Knuckleball could be in its last inning Only 2 pitchers in majors throw it

June 16, 1991|By Bob Rubin | Bob Rubin,Knight-Ridder News Service

Tom Candiotti threw three wicked knuckleballs in a row to Kirby Puckett in a recent game at the Metrodome. The pitches danced, sailed, darted, dived, fluttered -- did everything but go out for franks and a beer -- and a serious game enjoyed a moment of comic relief.

"Kirby stepped out laughing," Candiotti said. "He rolled his eyes and looked over to their dugout, and the other Twins were laughing. The ump was laughing. I was laughing and had to step off to regain my composure."

A good knuckleball will do that. Pitching is mostly speed, spin and control, but a knuckler blithely ignores all that, meandering toward the plate at a leisurely 60 mph or so, with just a hint of rotation and the vaguest notion of location. Anywhere in the strike zone is good enough.

It's impossible to refine further than that. The pitcher doesn't know where it's going or what it's going to do. Neither does the hitter or the catcher. Butterflies are free.

But, alas, the pitch is dying. The only two knuckleballers left in the majors are Candiotti, 33, of the Cleveland Indians, and Charlie Hough, 43, of the Chicago White Sox. Candiotti is 7-3 with a 2.27 ERA, and Hough 3-2, 3.76, proof that the pitch can still be effective. But factors have conspired to put the knuckler on the edge of extinction.

Scouts are in love with 90-plus heat and tend to ignore a kid who lacks it. The knuckleball is a hard pitch to learn, and there are very few qualified teachers.

Managers aren't big knuckleball fans because so many bad things can happen, such as passed balls, wild pitches, stolen bases and monstrous shots by hitters. There's nothing juicier than a knuckler that doesn't knuckle, and whether it does or not can depend on such vagaries as wind, humidity, temperature -- or simply the knuckle gods. "It's such a feel pitch," Candiotti said.

Catchers tend to hate it because it can leave them black, blue and blushing. It also can badly embarrass hitters, especially free swingers. The batter can hack at a ball that winds up bouncing.

The Washington Senators of the mid-1940s had four knuckleballers in their rotation, led by Dutch Leonard. The pitch put Hoyt Wilhelm in the Hall of Fame. But Hough and Candiotti may be the last of the breed.

"We're definitely dinosaurs," Candiotti said. "People kind of look at you like you're a freak. It's sad. Phil Niekro wants to keep it alive. I'm carrying the torch for him. Hopefully, I can keep it going until someone else comes along."

Phil and Joe Niekro knuckleballed their way to 539 victories, a record for brothers. Phil manages the Atlanta Braves' Class AAA farm team at Richmond. Perhaps he'll find a student as outstanding as Candiotti, whom he taught when they were Cleveland teammates in 1986.

Before Niekro arrived, Candiotti was only an occasional knuckleballer, still clinging to orthodox pitches, though without much success. Niekro taught him to have confidence in the knuckler. He taught him to throw it at varying speeds. He taught him to think in terms of knucklers.

"It was like talking electricity with Thomas Edison," Candiotti said. "I owe my career to Phil. I still talk to Phil and Joe whenever I can, and also to Charlie when we play Chicago. We're like a fraternity."

A fraternity with only two active members, hanging in there -- literally -- by their fingernails. It is sad. The knuckleball has a kinky charm and a place in baseball history. It makes you smile. The game would be diminished if it died.

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