What The Knuckler?

Sports: Baseball

When everything about baseball is new, having a knowledgeable buddy to help you get a grip on balls, strikes and four-seam fastballs can be more fun than shagging a can of corn

(The following is part of a continuing correspondence between Charley Gordon, journalist and veteran baseball fan, and Brian Doyle, author of Young Adult fiction and newly minted follower of the boys of summer.)

 

May 3, 2016

Dear Dr. Gordon:

I have a friend who has been a baseball fan for 70 years.

I am, as you know, a neophyte baseball watcher.

My friend (let’s call him “Mike”) has a superior attitude and is sneeringly patronizing when it comes to baseball comments.

I fear, when I come out of the closet, he is going to dismiss and even scoff  at any observation I might make about the game.

I want to say something about knuckle ball pitchers in general and R.A. Dickey in particular. I want my comment to sound sensible and mature and reasonable and I want it to be sneer proof.

Can you help me?

Apprehensive

PS: The comment can be negative or positive about knucklers, I don’t give a shit one way or the other.

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May 3, 2016

Dear Apprehensive:

This won’t be easy:

You could say that he always needs a couple of innings to see what his knuckler is going to do, and particularly, what speed is best for it. He has several different speeds of them and they all work differently, from day to day.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that his knuckler works differently in different climates and, further, that it may work better when the dome is open at the Rogers Centre.

You could also observe, should a runner be on first base, that, although you would think it would be easy to steal on a knuckleball pitcher, because of the catcher’s difficulty in handling the ball cleanly, Dickey has a very quick pick-off move to first base, and that keeps the runners from taking liberties.

If I can think of other things you can say to “Mike” I will pass them on.

Cheers,

Dr. Gordon

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May 16, 2016

Dear Doctor Gordon:

Thank you for past advice and guidance helping me become a bonafide baseball fan. I am approaching the stage where I can feel myself not only watching the score but also watching the game itself.

This time I have a question of  a personal nature.

Is it natural for a novice such as I am to throw food at the television set?

Concerned

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May 17, 2016

Dear Concerned:

It is acceptable to throw things at the television set in extraordinary circumstances, such as a particularly egregious umpiring decision or a bases-loaded walk. Some say a lead-off walk (which always comes around to score, according to the late baseball intellectual, Duke Snider, who would be known by your friend “Mike”) also justifies such action. Softer projectiles, such as buns or grapes, are preferable to harder objects or food that is covered in sauce.

Best wishes,

Dr. G

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May 27, 2016

Dear Doctor Gordon:

My heartfelt thanks for your kind instruction in preparing me for my coming out observational statement as an informed baseball fan in the presence of a very picky and, dare I say, anal friend of mine, “Mike”.

Although I am growing in confidence, I don’t feel nearly ready yet.

I have, if you can spare the time to answer them, two questions:

ONE: What is the job of the “bench coach” when he’s not substituting for the manager who has been ejected?

TWO: What is the procedure used by a team to keep its pitcher from going to the plate when there is no DH permitted?  Also, what happens in play-offs when a team with no DH plays a team with a DH?

Yours truly,

Muddled

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May 27, 2016

Dear Muddled, if indeed that is your name:

In answer to your questions:

1. The bench coach sits next to the manager.

2 (a). Having the pitcher bat is at the core of National League baseball and is much prized by baseball snobs, such as myself, and perhaps “Mike.” Some pitchers can hit well, which solves the problem. Some pitchers can bunt, which they will be called upon to do when there is a runner on first and fewer than two outs. If the pitcher cannot hit and it is not a bunting situation, the manager, in consultation with the bench coach, will put up with the pitcher striking out, if the pitcher is pitching well and they want him to continue. If the pitcher is not pitching well, the manager may pinch-hit for him, which means putting another batter in his place, following which a new pitcher will be put in. This is why the National League is intellectually more challenging than the American League, where the presence of the designated hitter means none of these complicated judgments need be made.*

2 (b). If a team with a DH plays at home against a team without a DH, there will be a DH for both sides. And conversely. Or vice versa.

Sincerely,

Dr. G

* Ask me some time about the “double-switch.”

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June 12, 2016

Dear Dr. Gordon:

Thank you for your ongoing help in my quest to become a sophisticated baseball fan.

Though I’m nowhere near the stage where I can make an offhand observation about bb strategy or outcome in the presence of my friend, “Mike”, I feel that I’m progressing.

My common-law wife has become interested in the game. I have told her, however, that she will not be allowed to ask questions of you because you are a busy man.  (The real reason is that I judge her questions to be inane.)

