In his memoir Wherever I Wind Up, famed knuckleballer R.A. Dickey relates some of the lessons he learned from another famed knuckleballer, Charlie Hough, the man who “pitched twenty-five seasons in the big leagues and won 162 games after the age of thirty-four…. Meeting Charlie Hough, for me, is akin to meeting Cy Young himself.” The two spent some time training together after Dickey decided to make the knuckleball his primary pitch.
Any way to speed up the learning curve?
Throw the knuckleball and keep on throwing it. “You throw it every day. You find guys to catch you. You throw it against outfield walls. You throw it against alley walls. You keep at it. It takes time and it takes patience to get the feel for it and to master it, and even after you think you have it, you better have a real thick skin if you are going to be a knuckleball pitcher.”
Why you need a thick skin as a knuckleball pitcher.
Pitching a knuckleball will never be routine. There will be games “when you throw five wild pitches or give up four home runs─games when you just don’t have it. Every pitcher is going to have games when he doesn’t have it, even Hall of Fame pitchers. The difference is that when you have an ugly game as a knuckleball pitcher, it’s really ugly…. You have to keep faith in yourself and your pitch, even if everybody else loses faith.”
How to hold the baseball.
When Hough first inspects his student’s grip, Dickey is “hold[ing] the ball up with the fingernails of my index and middle fingers biting into the runway, the part of the ball where the seams come closest together. He suggests I move my nails to just underneath the horseshoe, a small change but actually a completely different grip.” The new configuration feels weird, but Dickey sticks with it, with good results. The old grip is gone for good.
How to frame the windup.
“After watching my delivery, with an overhead windup and arms and legs extending in various directions, Charlie stops me and tells me to imagine a doorway. Imagine throwing the pitch in such a way that all of your movements, and your limbs, are confined to that opening.” If you want to reduce spin─the knuckleball’s arch enemy─you want “fewer moving pieces,” and you want “all those pieces moving forward toward the plate.” No limbs flying all over. Stay inside the doorframe.
When to stop working on your grip.
When Dickey drives, it’s with one hand on the wheel and the other gripping the knuckleball. “When I drive our daughter Gabriel to nursery school, the ball is in my right hand. When I run out to get diapers or got the bank, the ball is in my right hand. It’s another of Charlie’s suggestions. There’s no substitute for having the ball in your hand…. You never stop working on your grip.”
The prospects for success.
“Do you think I can do this?” Dickey asks the more seasoned knuckleballer. “He squints at me and gives me a tight little smile. I think you have a chance, he says.”