When the Braves added R.A. Dickey and his twitchy pitch to their roster in November, it gladdened one old knuckleballer’s heart.
“It’s kind of special for me. I was lit up when he signed,” said Phil Niekro, one of the classic Braves and a brother in that very select fraternity of those pitchers who literally cling to baseball by their fingernails.
Finally, 30 years after the Hall of Famer threw his last knuckleball for the Braves — a perhaps ill-conceived last hurrah at the age of 48 — Knucksie has the opportunity to witness once more the merger of his pitch and his franchise. Two aspects of his life of which he is paternally proud have been reunited.
Niekro and Dickey are two of the knuckleball’s great advocates, the former ushering the eccentric pitch into the Hall of Fame in 1997, the latter riding it to the Cy Young Award with the Mets in 2012.
Nobody understands the actual and metaphysical ups and downs of this pitch better than the few who have tried to corral it. (“I never mastered it. I was still trying to figure it out my last year throwing it,” Niekro said.)
Which means that the original Atlanta Brave, the statue-worthy Niekro, and the “new” 42-year-old guy brought in to shore up the Braves rotation might be something of co-dependents this season.
When Dickey determined that the knuckleball was his last hope for baseball salvation back in 2005, he originally began working with former practitioner Charlie Hough. Upon that foundation, a few years later he added pieces of advice from Niekro. So rare is the pitch that there are scarce few pitching coaches who can share reliable knuckleball knowledge.
Any resource is invaluable. Dickey calls his mentors “the Jedi Council.” Yes, he is, according to his Twitter profile, a “Star Wars nerd” along with “father, husband, Christian, pitcher, author, adventurer, reader, ninja in training & cyclist.” (He has written a penetrating autobiography, a children’s book and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro as well as adopting the most unorthodox of pitches. Yes, he defies most of your basic Bull Durham stereotypes.)
“(Niekro) is a friend first and foremost for me,” Dickey said.
“Each of those men (Hough and Niekro) taught me something that I needed at that moment. It was really fortuitous how it happened because I couldn’t have understood what Phil was telling me unless I had already been to Charlie. All these guys offered me something at the right time. And Phil is a guy I still call if I’m scuffling. I won’t have to go too far now if I want to get with him. It’s nice to have a guy like that in your corner.”
For his part, Niekro, who worked with Dickey on changing speeds with the pitch, is anxious to get to Florida and convene with his pupil. Although, mindful of not overstepping any boundaries with new Braves pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, he is awaiting an invitation before heading south.
In all cases, the knuckleball is designed to mesmerize. Trying to hit Niekro’s knuckler was like “trying to eat soup with a fork,” former third baseman Richie Hebner once said. It’s the kind of pitch that should be pulled over for a breathalyzer test halfway to the plate. There is one major difference between the special deliveries of Niekro and Dickey: the new guy throws it with considerable more velocity (averaging 76 mph last season) than did Niekro. That’s 10 mph quicker than his norm, Niekro said.
In a way, it seems Dickey was born to throw the knuckleball. That is, he was born without a stabilizing ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm. That discovery considerably reduced his signing bonus back in 1996 when Texas took him in the first round. He spent nearly 10 years scuffling along as a nondescript “conventional” pitcher before the Rangers convinced him to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer.
“That’s some kind of cocoon to come out of, into the world of knuckleball-land,” Dickey said. “I can assure you it wasn’t easy. It took a lot of time and a lot of people, Phil Niekro being one of them, that made me a lot better.”
The first time Dickey broke out the pitch in a major league game, he gave up six home runs in three innings in 2006. This is the same guy who six years later had the finest season of any knuckleballer, going 20-6 with an ERA of 2.76 in his Cy Young year in New York. And the same guy whose record has been 49-52 since.
Beneath the mop of hair and north of the free range beard is a mind capable of processing the extremes that come with the knuckleball. An English Lit major long ago at Tennessee, Dickey takes an erudite approach to what he does for a living, like a scholar penning a never-finished thesis.
Listen to him riff when asked if he took pride in pitching into his 40s. (Hey, Niekro averaged 15 wins a season between the ages of 43 and 46.)
“No more pride than I would have taken years ago,” he said. “I’m a competitor. I want to win every time out. I want to be good. I want to be dependable and trustworthy for my teammates. I want to be counted on by my coaches and my manager. That never changes. I just want to be consistent.
“The one thing you have to be as a knuckleballer is consistent because you’re always fighting that uphill battle of the unpredictability of the pitch. That comes with an aura around it that you’re constantly having to push back against. For me, it’s paramount that I’m consistent and dependable.”
More than just the guy throwing it, the knuckleball demands adaptation from all in its path.
That certainly includes the guy catching it. Braves catcher Tyler Flowers got his knuckleball mitt — with its 38-inch circumference, four inches more than his regular one — after the Braves signed Dickey. On Day 1 of spring, that glove not quite broken in yet, fluttering pitches routinely caromed off leather and came to rest in grass.
A good attitude and a sense of humor will help.
“I’ve been embarrassed enough in my career, so this isn’t going to be any different,” Flowers said with a smile. “I’ve had to go get plenty of balls from the backstop. I don’t have any issue with looking bad here or there.”
That also includes the guy managing the knuckleball pitcher. Dickey senses he has the right man in Brian Snitker.
“It takes a different type of manager to manage a knuckleballer well, to have some insight (into the pitch),” Dickey said. “You can look like you have never thrown a ball for an inning and the next seven you look like Cy Young. Having a manager who appreciates that, who knows that and knows the end product is going to be what you want is nice.”
As for the guy hitting it, well, that’s his problem.
“There’s a rule when you face a knuckleball: If it’s high, let it (the bat) fly. And if it’s low, let it go,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said.
And for the fans watching it, buckle up, because this ride’s got a lot of blind curves and switchbacks. Bad knuckleballs fly far. Good ones embarrass professional hitters.
“I faced him once, it was coming 71 mph and my bat went flying,” said the Braves’ Freddie Freeman. And this is a fellow who hit .478 off Dickey.
Like a pleased parent, Niekro will tell you Dickey’s knuckler will be on occasion a joy to watch this season.
“When he has a good knuckleball, he’s almost unhittable, like most knuckleball pitchers. When they’ve got a good knuckleball, nobody wants to face it,” he said, speaking from a deep well of experience.
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