Life is a knuckleball, a jagged, ridiculous path with no guarantees. Maybe things will work out OK, maybe things will work out horribly, but most likely they’ll be a mixture of the two, your beleaguered catcher unable to handle strike three, which will bound to the backstop and allow mounting adversity another baserunner and more chances to whale on the knucklers that don’t knuckle. And there will be plenty of knucklers that don’t knuckle.
But though the ability to throw good knuckleballs seems to come and go almost without reason, there is also something about knuckleballs, and about life, that gives a late-blooming nobody such as myself hope. Consider Joe Niekro, seen here with a pensive look altogether appropriate for a 33-year-old 10-year veteran with a losing lifetime record. Perhaps Joe Niekro is wondering if the end is near. In fact, Joe Niekro at the time of this 1978 card was attempting to reinvent himself from a mediocre fastball-curveball pitcher to a pitcher who could, like his older brother Phil, rely on the most unreliable phenomenon in the baseball world, the knuckleball. And Joe Niekro did end up mastering the pitch as few others have, going on to win 221 major league games, most of them coming after the time when most major league pitchers have traded in their baseball cleats for golf shoes. The knuckleball offers the possibility of redemption.
Consider Tim Wakefield, who starts for the Boston Red Sox in Game 4 of the A.L. Championship Series tonight (8:07 ET, FOX). Wakefield was a washed-up light-hitting minor league first baseman when he first decided his path to the majors was going to have to follow the flight of the knuckleball. He made it to the majors at age 25, hardly a phenom, but pitched brilliantly in his rookie season to help the Pittsburgh Pirates win their division. The knucklegods abandoned him the following season, and in the season after that he pitched poorly again, this time in Triple A. In the offseason he sought the help of Phil and Joe Niekro, and by 1995 he was back in the majors, pitching well for the Boston Red Sox. Though he has been for some time the longest-tenured current player on the Red Sox, and by all accounts a steadying clubhouse influence and a beloved pillar of the community, his fortunes have continued to rise and fall as if tied to the transitory, unpredictable qualities of the pitch he relies on. One month he is unhittable, the next the sweating maestro of wild pitches and beachball lobs, the next a maddening combination of the two.
Even in his worst moments, as in the 2003 playoffs when an unknuckling knuckler was Bucky-Dented by Aaron Boone over the left field fence to eliminate the Red Sox, Wakefield is never far from his best (before that pitch Wakefield had been so brilliant that if the Red Sox had hung on to win he probably would have won the series MVP); and even at his best, such as his fearless and stupendous 3 frames of extra-inning shutout ball to win Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, he is never far from hideous disaster, his pitches moving so much in that game that the Yankees nearly grabbed a lead on the following “rally”:
Top of the 13th, Yankees Batting, Tied 4-4, Tim Wakefield facing 3-4-5
— 6 G Sheffield Strikeout Swinging, Passed Ball; Sheffield to 1B
O 1– 5 H Matsui Groundout: 2B-SS/Forceout at 2B
O 1– 3 B Williams Flyball: RF
1– J Posada Passed Ball; Matsui to 2B
-2- 5 ” “ Intentional Walk
12- R Sierra Passed Ball; Matsui to 3B; Posada to 2B
O -23 7 ” “ Strikeout Swinging
And so now, as they have so often in recent seasons, the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox rest on that metaphor for the transitory and uncontrollable nature of life itself, the knuckleball. I’ll be wearing my treasured Tim Wakefield T-shirt and praying.
And probably also drinking fairly heavily.