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Soup of This Day #243: I Tell Them Everything I Know

September 2, 2012

R.A. Dickey
R.A. Dickey, pitching for Seattle, prepares to let loose another butterfly in search of a mailbox across the street – Photo: Chase Nunes, 2008. Chase Nunes is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Getting a kid to sleep is a lot like I imagine throwing a knuckleball is.

I haven’t ever tried throwing knuckleball but it looks pretty difficult and some smart baseball people have said some things about it that lead me to believe that, as far as pitching is concerned, it’s a little out there.

My 2 favourite knuckleball quotes – The 1st by Bob Uecker on the best way to catch 1:

‘Wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.’

Bob would know. In 1967, playing as a catcher for the Atlanta Braves, he led the league in passed balls. Mostly because he caught a fair whack of games for knuckleball legend Phil Niekro. That was Bob’s last season in the majors.

And then there is this cracker:

‘Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbour’s mailbox.’

That latter effort is from Willie Stargell and it pretty much sums up perfectly what it is like to get a kid to sleep when they don’t want to.

Because sleep is boring and sometimes they really do have hiccups.

And we have 2 kids. 1 is a baby, a scant few months old and the other is a 4 year old who negotiates like a terrorist.

The 2nd of those was comparatively easy yesterday though, just before I started writing this post – The Noah had been to swimming lessons and it’s part of his routine that he has a nap around noon on a Saturday post-swimming lesson. He has a good hour in the pool, thrashing and splashing himself ragged so by the time we get home just shy of midday he’s malleable. Or as malleable as a 4 year old gets anyway – You plonk him in bed and read stories to him until his eyes droop closed and his breathing settles into that slow rhythm. The whole is a 15 minute job tops – And as a bonus you get to read all about Cinderella.

That Fairy Godmother be trippin’.

Also, if all of the other clothes changed back at midnight, how come the glass slippers remained? And who wears shoes made of glass anyway? Poor footwear selection – It’s like going out onto a wet, muddy field with short stops in your boots.

So The Noah was easy and for a bonus, the little tacker was out for a regulation 2 hours – Time for some writing, showering and lunch for 2 parents.

The Angus was out too but he wasn’t as accommodating in getting there – You can’t survive on just 1 pitch to that lad – You need variation, the ball going 1 way and then the other. Sometimes you need him swinging, exhausting himself taking wild punts on stuff that he can’t get. Sometimes you want him out just looking, bamboozled into shutting his eyes.

A 100mph fastball is not what you want for this job – You’ll burn yourself out and he’ll just be calmly sniffing with derision at the effort. There are very few quick at bats in this game. Curveballs and sliders are ok but he’s seen them at the plate and is awake to that kind of routine action.

Nope, this is knuckleball stuff all the way. Get the kid looking over here while you’re patting his back over there. Throw in a dip and a hop and soon you’re working the count in your favour. Eyelids will start to slide closed and you can start to imagine chalking another ‘W’ on the nursery blackboard.

This though is a critical time. Throwing a complete game of knuckleball is not easy. You have to stay focused and keep the variations working. When you’re throwing knuckleball you’re always just a pitch away from having egg splattered over your face. A change late in the game, a pitch that is in his zone, maybe a little off-speed, will play The Angus right back into it and give him momentum. And that extra boost of adrenaline will surely guarantee extra innings and maybe even a call to the bullpen.

A bullpen that’s exhausted and looking to you to get the job done.

Especially when you neglected to load the dishwasher the night before.

I’m really sorry about that honey.

So a complete game of knuckleball is critical but man is it difficult. Just ask Mets starter R.A. Dickey.

Following the retirement pre-season of Boston Red Sox legend Tim Wakefield (My all-time favourite exemplar of the type), Dickey is the only current full-time exponent of the art of throwing knuckleball in MLB today. He got into that mode of operation by starting out as run-of-the-mill pitcher who had nothing special. Needing something to survive he developed his knuckleball, sticking at it through a difficult opening stretch to become an innings-eating asset that can survive on less rest than your regular guy off the mound.

