Why People Love the Knuckleball

Since the new “Star Wars” movie is coming out, we may as well point you to our Padawan/Jedi/Wookiee post from last year’s holiday season. This year as Christmas approaches, though, we thought we’d consider what fans have had to say about why they appreciate knuckleball and knuckleballers, why it’s the pitch that keeps on giving.

Here’s what blogger Joe Posnanski wrote a few years back, on the occasion of the retirement of Tim Wakefield:

Scared baseballWhat a marvelous and odd way to make a living. Knuckleballs are not like anything else in baseball—or in sports really. It is the only thing in sports I know of that is a constant surprise not only to the opponent or the fans but to the person who is actually initiating it. When a knuckleball pitcher throws the pitch, he doesn’t know if the baseball is going to dive down, slide one way or another, take a surprising hop or…do nothing at all…

No other pitch so tantalizes the imagination. It’s easy to understand how a 99-mph fastball can get people out. It’s easy to see how a nasty slider or trap-door splitter or 12-to-6 curveball can stifle and defeat a hitter. But the knuckleball—that floating thing—it makes no sense.

I’ve always thought of the knuckleball as poetry. When it’s really good, it’s surprising and deep and almost impossibly awesome—you just can’t believe something could be so cool.

Candiotti Baseball CardHere’s Amazon Customer E.A. Gray commenting on Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs by K.P. Wee:

Candiotti is a true talent; any true baseball lover knows that, but the statistics are just fantastic to read. Also, who knew that after hurting his arm Candiotti actually sought and achieved a real estate license as a back-up? Seriously?…

It was a pleasure reading about this guy’s triumph through hardship and his will to keep going despite it. I just sit and think what it would be like to be presented with the surgery he had. How did he feel knowing that it could take him from pro ball for life or give him a 1 in 100 chance of rejoining the ranks? Those are horrible odds and yet he was one of only two people that beat them and returned to pro ball. I loved reading about that part. The man is true warrior.

Another Amazon customer is conflicted:

I remember watching him pitch with Cleveland against the Orioles. I hate the Indians. And he is one reason. His knuckleball stymied my favorite players. These days I marvel at knuckleballers. They are a rare breed, and they are fun to watch when their pitch is working. Just like when Candiotti had his pitch working…. Still hate him, but I now have a larger respect for how hard he worked to learn that pitch, the kind of person he is, the life he had…..

I expected to find the information I could use to continue to demonize Candiotti, but I could not. This book is well-written. It really gives a great look into his life, how he had to learn the famous knuckleball because of surgery, how he was not a big league prospect to start…. The author does a nice job giving you a picture of Candiotti as a pitcher, person, and his place in major league baseball history.

Dickey pitching hardIn a 2012 article for SBNation, “Will R.A. Dickey’s Angry Knuckleball Change the Game?,” Rob Neyer compares Dickey’s fastest-ever knuckleball to those of other great knuckleballers, some of them still around to comment on the difference. It is still an article very much worth reading, although Dickey-then is not exactly the same as Dickey-today pitch-wise. (For one thing, Dickey has indicated a desire to temper his velocity.)

[T]here are a lot of stubborn professional athletes. Ryan Vogelsong. Jerome Williams. Jamie Moyer, for God’s sake.

If you were 29 years old and threw 85-90 miles an hour but your career seemed to be stalled in the high minors, what would you do? Keep plugging along and hope for a miracle? Hey, miracles do happen. Vogelsong.

There might be another way, though. Lots of guys have tried to reinvent themselves as knuckleballers, and very few of them have succeeded. Maybe they were doing it wrong. Maybe instead of learning to throw it 65 miles an hour like Wilbur Wood and Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield, they should have been learning to throw it like R.A. Dickey.

Except until this season, nobody knew that was even possible, let alone how well it could work. Until this season, nobody knew that a power knuckleball could be, at least for a few weeks, the single most unhittable pitch on earth.

Neyer is also the author of “My Favorite Player(s): Why I Love Knuckleball Pitchers,” published by The National Pastime Museum. “All you need to do is find a knuckleballer, then wait for something interes/ting to happen.”

R.A. Dickey is “the last of his kind,” opined then-14-year-old Niko Goutakolis in a 2013 Mets Plus post, “and it scares me. My favorite part of watching Dickey is seeing that ball dance in the strike zone. So here is my worry: With no Wakefield, how many knuckleball pitchers will be left?… I love the knuckleball, it mystifies me, and I don’t want to see it be forgotten.” We’re with you, Niko. But we’re not quite as worried about the fate of the knuckleball, or whether people will remember it. (For one thing, there’s too much video.)

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