You mentioned last time the “double-switch”.

I may be mistaken but did I witness that very thing in today’s (Sunday) game against the Orioles involving a pitcher named, Pat Venditte?

Perhaps you could explain the rule involved.

(My CL wife’s frivolous query would have been as follows: Who’s the elderly, pot-bellied gent in the chinos and golf shirt and sneakers who leans against the wall in that blue-coloured room where the pitchers warm up; does he work there or is he somebody’s father-in-law. Or what?)

Hopeful

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June 13, 2016

Dear Hopeful:

I hope you were watching tonight’s Blue Jays-Phillies game because it had two examples of the double-switch in action.

Note that this game was played in a National League Park, Philadelphia, where National League rules are in effect, the most important of these being that the pitcher bats. In the bottom of the 9th inning, the Blue Jays put in a new pitcher, Drew Storen, and also a new first baseman, Justin Smoak. The Jays elected to put Smoak, a good hitter, in the pitcher’s spot, batting ninth, because the pitcher’s spot would be up should the Jays be forced to bat again. The new pitcher went into the spot vacated by the man Smoak replaced, Encarnacion. Since Encarnacion had recently batted there would be less chance of his spot on the batting order coming around, and therefore less likelihood of the pitcher, almost always a weak hitter, coming to bat.

As it turned out, Storen pitched well in the ninth, Smoak made a good defensive play and the Jays won without having to bat. But what strategy!

In answer to your further query — and by the way I wish you would confine yourself to just one — the double-switch concept has nothing to do with Pat Venditte, a pitcher who can throw with either hand. He is a switch-pitcher, or, as modern people might now refer to it, a trans-pitcher.

My best to the CLW. I will look for the pot-bellied man in the golf shirt. It sounds like me, but I know I wasn’t there.

Best regards etc.

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July 18, 2016

Dear Dr. Gordon:

Thank you for your timely teaching about the “double switch” by pointing out a live example in the Jays-Phillies game of June 15th.

It is because of insights such as these that I’m feeling more and more like a bonafide baseball fan.

I’m even making baseball “jokes” now, following your lead calling switch pitcher Pat Venditte a “trans”-pitcher.

I have concerns, however, regarding being a b’ball fan. I have now watched more than 90 games and I find myself getting short of breath and notice that my ankles are swelling up and that I’m getting irritable and sometimes put on my wife-beater underwear top and yell at my CLW, my face right up to hers, like they do sometimes at home plate.

My question is this: Do you have to watch every game to be a good baseball fan?

And will I have to watch all the games to be prepared for my coming out moment with my friend “Mike”?

Signed,

A Grinder  (formerly, Hopeful, Muddled, Concerned, Apprehensive, etc)

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July 19, 2016

Dear Grinder:

I am sorry about your shortness of breath, your swollen ankles and your underwear top. It appears that you may have overdone it a bit in your attempt to learn more about baseball. I don’t think it is a good sign that you are yelling, up close, at your CLW, in the manner of a major league umpire. Be especially sure not to kick dirt on her when you do that.

It is certainly not necessary to watch every baseball game to be a good fan or to converse knowledgeably with “Mike”, as you call him or her. For next season, I suggest that you cut back a bit. Most relevant details about the games can be found by turning on your computer and watching the “Internet,” where many interesting baseball facts are kept. For example, you can find out what Kevin Pillar’s OBP is and also his all-important OPS. You will also be told his WAR, but I don’t recommend that except for the most advanced fan, as I don’t understand it myself. And don’t even think about defensive WAR. A pitcher’s WHIP, however, is a valuable stat that could be casually mentioned to “Mike.”

So I would say that when you find yourself growing short of breath, turn off the TV, put on a real shirt and read statistics on the “Internet.”

Yours in baseball,

Dr. G

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I have concerns, however, regarding being a b’ball fan. I have now watched more than 90 games and I find myself getting short of breath and notice that my ankles are swelling up and that I’m getting irritable and sometimes put on my wife-beater underwear top and yell at my CLW, my face right up to hers, like they do sometimes at home plate.

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July 19, 2016

Dear Dr. Gordon:

Thank you for your wise advice regarding following the baseball games on the radio rather than on television thus avoiding becoming a disgusting couch potato.

I find with the radio you can walk around the kitchen and make a sandwich or go out for a ride in the car while the game is on.

Sometimes I even take the CLW with me to calm her down; she likes playing with the different stations to see if she can get the acid rock that she likes, but when she goes into the IGA I turn back to the game.

My question at this time is regarding a reference the game-caller on the radio often makes to “four seam” and “two seam” fast balls.

