Knuckleball seems to be losing grip in majors

July 07, 1991|By Jake Curtis | Jake Curtis,San Francisco Chronicle

That mysterious, inexplicable, vilified and totally unique pitch known as the knuckleball may become baseball's whooping crane: The strange creature is on the verge of extinction.

Only two of those odd beasts known as knuckleball pitchers remain in the major leagues -- Tom Candiotti of the Toronto Blue Jays and Charlie Hough of the Chicago White Sox.

"I think the knuckleball is fading out," said Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell, now an executive consultant for the Detroit Tigers.

Ferrell knows knuckleballs; he had the maddening task of being the Washington Senators' catcher in 1944 and '45, when the Senators had four knuckleballers in their starting rotation.

The art is lost, he says.

"When these two get through," he said, "you may not see it anymore."

And with Hough's age (43), Candiotti may soon become a living museum piece, the lone survivor of a breed.

"I hope that's not the case," said Candiotti, "but it's starting to look like that."

Not everyone is teary-eyed about this endangered species, though. Oakland A's pitching coach Dave Duncan is not about to become chairman of a Save the knuckleball campaign.

"I don't consider it pitching," he said. "It's a trick pitch: the same thing every time. You don't go inside, outside, change speeds."

The fine art of setting up a hitter is lost.

Candiotti does throw a curve frequently and changes speeds with his knuckler, but sometimes it travels just 50 miles per hour, and he admits he aims every knuckleball for the catcher's mask and hopes for the best.

His success is unquestioned, though. Candiotti is 7-7 with a 2.36 ERA.

Seldom have more than a half-dozen knuckleballers flourished simultaneously in the majors, although four of the best -- Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, Wilbur Wood and Joe Niekro -- were thriving together 20 years ago.

The climate has changed, perhaps enough to kill the pitch no one, including the pitcher, can predict.

Little things -- like a dearth of knuckleball teachers and a dramatic increase in the running game (base stealing is the bane of knuckleballers) -- may be contributing to its demise.

And these days, pitchers looking to add an odd pitch are likely to try the split-finger fastball, the pitch of the '80s, which is easier to perfect and easier to control.

Perhaps more important in today's big-business baseball is the pressure for immediate gratification.

With money and glory aplenty awaiting in the majors, neither clubs nor players are willing to show the patience necessary for a knuckleballer to learn his craft, a painfully long process.

Says Bob Humphrey, a former major-league knuckleballer and now a coach in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization: "You just don't have time to mess with it."

"There used to be a tolerance on baseball's part to keep a guy around longer," said Karl Kuehl, the A's director of player development. "With the influx of 40-plus players per year and fewer (minor-league) teams around, you need a place to put the new players."

A fast-track scheme is developing, eliminating the knuckleballer's chief ally -- time.

"To get signed, you have to be impressive on the radar guns," said Candiotti, who was not signed and had to travel to Victoria, British Columbia -- uninvited -- to make an independent minor-league team with a tryout.

"With the financial pressure on the farm systems today, clubs aren't going to spend a lot of dollars to allow you to develop (the knuckleball). It's going to take five or six years; you're going to take your lumps."

Dave Nahabedian, the San Francisco Giants' director of scouting, agrees that, generally, you invest money in arm strength.

"Veteran scouts look at a guy in (Class) A ball throwing a knuckler and they sort of laugh," he said. "There's sort of a disdain for a guy who can't throw a fastball. They see it as a last-ditch-effort pitch."

Clubs don't measure knuckleballers in terms of potential; they must prove themselves at every level before getting a crack at the bigs.

"If I were a GM," said Candiotti, "I'd be leery, too, because a lot of kids don't understand it."

It takes five years, maybe a decade, to develop the mind-set and the feel to throw a knuckleball effectively.

"When I first came up," said Candiotti, "I tried to throw it so no one could hit it and no one could catch it. That's no good.

"It's possible to have too good a knuckleball, because you want the batter to swing and the ump to be able to call it."

Wood could not even throw his knuckler full time until he reached the majors, because no minor-league catcher could handle it.

Candiotti switched teams 13 times in his first seven pro seasons, getting to the majors initially with the Brewers, before the knuckler was his chief pitch.

Still, knuckleball extinction is not a foregone conclusion.

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