I Was an 8th Grade Knuckleballer

knuckle_ballCompletely unrelated to this blog’s normal topics, a slice of my childhood playing the national pastime.

My dad enrolled me in all kinds of sports growing up: soccer, basketball, track, tennis, baseball. I never stopped playing and was decent at most of them. My dad played sports with me almost everyday of my life growing up. He would hit me fly balls until I could catch anything that flew my way. He would kick the soccer ball with me for hours and hours.

Baseball was probably my least favorite sport. Once every three innings or so you got to bat, and every now and then a ball was hit to you that you had to do something with. But I liked it well enough, and a bunch of my friends played it, so it was worthwhile.

My eighth grade year, Pony league, I played all over the field: short stop, second base, left or center field, and even pitcher. I hated pitcher, because the focus was all on me. Even then I didn’t like the limelight, because I was afraid of failing or of being humiliated.

Around eighth grade you start getting some pretty big boys; puberty has been hit for many and they are strong. I was average, not the smallest kid on the team and not the biggest. I couldn’t throw that fast, but I threw hard, as the saying goes. And I had three pitches: fast ball, change up, and knuckle ball.

The fast ball is your speed pitch. You are trying to blow the ball right past the batter. The change up is an off-speed pitch. It’s slower, so you try to get the batter off balance, thinking it’s a fast ball, making him swing ahead of the change up and miss it.

The knuckle ball is something else. You sort of “claw” the ball with your fingertips or knuckles and almost throw/push it forward, trying to keep it from having any spin. The ball looks bizarre as it comes to the batter. It moves in a way that seems odd and unpredictable.

The knuckle ball is rare enough in the pros, but in eighth grade it was unheard of. I didn’t want to pitch, but we were in the playoffs, and all our good pitchers were spent. I had to go in. What I had on my side was smarts and a weird pitch that none of the kids had seen. The smarts come in with you and your catcher during pitch selection. He suggests a pitch by making a predetermined number signal with his fingers down in his crotch area (where no one can see it but the pitcher). A “1” is a fastball; “2” a change up, “3” a curve ball or knuckler, etc. By mixing up the pitches in unexpected ways, you can fool the batter and keep him off balance.

In this game, that’s what he and I did. My knuckle ball was knuckling well that day, and the many opposing batters that it fooled went back to the dugout shaking their heads. I overheard them talking to their teammates about it.

The bad news was, my fast ball wasn’t that fast, about average, so some of their better hitters were smashing my pitches hard. One was sent right back up to me as a line drive and almost took my head off–ended up being a single for the guy right up the middle. But amazingly, I kept the other team to just a few runs through the whole game. And we brought one of our good relievers in to close the game out.

I think about on those days now and can hardly believe I was willing to try something so crazy. I had no reason to think that the pitch would work; no expert coach who knew how to throw a knuckle ball. Just me and my dad, practicing pitching and catching for years and years together. He was my coach that year, and he put me in at a position I didn’t like, because our team needed me there. I guess the moral of the story is, be willing to try unorthodox maneuvers when you are in a tight spot and not a seasoned pro!

My inspiration for the knuckle ball, during those years, was Charlie Hough (who was a Texas Ranger at that time), and the Niekro brothers.

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8 Responses to I Was an 8th Grade Knuckleballer

  1. Kevin Heldt says:

    Great story, Devin! Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey are smiling somewhere.

  2. Kelly says:

    Loved this story! And thank you for explaining the baseball terms for the baseball illiterate in your readership. :-)

  3. Robert says:

    Ahhh…youth baseball memories. Thanks Devin. I will relive my knuckleball this week and teach my boys!

  4. Great story!

    Charlie Hough personally taught me how to throw a knuckleball when I was a teenager in high school. He was a Dodger then. What a nice and funny guy. I was working at a baseball camp and he (Hough) came along with Bill Russell and Steve Garvey for the day. A lot of fun. Charlie Hough was definitely the most fun of the three.

    • Devin Rose says:

      Steve, wow how amazing that those guys came and taught you. I had Steve Garvey’s baseball cards as a kid.

      • They came for the kids at the camp. I was just lucky enough to be one of the young coaches working at the camp.

        I pitched to Garvey while he knocked ‘em around the park so the kids could ooh and ah.

        I also got a chance to play on the same team as Don Sutton during the 1981 baseball strike. He pitched for us (to stay in shape) because we were the closest team to where he lived.
        Fun stuff. The good ol’ days.