Knuckleball Nation Featured in The Wall Street Journal

You’ll find some nice pieces of advice from the greats in this article written by Brian Gaffney. The Northern New Jersey resident has been bringing his three kids to my clinics for a few years now, and his oldest, Joe, has developed quite a nasty knuck. Brian is an executive at Fox News, and he’s got a keen eye for a narrative. So I knew something was up when he started scribbling in his notepad at each event.

As it turns out, he was gathering quotes for the article. You can find a link to the article below, but, if you hit a paywall, you can also read the entire article in this post. Enjoy:


The Knuckleballer’s Guide to Life 
Life in baseball’s no-spin zone requires faith and patience.

By Brian Gaffney
June 18, 2019 6:38 pm ET

A statue of knuckleballer Phil Niekro at SunTrust Park in Atlanta. Photo: Getty Images

The knuckleball is close to extinction. Only one current big leaguer throws the pitch. That’s sad: It’s among the only skills that can take an athlete without professional-grade speed, strength or size to the top of one of the major team sports.

An effective knuckleball needn’t go 95 mph. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro joked that in 24 seasons his never broke the federal 55 mph speed limit. Charlie Hough, an All-Star who pitched until he was 46, once said throwing it required “patience, practice, faith—and very little physical talent.”

So I was delighted when my son Joe taught himself the knuckleball in our New Jersey backyard. It’s almost a magic trick. If you can stop the ball from rotating as it travels to home plate, it will dart around like a butterfly in a windstorm. Not everyone can master the knack of “killing the spin,” but Joe kept getting better at it. By the time he was 16 I couldn’t play catch with him without a mask and cup.

I thought maybe “the knuck” could be Joe’s thing, so I looked around for a coach. Alas, the half-dozen baseball training facilities nearby offered no knuckleball expertise. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Only several dozen pitchers in big-league history have earned paychecks throwing knuckleballs, which are hard to control and, if they spin even a little bit, as easy to hit as Little League fastballs.

I resumed my search when Joe’s 10-year-old brother, Ben, started throwing the pitch. The internet turned up Knuckleball Nation, run by Chris Nowlin, a former minor leaguer who studied under Mr. Hough. During the winter Mr. Nowlin becomes the knuckleball’s Johnny Appleseed, holding clinics across the U.S.

Flying to Las Vegas for knuckleball lessons was a stretch, but that was only our first trip. When Mr. Nowlin lined up Mr. Niekro—the winningest knuckleballer ever—we flew to Atlanta. The chance to learn the secrets of R.A. Dickey, who won the 2012 National League Cy Young Award with our beloved Mets, lured us to Nashville.

Ben was the youngest pupil in Mr. Nowlin’s no-spin zone. There were a few high schoolers like Joe, some college hopefuls, a woman aiming to become the first female major leaguer, a pair of Japanese pros, and a couple of geezers in their 40s and 50s.

Messrs. Dickey and Niekro spoke about knuckleball mechanics, but dwelled on the knuckleballer’s mind-set. Their insights struck me as valuable to anyone with a unique talent or unconventional vision.

“You must commit to the pitch,” said Mr. Niekro, who recalled throwing 106 knuckleballs one game, out of 108 total pitches. “When it bounces in the dirt or sails over the backstop, act like that’s exactly where you wanted it to go. The hitters always assume you’re up to something anyway.”

The knuckleball earned Mr. Dickey the Cy Young Award, but also the record for most home runs allowed in a game. “Throwing it takes bulletproof confidence and a short-term memory,” he said.

Joe had a nice four-year run with the knuck in high school. We’ll see how far Ben goes. No matter what, I hope they stay knuckleballers at heart. When life throws them curves, they’ll have something to throw back.

Mr. Gaffney is director of special programming at Fox News Channel.

Appeared in the June 19, 2019, print edition.

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