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Baseball's Great Equalizer: The Knuckleball

Pitcher R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays throws a knuckleball against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.
J. Meric
Getty Images
Pitcher R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays throws a knuckleball against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.

If Bugs Bunny had a pitch, it would be the knuckleball. It weaves and bobs, zigs and zags, and acts like it has a mind of its own. Catchers have trouble catching this pitch. It leaves hitters dazed. Even the pitcher can't really say for sure what it's going to do. And that's the idea. It isn't a power pitch. It isn't a control pitch. It is, precisely, an uncontrol pitch.

The idea is to throw the ball with as little spin as possible. This lets the play of the air and wind along the ball's seams determine its trajectory. A good knuckleballer doesn't so much place the ball as he acts like a ball whisperer.

Here's the curious thing: no one in baseball sets out to be a knuckleballer. By and large, it is a pitch of last resort. You turn to it when all else fails — when the fastball no longer pops and when no one is fooled by the change. Certainly this was the case with R.A. Dickey, who won 20 games and the Cy Young award last year pitching for the Mets. He may be the only knuckleballer in today's Major Leagues. He turned to the knuckleball — started the long arduous process of learning to throw it — to save a sagging career.

If the knuckleball can be so devilishly effective, why don't more pitchers cultivate it as part of their working arsenal? Or, at the very least, why aren't knuckleball specialists a more everyday part of the game?

The only answer I can come up with is that baseball, like life, isn't rational; things aren't always what they are supposed to be. In the culture of baseball — at least our American baseball culture — the knuckleball just isn't sexy.

But what if a young pitcher, someone still in little league, did set their sights on this pitch. What if someone devoted a wholecareer to it? This would be a species of baseball flower that may have never been seen before.

Watch the ESPN video below to learn about an unstoppable young pitcher, out of Florida, who is doing just this. The video's from 2010, but there's been no lag in the development of this young talent.

It's a long road from little league stardom the major leagues. But this knuckleballer has a better chance than most and her name is Chelsea Baker.

(Hat tip: Thanks to David Temple's excellent podcast Stealing Home, where I first learned about Chelsea Baker.)

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter:

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.