Dickey has gotten from Charlie Hough and from Tim Wakefield.

Niekro told Sielski that batters called him a “chicken” for relying on a pitch “whose effectiveness sometimes depended, quite literally, on which way the wind blew.” The pitcher shrugged off such aspersions. “You really can’t care what people think about you.”

At the Boston premiere of “Knuckleball!” in 2012 (shown above), attended by Niekro, Wakefield, Hough and Wilbur Wood (video and story at Boston.com), Wakefield said:

“It was a struggle from Day 1 when we all started learning the knuckleball…. Dealing with adversity with the pitch, dealing with nobody wanting you, feeling like you’re on a desert island by yourself…and I think one of the life lessons that I learned a long time ago from Phil [Niekro] was learn to accept your losses without being defeated. I think we could all use that adage in our life, because we all go through hard times in life and you can learn to accept those hard times and keep moving forward, never look behind you.”

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