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Inside Baseball: Twilight of the Knuckler?

The Phillies this week could pull off a baseball double nearly as unthinkable in 2010 as a Pirates-Royals World Series.

Boston's Tim Wakefield is the first of two knuckleballers the Phillies could face this week. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Boston's Tim Wakefield is the first of two knuckleballers the Phillies could face this week. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)Read more

The Phillies this week could pull off a baseball double nearly as unthinkable in 2010 as a Pirates-Royals World Series.

With Boston's Tim Wakefield set to start Sunday afternoon's game at Citizens Bank Park and the Mets' R.A. Dickey a possibility when they get to New York, the Phils could face two knuckleballers in less than a week.

"Wow! Two flutter-ballers in one week?" former big-league knuckleballer Tom Candiotti said when informed of the possibility. "Don't see that much these days."

It's not like there ever was an abundance of them. According to the website Oddball-Mall, there probably have been at least 250 pitchers who threw a knuckleball but fewer than 90 who threw it regularly.

And while some, such as Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm, are in the Hall of Fame, the majority have skipped away like so many of their often-untamable offerings.

But now they seem to be nearing extinction. For a time this season, Wakefield, 43, was the last of the big-league knucklers. The Dodgers' Charlie Haeger, a protege of Charlie Hough, went 0-4 and was demoted. The Cardinals released Charlie Zink. And Dickey was down in Buffalo until last week.

"Teams don't sign guys like that anymore," Candiotti said. "They're not going to get drafted. Shoot. Everything today is done on the [radar-gun] numbers and the computers. You could tell a scout, 'Hey, this kid has a great knuckleball. His fastball is 82 and his curve is 61.' They're going to go, 'Are you kidding me?' "

And the fewer there are, the fewer there are to mentor young pitchers who would like to develop the pitch.

The most successful knuckleball pitchers, Candiotti said, are the ones who throw it most of the time. Pitchers can't afford to have it as a fourth or fifth pitch because it's too drastic a change.

"Everything has got to come off the same delivery," Candiotti said. "It's not a maximum-effort pitch. It's a playing-catch-with-your-father pitch. Guys like Doc Halladay rare back and drive to the plate. You can't throw a knuckleball that way. And if you don't have the same delivery, hitters will pick that up. You've got to throw your fastball and curve the same way you throw the knuckleball."

Young pitchers, who can throw hard, usually aren't wiling to take that chance. But an older one, such as, say, the Phillies' Jamie Moyer, might be ideally suited for the pitch.

"Jamie is always under control," Candiotti noted. "He's a pitcher who could come up with one because he's very consistent with his mechanics."

The knuckleball has been around forever. It probably reached its apex of popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. It's always been thrown best when it floats to the plate without any spin at all.

But because the knuckleball itself is so unpredictable, the careers of many who throw it veer up and down wildly.

"As successful as Wakefield has been in Boston, it's been tough for him. He's been sent down. He's been told he's no good," said Candiotti, 52 now and an Arizona Diamondbacks broadcaster. "Knuckleballers seem to persevere because they've got to be tough. And look at the career Wake has put together. He's one of the best knuckleballers of all time.

"A lot of teams won't take that chance. You have to have a catcher that can catch it and a GM that is going to believe in you."

Like a lot of successful knuckleballers, Candiotti turned to the knuckleball late. He'd learned one playing catch with his dad back in Walnut Creek, Calif. He'd occasionally throw one in high school or college, but more to amuse his teammates than to get hitters out.

"I was in the minors with the Royals in 1980," he said. "Gene Lamont was my manager. One night I threw one, and it got smoked to center field. Lamont goes, 'What was that pitch?' I said, 'A knuckleball.' And he said, 'I don't ever want to see you throw one of those again.' "

With conventional stuff, Candiotti bounced up and down between Milwaukee and the minors for two seasons. But he and his managers realized his stuff was short, and when he was released, he began to perfect a knuckler.

In 1986, Cleveland signed him as a minor-league free agent, and the same year, the Indians brought in Niekro.

"I was able to watch him and talk with him every day," he said. "It was like having my own personal pitching coach."

And he went on to win 151 games in a 16-year career. His ERA was 3.73, and he had nearly twice as many strikeouts as walks, the knuckler's bugaboo.

Candiotti found that it was best to pitch on hot and humid days. Veterans Stadium, where it was often that way when he visited with the Dodgers, was one of his favorites.

"Colorado was the worst," he said. "The ball wouldn't break there. You could read the letters on a pitch as it was coming in."

Wind is also usually a hindrance.

In 1975, two Tulane researchers, using a wind tunnel for their tests, found that wind caused pressure to build up on one side of the ball or the other, moving it out of its planned trajectory.

As for throwing a pitch that has a mind of its own, Candiotti said, he had a secret for controlling it. He always aimed it at the catcher's head, and it invariably arrived in a triangle between there and the receiver's shin guards.

"I didn't know where it was going to end up, but I certainly knew where to start it," he said. "But your mechanics have to be rock-solid. You've got to be consistent with your release point. If not, you'll end up with one of those spinners that Aaron Boone hit off Wakefield" in the 2003 ALCS.

Legend has it that slap hitters fare better with the pitch than sluggers.

"I'd love to face the power hitters because they'd just wind up and swing," he said. "But guys like [former Phillie Jim] Eisenreich, who would hit it up the middle and wait on the ball a little longer, gave me trouble."

Wakefield could easily give the Phillies' hitters trouble. But Dickey, Candiotti said, still has to learn to take something off his knuckler.

"Dickey throws a really hard knuckleball, but he doesn't have command of it," he said. "You can't throw a great one unless you take a little bit of movement off it, get guys to hit the ball."