What is the difference, to a batter, between a four seam fastball and a two seam fastball? They’re both fastballs aren’t they?

(By the way, I am working on my informed baseball fan’s casual remark to my anal friend “Mike”. I don’t have the exact wording down yet but it’s getting there. I hope to be able to share it with you before the end of the regular season — October the 2nd I believe it is.)

I am,

Gaining Confidence

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Nov. 13, 2016

Dear Mr. Gaining Confidence:

I apologize for the regrettable delay in answering your last question. I was engaged in research and just plain forgot about the time.

Two-seam fastball.

To answer your question, a two-seam fast ball is thrown with the fingers along the seams. The spin thus imparted gives the ball a sinking action, causing the batter to hit a groundball, resulting in a double play. Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays is a typical practitioner. (Note: in older baseball parlance, the two-seamer, as we like to call it, was often called a “sinker.”)

The four-seam fastball is gripped with the fingers across the seams. The fingers actually touch the seams in four different places, hence the name. A ball thrown in this manner imparts backspin to the ball, causing it to rise. Except that it doesn’t really rise, because

Four-seam fastball.

that would defy the law of gravity, which applies in baseball as in other areas. What actually happens is that it doesn’t sink as rapidly as it might otherwise do, giving it the appearance of rising. The four-seamer is typically the fastest pitch in a hurler’s repertoire, and is sometimes referred to as the “high cheese.”

You didn’t ask this, but I thought you might also be interested in the cut fastball which is held with the fingers slightly off centre. This causes the ball to swerve slightly to the left (for a right-handed pitcher). The “cutter” is described as somewhere between a slider and a fastball, faster than the former and with more break than the latter.

Cutter Pitch baseball

Cut fastball.

I hope this is of some use to you. I would be happy to answer any of your questions about the recently concluded World Series and it also occurs to me that you might like to know about the sophisticated baseball practice known as “hitting it the other way.”

Regards to the CLW.

Dr. G

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Nov. 24, 2016

Dear Dr. Gordon:

Thank you for the most enlightening explanations delineating the differences between the two and four-seam fastballs.

Including close-ups of your fingers holding the ball proved to be an excellent teaching aid (the CLW thought you could use a good manicure).

Your teaching has further prepared me for my debut as an informed baseball fan when I make my definitive statement to my anal friend, “Mike”, one that is irrefutable, even to him.

I think that the fact that the season is over and almost forgotten will be to my advantage and catch him off guard since he is now preoccupied with his most recent position as Mr. Know-Everything about the NFL. (He even knows the names of the top ten equipment managers and the pounds of pressure Tom Brady likes to have in his balls).

I look forward to your explanation of the term, “hitting the other way”, and the sophistication of such an activity.

Call me,

“High Cheese”

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Nov. 24, 2016

Cheese:

The usual way for batters to hit is to “pull” the ball. A right-handed batter hits the ball in the direction of left field. If he hits it on the ground it goes to third base or shortstop but he hopes it will go in the air and over the left field fence. Batters like to “pull” the ball because they can typically hit it farther that way. This stands to reason: if you pull the ball, your bat has traveled further across the strike zone before it contacts the ball,  thus accumulating more speed and, hence, more power. Batters like to hit home runs and are usually paid more for hitting many of them.

However, in order to “pull” the ball a batter has to swing earlier and thus is more susceptible to being fooled by a tricky pitch, such as a change-up or a slider (op cit).

Further, defensive teams will often align themselves to foil the pull hitter by positioning three infielders on the left side, between second and third.*

Analysts, observing this, invariably urge the batter to “hit the ball the other way.” This means hit it towards right field, but it sure sounds funny, doesn’t it. Nobody ever talks about hitting it the the original way, or the first way, just the other way.

This may confuse “Mike”, particularly if he spends much time watching the NFL, where players can only do as they are told and would be benched if they tried any “other” way. You can also tell “Mike” for me that at least baseball pitchers don’t have the names of their pitches taped to their wrists.

Yrs in bball,

Dr. G

* For left-handed batters, the situation is reversed, but this is not the “other way”. This is the original way but for left-handed batters. I’m sure you knew that.

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Dec 13, 2016

Dear Dr. Gordon:

Ha ha! That was a good one!.

Baseball pitchers taping the names of their pitches on their wrists.

I can’t wait to lay that one on “Mike”.

But first, I have to come up with my definitive, indisputable baseball remark, the one that he cannot dismiss as being either wrong or simplistic or naive.

