Late-blooming Knuckleballers, Part Two

Last time, we discussed a few of the great knuckleballers who came to the pitch after having started out as a different kind of pitcher or perhaps (like Wakefield) without having pitched pro at all.

We brought the story right up to the edge of modern times (let’s arbitrarily define modern times as beginning in 2011 with Wakefield’s retirement). But we had not yet discussed either Toronto Blue Jay R.A. Dickey, currently the only full-time knuckleballer in the MLB, or some of the minor league players who are today working on the pitch.

Dickey Cocked Throwing Position

Like every successful knuckleballer, Dickey illustrates the fact that the only way to master the knuckleball is to never stop mastering it. Circumstances change. Your home team changes. Batters change. The ground changes. Air currents change. You change. What can’t change is your focus on the pitch, which is why he carries a baseball around with him wherever he goes.

Dickey’s knuckleball career, which overlaps Wakefield’s—hence the 2012 documentary “Knuckleball!,” following both men through the 2011 season—began several years after he almost but not quite got signed up with the Texas Rangers right out of college as a first-round pick. Before things got finalized, a physical showed that he was missing a ligament in his right elbow, and the Rangers changed their plans for Dickey. “They thought they had drafted damaged goods, and I went back to Nashville, Tenn., thinking that I may never throw for a professional team ever again.” The situation wasn’t that bad; the Rangers did want Dickey, but they massively reduced their initial offer.

For the next several years Dickey around various minor-league times. The Rangers called him up a couple times (in 2001 and 2004), but he was, he told NPR, “very mediocre” by his own reckoning.

I could never get to the next place that I wanted to get to. I felt like I was capable of so much more but the guys in the big leagues were just so good. And so I had to come up with something else if I wanted to hang onto the dream of being a major league pitcher. And that’s in 2005, when I made the transition to being a full-time knuckleball pitcher.

Dickey had to almost drown in the water (the Missouri River, which he had the idea of swimming across in 2006) before he stopped almost-drowning in his baseball career. One lesson he drew from the experience was the importance of focusing on the moment.

I look at it as almost a baptism of sorts I went into the Missouri River, I was hanging on by a thread professionally…. And when I came out of the river, I ended up going 11-2 with a 2.80 ERA and became the Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year. I think when I came out of the river, I was so consumed with just wanting to live in the present well—wanting to enjoy every second—that I think that carried over directly into my pitching, and I just cared about each pitch singularly [emphasis added]…. And I decided that that’s how I wanted to live my life.

Dickey went on to become, in 2012, the first knuckleball pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. Thus his biggest year, observes Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, “came at the age of 37, a point when many big league pitchers have already packed it in.”

NEXT: Steven Wright, Eddie Gamboa, Kevin Pucetas, Dan Johnson, Frank Viola III, Tomo Ohka, Blaine Sims.

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