New Year’s Resolution: Try the Knuckleball

Danny BooneJanuary 1 has passed and, thus, the traditional deadline for making New Year’s Resolutions. But as we publish, New Year’s Day 2016 is not so very long ago. (And we understand that one is allowed to resolve at any time of year.) So here is one example of a baseball pitcher who resolved to try something new—to wit, the knuckleball—in order to get back in the big leagues and whose success in doing so was modest but real.

The name is Danny Boone, born 1954 (and, yes, distantly related to the Daniel Boone who comes to mind).

Boone pitched in the MLB in the 1981, 1982, and 1990 seasons. Why the eight-year gap? After pitching 37 games for the San Diego Padres in 1981, in the next season he pitched only 10 games for them before being traded to the Houston Astros. He then played only a few games for the Astros before being sent back down to the minors. Two years later, according to Wikipedia, he “dropped off the radar of American professional baseball.” He would spend the next several years working in construction.

Then, in 1989, a new league started that gave Boone a new lease on his career: the Senior Professional Baseball Association. Boone signed on with the Bradenton Explorers, where he showed off a new pitch in his arsenal: the knuckleball. He pitched well enough for them (4-3, 3.16 ERA) to get a contract offer from the Orioles, and in September 1990 he was back in the majors. He pitched in four games, including his first-ever major league start against the Cleveland Indians on September 30, in which he did not receive a decision.

Boone’s comeback drew some attention, and he even was accorded “Rookie Prospect” status in the 1991 Score baseball card set at the age of 36.

According to Thomas Boswell’s March 31, 1990 article about Boone in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, he had known something about the knuckleball early in his career, but not fully committed himself to the pitch as he later would.

Oh, sure, he once struck out Johnny Bench with a knuckler, out of desperation because Bench was hitting 900-foot fouls on all his other pitches. “Nice work last night, kid,” Bench told him in the outfield the next day. And that was the highlight of Boone’s 2-1 career.

By 1984, Boone had been released by everybody who can cut you. Next, he pitched for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots. By 1986, he was back home in Southern California, working construction, hanging dry wall—and paying to play ball.

“I pitched in the Adult Diamond Amateur Baseball Association—$35 entry fee and chip in $5-a-game to pay the umps,” says Boone….

When the Senior League opened, Boone had to be there. Not to get back to the major leagues, but just to prove that, if he’d never struck out Al Oliver and Bill Madlock when he was young, he’d stay on their trail until he did.

And strike them out he did. In Boone’s minor-league days with Houston in ’83 and ’84, Phil Niekro had taught him a new knuckleball grip and Joe Niekro had spent time playing catch and discussing the freak pitch. That’s getting your Ph.D. in flutterball….

Last winter [i.e., in 1989], Boone unveiled the remnants of his old stuff, plus a splitter and, above all, The New and Improved Knuckleball. “Deep down inside, every athlete wishes he could play until he’s 100,” says Boone. What amazed him was that his wife indulged him in his quixotic passion. “She realizes that now is the time.”

Boone is discussed in Lew Freedman’s Knuckleball: The History of the Unhittable Pitch, in a chapter devoted to “Knuckleball Hopefuls and the Knuckleball World.”

The frequency with which the slender Boone reared back and floated the knuckleball to the plate, only to have husky hitters whiff at the air, could not be counted. Sometimes the misses were so egregious that they produced laughter….

Phil and Joe Niekro helped Wakefield with his knuckleball when he was at a low point in his career. Hough helped Dickey when he was at a low point in his….

[The knuckleballers] do not pretend that anyone who starts out fresh with the knuckler now will have an easy road. They, as well as anyone else, recognize that the path a knuckleball takes a player on is filled with potholes and offers no guarantees. Throwing the knuckler only offers the promise that a player who has lost hope can regain it. The work will be demanding and the rewards may be great, but they may also be elusive.

Although Danny Boone wasn’t able to sustain his revived career, that he was able to get back in the big leagues at all was thanks to the knuckleball.

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