Maybe I’ll try something along the lines of: “The Jays didn’t make it to the Show last season because manager John Gibbons never had control over his stars, Bautista and Encarnacion. Like, did he ever dare ask them to bunt or sacrifice?”

What do you think? Will I be vulnerable to his withering sarcasm? Am I leaving myself open to his sneering ridicule, his condescending superciliousness?

By the way, the CLW is wondering what, if anything, you are doing about your persistent and often very painful fingernail fungus?

All the best,

Fearful

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Dec. 13, 2016

Dear Fearful:

Boo!

Haha. Just kidding.

That was a good try at a definitive, indisputable baseball remark but I fear that you didn’t quite hit it out of the park, as we say in Baseball. If you said something along the lines you propose, “Mike” might reply: “Aha! Shows how much you know. Encarnacion and Bautista probably haven’t bunted in 20 years. They don’t know how. Fat lot of good it would do to have them sacrificing.” Withering sarcasm and sneering ridicule might be possible, although you know “Mike” better than I do.

Perhaps it would be better to say something along these lines: “Say, ‘Mike’, it just occurred to me that maybe the Blue Jays should stop trying to swing for the fences and instead concentrate on making contact and moving the runner along. It might be a blessing in disguise to lose Bautista and Encarnacion. Maybe they can be replaced with some contact hitters who hit from the left side. Then we won’t be so vulnerable to right-handed pitching.”

If “Mike” indicates some hesitation to accept your idea, you could point out that the “breaking ball” from a right-handed pitcher curves away from the right-handed batter, thus making it more difficult to hit. Whereas to a left-handed pitcher, such “breaking balls” are duck soup.

I hope these suggestions make you less fearful.

Good luck,

Dr. G

p.s. I have given up trying the four-seamer and my fingernail seems (no pun intended) to be better. Thank the CLW for her concern.

I should also point out, before “Mike” does, that The Show does not refer to the World Series; it refers to the Major Leagues themselves. When a prospect says “I’m going to The Show,” as one did in the movie Bull Durham, it means that he is going up to the Major Leagues.

p.p.s. It occurs to me that the subject of baseball movies, and the critiquing thereof might be fruitful in your search for something definitive and indisputable.

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Jan. 26, 2017

Dear Dr. Gordon:

Great news!

Remember what you said about watching baseball movies? How Hollywood could help me become baseball savvy?

Well, it’s been the best advice ever!

The CLW and I have turned our living room into a sports entertainment centre with all the latest gizmos (surroundsound, curved screens etc.) and spent almost our life savings on every streaming provider on the market.

Did you know there’ve been 102 baseball movies made since the first one, Over the Fence (1917) starring Harold Lloyd?

(In it, Lloyd delivers his famous fuzzball and then, when it’s hit out of the park, he runs all the way back from the mound, climbs up a telephone pole and makes the catch himself! Hilarious!

Our fave so far is, It Happens Every Spring, starring Oscar-winner Ray Milland, fresh faced, green-eyed, unpretentious beauty Jean Peters and homely, big lug Paul Douglas.

See, absent minded Prof Vernon K. Simpson (Milland) invents a solution that keeps insects (ants) away from wood. A baseball crashes through the window of his lab and accidentally gets soaked in the liquid. His fiancée, the Dean’s daughter, Deborah Greenleaf (actually Peters) kisses him when they discover that the baseball now avoids wood. Get it? Wood? Baseball bat?

Anyway, Vernon gets signed by the Cards to pitch and they go undefeated but then manager (Douglas) has to figure out what to do when the liquid solution runs out because the fumbling professor can’t remember the formula to make more and the World Series is coming up and…well, I don’t feel right revealing the ending at this time.

I’m learning  a lot about how real baseball works by watching these movies.

Also, (and this is kind of personal) this new life of ours has brought me and the CLW a lot closer.

If you know what I mean.

I am,

Happy

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Jan. 29, 2017

Dear Happy:

It’s good news that you have begun watching baseball films, the better to understand this complex game. And it is also good that you have discovered It Happens Every Spring, a most perceptive work, and with a fine theme song composed by Josef Myrow and Mack Gordon. Frank Sinatra also recorded it.

Along the same lines, I would recommend Angels in the Outfield, in which Janet Leigh plays a reporter who somehow, I forget, arranges for angels to intervene on behalf of a crusty old manager and win ball games. The crusty old manager may be Paul Douglas again, but it might also be Broderick Crawford. I would look it up but that’s not my job. I think there is also a suspicious sports writer, played beautifully by Keenan Wynn, but maybe that’s in another movie.

