Bill Lyon: For some, 'retire' still means getting hitters out

063012-mets-dickey-400

The best way to catch a knuckleball is wait until it stops rolling, walk over, and then pick it up. - Bob Uecker

 

It flutters and jiggles, and shimmies and shakes, and swoops and loops, darting about, some say, like a drunken butterfly.

Or like a Frisbee in a high wind.

But almost all agree that the best way to describe the knuckleball is: "#&%@#!"

No other pitch so vexes three people simultaneously - those who try to hit it, those who try to catch it, and those who try to determine whether it's a ball or a strike, and good luck with all three.

Of the 500 or so pitchers now toiling in the major leagues, only one is serving up knuckles on a regular basis - R.A. Dickey of the New York Metropolitans. His specialty does the hula at about 80 m.p.h., which is actually speedier than most knuckleballers who have preceded him. It is also about 10 miles per hour faster than Jamie Moyer's fastball, and I bring that up because Old Man Moyer, at 49, is still at it, and I'm not quite sure what we should think of that.

But it is interesting that with all the attention paid to the flame-throwers these days, to those who crack the 100 m.p.h. barrier, two of the more intriguing pitchers can't break glass.

I have a son older than Moyer, which makes me a Grumpy Old Man in good standing, and also leaves me torn between two sentiments: "Yahoo, ride 'em, cowboy," and "You're taking playing time away from some deserving kid."

Dickey, first: A 37-year-old journeyman who has reinvented himself and rejuvenated himself with a pitch he fondly refers to in the female gender, as in this: "A very violent, very fickle pitch from time to time, and she did not cooperate. . . . But I was going to live and die with my girl."

He and his girl already have cranked out back-to-back one-hitters this season, have run off a string of 442/3 scoreless innings, and have made a strong opening pitch for a Cy Young. They have also left behind them a trail of flummoxed batters whose strokes are thrown hopelessly out of whack from trying to hit that @#%$&. It takes a week, sometimes longer, to get dialed back in after you've whaled and failed against the knuckler.

Leave it to a Phillie to have been responsible for this: Lew "Hicks" Moren is credited with creating the knuckleball, in 1906. Two years later, Eddie Cicotte refined it. It was at a time in the game when spitballs were legal and the knuckler became known as the dry spitter. The trick remained the same, however - finding someone willing to catch it. Or try.

A good one can change directions twice on its route, which ought to be impossible but isn't because - and here we thank the helpful folks at the How Stuff Works show - due to something called asymmetric drag, and also to vortices, which are like miniature whirlpools, and that's probably more than you ever wanted to know about #@$%&.

If you could ever solve the knuckler, you could pitch forever. It's oh-so easy on the arm, with a relaxed rocking chair rhythm. Phil Niekro, for example, made more than 40 starts in a season in his best years and - chew on this, pitch count mavens - threw 20 or more complete games those years. He's in the Hall of Fame, with 318 wins and an ERA of 3.35. He and his brother Joe, also a practitioner of the dancing ball, combined for 539 wins. Neither was ever heard complaining about a sore arm.

The Godfather of the Knuckler is Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched until he was 48, logging 20 years with nine teams and pitching in 1,070 games.

Now then, as for Jamie Moyer, whose velocity is measured by the sun dial and whose repertoire includes pitches that sometimes act like the knuckler, he has lasted for so long because he came to understand early on the heart and soul of pitching, which is make the batter get himself out, to throw what appear to be strikes but aren't.

Moyer never seems to run out of teams willing to take a shot with him. Follow the bouncing ball in the Jamie Moyer Across America Tour: He started this season with Colorado, becoming the oldest starter to win a major- league game, then was picked up by Baltimore after 10 starts, then signed to a minor-league contract by Toronto, who sent him to Las Vegas. He should be doing a Rand McNally commercial any day now.

When you're a geezer, you root for other geezers, and you ride with Don Quixote. You go with your heart over your head because you know you're closer to the end than the beginning, so by all means take the poet's advice and rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And yes, the cynics may scoff, they may snicker about lost causes, and inevitable, irreversible endings, and scold you for yielding to blinding, maudlin sentiment, and why don't you give it up already old man . . . and . . . and . . .

Ah, what the hell. Bring on the windmills.