He also gets wins.

This year, at the tender age of 37, Dickey has had a real red-letter season for the Mets. His record currently stands at 17 and 4 with an ERA of 2.63 and a WHIP of 1.014. Across 191.1 innings he has stuck out 190 bats, almost 1 per inning.

That’s a lot of times to get Willie Stargell’s hiccuping butterfly into the neighbour’s mailbox.

For a knuckleballer those are surely phenomenal numbers. For any pitcher they are Cy Young award numbers.

Saturday morning’s game (Australian Western Standard Time) against the Marlins was a classic case in point. In preference to seeing a dire Red Sox outfit play out 2-20 loss to the A’s I chose instead to watch replays of Dickey pitching to a Miami line-up that admittedly has not fired in 2012.

Over 9 complete innings The Dude (Knuckleballers are automatically The Dude as far as I’m concerned) threw for 7 strike outs, allowed 3 walks and just 5 hits.

He gave up no runs.

Yep. While the Red Sox gave up 20 (In 8 innings), I watched a knuckleballer flutter and fizz his way to giving up 0 via more innings.

I may have cried a little at that realisation.

I am not a fan of the Mets. I’m ambivalent towards them at the best of times and if I have much emotion for them this year it’s mostly disappointment that they haven’t parleyed the talent they’ve got into a better position – Even with Dickey’s stellar contribution the National League’s (NL) New York outfit are at 63 and 70, a whopping 9 games back of the wild card race.

Which means there are maybe just 4 or 5 more opportunities to see The Dude pitch this year.

If that’s not enough you can alleviate the pangs by watching a parent work to lull a child to sleep. There’s as much magic in that as in any stretch of knuckleball and as evidence I’ll tender my efforts from yesterday morning, around the time that Dickey was doing his thing.

The Angus was fragile when I stepped onto the mound. He’d been giving his mother a rough time and that’s never a good sign – She is the ace and she has breasts. Any work in relief is always going to be made difficult with the comparison.

Still I plunged in with little warm-up. Which is ok because knuckleball takes less of a toll on the body – Another reason not to throw fastballs.

I immediately put my shoulder to work and went the bounce, dipping and hopping with an erratic rhythm. To keep the punters entertained I hummed a Bobby Darin medley, Beyond the Sea plus Mack the Knife. This got the kid looking.

It also got him thinking – He didn’t like 1 pitch in particular that came a little too close – The back patting had to go when he spat his dummy and verballed me.

In the end though I stuck to it and wore him down. He finished the at bat lying in his cot, wrapped up and dozing away. Which is regulation, but for a bonus extra that I’ve not had from this kid before.

He went to sleep with a big grin on his face.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dad’s out there.

Epilogue: The Angus slept for all of 15 minutes and the ace got called back in. They ain’t all winners.

I Tell Them Everything I Know

  1. Going back through some older posts and found this gem. Makes me ready for baseball. I tried to throw a knuckleball in junior high but abandoned it quickly. Very hard to do well. Much easier with a wiffle ball, although perhaps the construction of the ball made my knuckler more impressive….

    • Occasionally I harbour day-dreams that involve me mastering the knuckleball and parleying that into a mid-life gig with the Red Sox. As this will entail me actually throwing a decent knuckleball this does seem extremely unlikely – For now my butterflies are not going into letterboxes. I may have to resort to just marvelling at others getting it done – Bring on the northern spring!

      • 9 inches of new snow today and we’re not done yet. Mixing with sleet and freezing rain before changing back to all snow. Power was on and off seven times during last event a week ago and some folks had to wait several days to get power at all. If I could throw a knuckleball I’d be in Arizona right now…or Australia. Bring on the northern spring indeed!

      • I shiver just watching the news reports. Some pretty serious weather you’re having up there. Hope you and yours stay safe.

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