You would also enjoy Ronald Reagan, as Grover Cleveland Alexander (as you know, he struck out Lazzeri with the bases loaded in the 1928 World Series). That movie was called The Winning Team, and was accurate except for neglecting the fact that Grover — or “Old Pete”, as he was often called, was drunk as a skunk most of the time. Also, Reagan threw like a . . . well, he didn’t throw with authenticity, and this is true of a number of actors playing ballplayers, although Kevin Costner and Robert Redford are OK.

I don’t know whether “Mike” would be impressed by any of this, but I would also recommend The Stratton Story, starring James Stewart as Monty Stratton, a pitcher who shoots his leg off in a hunting accident comes back with a wooden leg, but toughs it out and takes the mound for the Chicago White Sox. As always — I’m sure you noticed this — there is a woman cheering him on from the stands. Donna Reed often did this. In Monty’s case it was June Allyson. Apparently this was a more or less true story, but what isn’t in the movie is that batters, an unromantic lot, bunted on Monty and his wooden leg. He couldn’t move well enough to field the bunts and that drove him out of the league.

I look forward to more of your news of cinematic baseball gems.

Yours in bball,

Dr. G

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Feb. 5, 2017

Dear Dr. Gordon:

As always, your advice has been a great help in our quest to become expert baseball fans.

We watched the movie, The Winning Team that you recommended, the one with President Reagan and Doris Day.

The common-law-wife, she looked up that Reagan was 41 years of age when he won that big game and he couldn’t have done it without Doris Day being right there in the stands rooting for him, smiling and blowing him a kiss just before he delivered that last pitch and she got to thinking about all the talk lately about the Blue Jays being too old now… Tulo is 32, Martin is 33, Josh is 31, Upton Jr. is 32, Morales is 33… but so what?

Reagan was way older than that, 41, when he played in that famous game and he did OK.

All this brings me to a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.

What do you think is better; a team of young, inexperienced players who are in top shape, or a team of old, wise players who are on the verge of falling apart?

Keen

p.s. did you know that The Winning Team was advertised as the film dedicated to “every man who has ever played for the love of the game and to every woman who has ever played the game of love!”?

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Oct. 12, 2017

Mr. Keen:

I am sorry for the delay in answering your most recent email. I was away from my desk for quite a while and when I returned I had difficulty finding my desk.

In reply to your question, I did not know that The Winning Team was dedicated to every man who has ever played for the love of the game and to every woman who has ever played the game of love.

Part of my delay in answering is attributable to a certain malaise over the dismal season, just concluded, of the Toronto Blue Jays. But, there may be a happy ending in this. It occurs to me that your thoughts about the ages of players on the Toronto Blue Jays may contain the germ of a snappy observational statement to your friend/nemesis “Mike”. As we have seen, the Blue Jays, while mostly younger than Ronald Reagan, played as if older, even José Bautista, who is 36, and couldn’t even bring himself to flip a bat this season. Could something profound be made of this? Perhaps something along the lines of “you can teach the two-seam fastball but you can’t teach youth.”

Isn’t that clever? Even if it isn’t, I think it might be time for you to drop the Big One on “Mike”. Seeing as how it is World Series time again and all. Do you need any ideas, or has Dr. G given you enough preparation that you are confident enough to proceed on your own?

Yours in Baseball,

Dr. G

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October 15, 2017 3:05 PM

Dear Dr. Gordon:

Thanks to your guidance and encouragement I finally found the confidence to broach my friend, “Mike”, with a baseball remark that he would not sneer at, a remark that would be worthy of his attention as being uttered by someone as sophisticated as he is regarding all the ins and outs (no pun) of that great sport.

I said:

“You know, Mike, I think the new no pitch intentional walk rule is just another example of the way big money is despoiling the purity of the great game of baseball.”

Here’s what Mike said:

“Who cares.

I don’t follow baseball any more.

I’m into Sepak Takraw. You’ve probably never heard of it and wouldn’t appreciate it even if you had. It’s a game played in Southeast Asia similar to volleyball except players must handle the ball using any part of the body except the arms.

The ball used in Sepak Takraw is made of rolled up dried palm leaves.”

Anyway, me and the common-law wish you all the best. (She says she’d like to meet you personal, sometime.)

Have a great World Series!

Signed,

Starting Over

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THE EX-PRESS, October 28, 2017

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2 Replies to "What The Knuckler?"

  • BillProvick November 5, 2017 (8:06 pm)

    You two gentlemen are obviously in co-hoots — you both make me laugh.

  • Jay Stone October 30, 2017 (7:38 am)

    This is great, you two. Can’t wait to read your conversation on jazz (or young adult fiction.)

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