Tricky pitch may be knuckling under

March 24, 1991|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Chicago Tribune

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Hoyt Wilhelm was the quintessential knuckleballer. Wilbur Wood won 20 games throwing it. Eddie Fisher made it sing. Dutch Leonard. Barney Schultz. Others.

Now, there are two: Tom Candiotti of the Cleveland Indians and Charlie Hough of the Chicago White Sox. And Hough, at 43, is nearing the end.

Is the knuckleball?

"I don't think so," Hough said. "I think somebody will come along and throw it."

As he spoke, he tossed the baseball up about 6 inches with his right hand and caught it, invariably with his grip and the seams in perfect knuckleball alignment, with fingertips -- not knuckles -- above the seams at their narrowest point.

"Somewhere along the line," Hough said, "somebody will learn it. I know the Dodgers have a kid in the minor leagues."

There used to be more. And there was a time when every college team had someone who could throw a beaut. Sometimes it was a pitcher. Sometimes an infielder. Ryne Sandberg has a dazzler.

But there won't be as many coming up, for a couple of reasons.

One of them is the running game, which took off in the 1960s and put a greater strain on catchers, whose job is tough enough without having to deal with a pitch as slow and unpredictable as the knuckleball. The Texas Rangers' 35 passed balls easily topped baseball last year. Hough's major-league high of 368 throws to first helped compensate, but not much.

Other reasons are more subtle.

"The problem with it now, compared to years ago, is teams only have four or five minor-league teams," Hough said. "At one time, the Dodgers had 27 minor-league teams. So you would keep an awful lot of players.

"A guy would play in his hometown for you and could experiment. He's not on a timetable to get to the big leagues."

Today, Hough said, the clock is forever ticking, and every tick is a dollar. With fewer farm clubs and with expansion coming, each young minor leaguer, especially if he is a pitcher, is considered a prospect. Most of them were signed in the first place because they could throw hard; most of them threw hard because that's how they would get signed.

"You don't mess with it [the knuckler] in high school or college," said Hough, "because the guy who gets to pitch there is the guy who can throw the fastball."

Hough, like Candiotti, learned to throw the knuckleball when he hurt his arm early in his career. It took him years to master the pitch. It takes anyone years to master it.

"It's not easy to do," Hough said. The slightest deviation in arm movement or release, he said, "and it's a lousy pitch; it's a hanging change-up. You don't get away with doing it wrong."

Most organizations no longer have the time or patience to wait until a pitcher can get it right. Hough has argued for patience and gotten nowhere.

"I told them in Texas," he said, "if you've got a kid that you like -- he's not a major-league prospect, but you like everything else he does -- why not give him a chance? Why not give him a couple of years? It doesn't cost that much."

Whatever it costs evidently is too much for organizations with a financial and professional stake in making their draft picks climb the ladder in standard fashion.

"You can't waste a spot," Hough lamented. "You get him [a knuckleballer-in-progress] 30 starts a year, that's taking 30 starts a year from a guy you're thinking is a prospect because he can throw fast."

Hough tossed the ball up one more time and caught it, fingertips in place, seams just right. He looked down at the baseball in his hand.

"If it goes in dead and perfect," he said, "it's a good pitch."

A good pitch and, sadly, a vanishing pitch.

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