I love the knuckleball.
I don’t know how any nerd could not love the knuckleball, or, as I prefer to call it, the “chaos pitch.” It’s thrown — at the velocity of a cheetah, mind you — with almost no rotation. Its path to, and hopefully over, the plate is determined, as much as anything else, by the eddies formed by the ball’s stitches* as it shoves its way through the air.
And to me, the knuckleball is emblematic of baseball’s appeal. As much as fans love to describe the game with statistics, the game is interesting because statistics can’t accurately predict what happens next. And nothing embodies that like the knuckleball. As the pitch leaves Wake’s hand** he has scarcely a better idea of its trajectory than anyone else.
No one personifies the knuckleball for me like Tim Wakefield, perhaps the last of baseball’s greats to throw the pitch. As I’ve learned about the game over the past 8 years or so, he’s been the constant inconstant: sometimes brilliant, sometimes terrible — often both in the same game, or even the same frame. I dearly love to see him win, but I admire him most in the grim losses where he grinds through out after painful out, sabotaging his stats and saving the bullpen’s arms. There’s an equanimity to him in these innings, a grace and lack of ego that seems very rare in professional sports. Then again, it’s awe-inspiring to see a guy pitch one of the best games of his career in his forties.
Massarotti’s book*** opens with some historical context on the knuckleball, outlining the careers of pitchers whose careers ended before I became a fan of the game, and describing the pitch in relation to the rest of baseball’s arsenal. Then he dives into Wake’s career, wich mirrors many of his games: improbable comebacks against long odds, devastating setbacks. Longtime Boston Herald writer Massarotti offers some interesting insights throughout. His analysis of what it costs a team for a pitcher to record each out uses some suspect math, but still makes a convincing case that Wake has been quite a bargain for the Sox. It’s also fascinating to see well-documented history through Wake-colored-glasses; Schilling’s bloody sock performance in game 6 of the 2004 ALCS is a mere aside, primarily relevant to the state of the rotation and how many days of rest Wakefield has going into the World Series.
The book is marred by some copy editing gaffes, with a score going from 5-0 to 4-1 to 5-2 in the 2003 ALCS perhaps the worst. And it’s written as if Wake’s career was effectively over in 2010, with no opportunity to contribute significantly to the 2011 season. That’s not quite how it worked out, but of course, most folks had written him off in 1994, too.
needs more demons? Despite some flaws I found it both entertaining and illuminating.
* or, in baseball parlance, “the stitches of the ball.”
** i.e., “the hand of Wake”
*** Massarotti and Wakefield confusing refer to themselves as author and writer, a fallacy I won’t perpetuate. The book is written in the third person; Wake’s voice is present as an interview subject.