Thursday, December 12, 2013
Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is one of the great stories in baseball.
On Friday night he became the season's first 12-game winner when he threw eight shutout innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Dickey gave up three hits and struck out 10 in the win. He threw 116 pitches in all. One hundred of those pitches were knuckleballs.
The 37-year old Dickey wasn't always a knuckleballer. He made the transition in 2006 while pitching for Buck Showalter in Texas. He had lost some of his velocity and struggled before the manager urged him to knuckle down.
Dickey did just that. And he spoke to others who had learned to throw the challenging pitch before him.
Throwing a knuckleball is no easy way to make a baseball living. In his first month throwing it with the Rangers, Dickey tied former Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield's modern-era record by giving up six home runs in a game. In some ways, tough days like that are all part of the process that help lead a knuckleballer to success.
"He reached out to me," said Wakefield. "He was just curious about the pitch. He picked my brain, talked to Charlie Hough and others trying to learn the ins and outs of the pitch."
No two knuckleballs are the same. Literally. So it stands to reason that no two knuckleballers throw it the same way.
Dickey throws his in the 80s, a good 20 mph faster than Wakefield's. Both pitchers use the same grip, and the same philosophy of changing speeds to throw a harder knuckleball in some situations, a softer one in others.
"He's figured it out," said Wakefield. "He's added his own personality to the pitch to make it unique to himself. I'm really happy for him."
All knuckleballers open themselves up to second-guessing. Managers and coaches don't know how to handle a pitcher who throws differently than everyone else.
Even when a knuckleball pitcher is going well, there are those who call it a gimmick.
Maybe that's why there aren't more pitchers throwing it. It's difficult to master; it's even tougher to land a job on a team when the old guard doesn't take the pitch seriously.
It's also why anyone who has ever thrown the pitch on a full-time basis takes so much pride in others who carry on the tradition.
And why Wakefield and others are so happy that Dickey is putting together an All-Star season.
"We're smiling big-time right now," he said. "He's really taken the torch and is running with it. Not only is he pitching well, but he's proving the legitimacy of the pitch."
Wakefield made his debut in our NESN studio over the weekend and is enjoying time with his family away from the game. He's keeping a close eye on his former team, hoping the Red Sox can make a second-half run at a playoff spot.
He's also keeping a close eye on Dickey, a man who has taken a mysterious pitch and mastered it.
A man who is taking the baseball world by storm and giving the Mets something to cheer about for a change.
Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.