Like Snowflakes

The Mets left New York just in time. As snow pounded the northeast, players, personnel and media settled into their respective villas in sunny Florida. Then, without warning, on Day One, snowflakes started dancing in the air at the Post St. Lucie complex.

Dave Racaniello, the Mets bullpen coach, was catching R.A. Dickey when it happened. The small white spheres floated gently through the air like a snowflake in the wind, eventually landing in Racaniello’s catcher’s mitt. According to reports, he just “laughed” and kept right on practicing. Racaniello remembers the last time he saw a snowflake in Spring Training. It was 10 years ago and he was catching Dennis Springer. Racaniello probably laughed on that occasion too, he just can’t recall how he caught a snowflake or – as it’s called in baseball circles – a knuckleball.

The knuckleball flutters and floats, dances and darts and, like snowfall in Florida, pure knuckleball pitchers are rare. The fraternity is modest, yet well-known. Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield, Wilbur Wood and Charlie Hough mastered the art and know the psychological power the knuckleball possesses. Yet, the knuckles are not involved; the fingertips lie at the heart of the offense.

The one thing more entertaining then watching a knuckleball float through the air are the ways in which batters describe the experience. There is reverence and rage in their collective voices. There is a fear and frustration in their eyes. There is a desperation and determination in their body language.

“I’d rather have my leg cut off than do that all day,” said ESPN analyst John Kruk.

Former Met Richie Hebner said, “Hitting (Phil) Niekro’s knuckleball is like eating soup with a fork,” while late Bobby Murcer described hitting Niekro’s knuckleball “… is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.” Former Mets broadcaster Tim McCarver said trying to hit the knuckleball was “like trying to catch a butterfly with a pair of tweezers.”

“I work for three weeks to get my swing down pat and Phil (Niekro) messes it up in one night,” said Pete Rose. “Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living.”

“Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor’s mailbox,” said Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.

And those are just the batters.

Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who gladly handed the responsibility of catching Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball permanently over to Doug Mirabelli, added another perspective. “Catching the knuckleball, it’s like trying to catch a fly with a chopstick.”

“Like some cult religion that barely survives, there has always been at least one but rarely more than five or six devotees throwing the knuckleball in the big leagues,” said former major league umpire Ron Luciano. “Not only can’t pitchers control it, hitters can’t hit it, catchers can’t catch it, coaches can’t coach it, and most pitchers can’t learn it. It’s the perfect pitch.”

Eating soup with a fork or Jell-o with chopsticks? Catching butterflies with tweezers or a fly with chopsticks? The knuckleball plays head games with hitters. Dodger broadcaster and former major leaguer Rick Monday once told Niekro, “When I swing, don’t laugh.” Monday later described watching the knuckleball “giggle as it goes by.”

Psych.

The mysterious knuckleball lives in fame and infamy throughout baseball history.

Dickey, 35, was invited to New York Mets camp as a non-roster player. His dream was to be a major league pitcher, but this was not the script. For a long time, this was not the reality. At the University of Tennessee Dickey was a flame-throwing right handed All-American pitcher; a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. He had just been drafted by the Texas Rangers and was days away from signing a professional contract, until a Rangers team doctor looked at his photo on the cover of Baseball America.

“My right arm was bent kind of funny and it set off an alarm in their heads,” said Dickey, on NPR’s All Things Considered radio show in 2008. When he arrived in Texas days later to complete his physical, sign his contract and throw out the first pitch at a Rangers game Dickey was tested extensively by team doctors.

“I got there and the general manager pulled me in the office, post-physical and said we’re taking that (contract offer) off the table,” remembered Dickey. “I had never been hurt a day in my life. So I never missed a game, never missed a bullpen or practice.”

Dickey met Dr. James Andrews and took an MRI. The good doctor could not find an ulnar collateral ligament in Dickey’s right elbow. “The Tommy John ligament that everybody has replaced, I didn’t have one at all,” Dickey told NPR. “He really couldn’t explain it.”

“You kind of feel like the leper of the colony, a circus act,” said Dickey.

The Rangers offer went from $810,000 to $75,000. Take it or leave it. “Imagine winning the lottery and then losing the ticket,” said Dickey. He accepted the deal.

Dickey tried to keep throwing heat and win games in the minor leagues. He failed. Nine years after signing his first major league contract in Texas, Dickey realized that the only way to keep his career alive was to perfect the knuckleball. To his benefit, knuckleball master Charlie Hough was coaching in Texas.

Dickey and Hough refined the pitch in bullpen sessions. Dickey won a spot in the Rangers starting rotation during Spring Training 2006 and, on April 6, he launched his first knuckleball in the majors. Six home runs and a modern era baseball record later he was shipped back to Triple-A.

“It can be a very painful pitch to throw,” said Dickey, “and I don’t mean physically but I just mean visually – how you throw up – you can throw up some big numbers.”

Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen stood, arms crossed across his chest, and watched Dickey release one knuckleball after another. The first pitch looks the same as the last, traveling between 74 and 77 miles an hour.

“When he has a good one working, it’s as good as any in the game,” Warthen told Mets.com. “He’s had good teachers — Hough, Niekro and Wakefield — and he knows his trade.”

Warthen knows what Dickey is capable of. He witnessed the power of the knuckleball in June 2008 when Dickey, then a Seattle Mariner, tossed seven shutout innings in an 11-0 victory over the Mets. Before that start, Dickey admitted to “losing it a little bit.” He had lost confidence in his knuckleball and decided to send a video to Wakefield. Dickey called Wakefield prior to the game to get his feedback. The core of the advice was to change speeds more often.

“When I sink into the fact that I’m a knuckleballer now — not a conventional [pitcher] — it frees me up to be me,” Dickey says now. “Because of that, I can really compete at a high level with it.”

Dickey floats another snowflake to Racaniello and smiles as the baseball dances and darts away at the last second. No ulnar ligament, no problem. No fastball, no problem. R.A. Dickey makes the Mets 25-man roster? Yeah, right. That’s about as believable as snow in Florida

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