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"The Knuckleballer"

        “What does a mamma bear on the pill have in common with the World Series?... No Cubs”  

---Harry Caray---

 American Television and Radio Broadcaster (1914-1998)

Yankee Stadium

 New York City

 October 2009  

  It was the last game in this tottering old stadium…”the house that Ruth built.”  The cliché utterance for Babe Ruth, who it is said, in some circles, saved the game of baseball.  This historical edifice with its memorable plaques and internationally known nostalgia would be razed and the franchise moved to another Bronx location.   

 It was overcast, a typical October day; cool in the mornings with the warmth of the sun shining in the afternoon.  Jason  Roberts looked up and saw the large 747 airplane casting a long shadow over the stadium as it flew towards  the  Kennedy or LaGuadia airports. He looked out at the green fields of Yankee Stadium and the crowd of  fans reflecting many colors and banners.   

 The game had changed over time with the older baseball franchise-owned stadiums being razed and newer ones being built, just to mention a few  in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia and some franchises moved to Atlanta, Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other places.  The team Owner’s racial barriers and quota system had been relinquished with the addition of players from all nations now being sought for their baseball and athletic prowess.   Beside American players, there are ball players from the Caribbean, South America, Asia, Europe and if you look carefully enough you might think an alien or two may have landed and donned a uniform. The sport had truly become an international past time.  Bill Veck, an early owner of the Cleveland and Whitesox franchises one said: “Baseball is the only game left for people.  To play basketball you have to be seven feet, six inches.  To play football, you have to be the same width.”    

This was the deciding game of the 2009 World Series.  The game was being played between the N.Y. Yankees, in their white and pinstriped uniforms, kingpins of the American league, who, historically had won twenty four playoffs and engaged in six World Series.  Their rival this year, the Chicago Cubs of the National League in their away uniforms of Gray  with red numbers and a blue “Chicago” on the front, who had last played and won a series in 1908. The year that:; the ball for the first time was dropped at Times Square to celebrate the New Year, the first horror movie (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) premiered in Chicago, and “Take me out to the Ball Game” was registered for copyright. This 1908 victory came in the final days of the Roosevelt Administration-Theodore Roosevelt’s. But, this was their year and they fought hard against all odds, with injuries, trades, deadlines and finally besting the Pittsburgh Pirates four out of seven to meet the Yankees in this 2009 World Series finale.   

It was the bottom of the ninth, two outs in Yankee Stadium.  The Cubs had bounced back in the seventh with a home run from their fourth hitter Tom Radcliff, the right fielder who had been a big, help coming in from a trade with the Atlanta Braves.  Bill Ward, the starting pitcher, had held the Yankees for six innings, replaced by Juan Morales, the setup reliever, who continued to shut the door.  Juan’s slider had worked and handcuffed the hitters and now it was time to deliver the final blow with some relief work.  This regime of pitching changes with a starter, setup reliever and a closer, it is said, was initiated by “Sparky” Anderson, while managing the Cincinnati Reds.  His cadence of pitching changes must have made sense, because other teams adopted it giving way to hurlers, who like Doctors of today, became specialists known for that defined activity of starting, setup relief, long relief, middle relief, and closer.  It tested the hitters, since they couldn’t get used to seeing, timing and hitting a pitcher who would eventually tire in the late innings.  The aspect of seeing different deliveries, speeds, and breaking balls from various deliveries tested the batter’s skill.  In addition, it made a way for those who became specialist in a niche role to obtain contracts and endorsements never before earned. The moniker “Captain Hook” was bestowed upon Sparky Anderson because of this method of pitching changes.  A starting pitcher lasting a full nine innings had become a rarity.  

There were three  pitchers in the bullpen, beside Jason the old knuckleballer.  Two were lefties and another, a right hand fireballer.  The phone rang and the bullpen manager signaled the forty-five year old man to warm up along with Larry Jensen, the young fireballer.  

 He knew this would be the last game of his career.  He had already indicated to the front office that he wouldn’t be back next year.  This was the final year of his $15 Million contract. The news jockeys  from the Sports Illustrated, Baseball Digest, Sporting News, all the Chicago papers, and where ever he went the reporters cornered him, and interviewed him continuously.  Team press releases flooded the journalistic avenues,  and everyone who read the sports magazines and newspapers, or viewed the internet knew the aged knuckleballer  would retire. Jason has a good record of saves and a lifetime record of over 400 wins.  Because of his tenure and the knuckleball, he had been relegated to the position of a reliever.  However, over his career, he had been nominated five times for the “Cy Young Award,” winning it three.  In addition, he had a couple trophies for being the “Most Valuable Player” in different situations added to his bio.  For the last couple of years he had become a “spot” pitcher, and over the years a strategic one, studying the opposition, the statistics, and making copious notes on his laptop.  His arm ached, his knees hurt and his fastball had lost some of its zip. But, he knew he would be expected to deliver this last time… if called upon.  Mike Zoleski, the trainer had earlier applied an analgesic to his arm to assist the blood circulation. As he warmed up, he increased his delivery and worked fast to break a sweat, which over the years was an indication that he was ready.  The bullpen catcher caught each pitch, smiled and nodded to him.  He had caught Jason many times over the years and was familiar with his knuckler, his delivery,   and many other pitches the “Junkman” had in his repertoire. The smile and nod indicated the catcher’s agreement that the ball was breaking and reacting to his great satisfaction.  Jason wiped the sweat from his brow.  He was ready! 

The bullpen phone rang!  The bullpen coach answered,  nodded, and motioned  to Jason.  He again, wiped his brow, put on his jacket, and slung the red and white towel around his neck.  This was it…  he was ready!  

 Jason walked to the bullpen gate; the golf cart had arrived and was waiting with the young blond-hair, blue-shirted driver.  The cart would take him across the green through the infield and straight to the pitcher’s mound.  

 Jason got into the cart and the sound system started playing the theme from “Batman.”  The cart started to roll, the crowd stood, started to clap in unison and sing substituting the name “Junkman” in the place of Batman. This designation   had been Jason’s calling card over the years and gave an aura of intimidation over the opposing team’s batsmen.  It had been negotiated by his agent in the early years as part of his contract and it became his mantra. It was highly recognized by the crowd, an intimidation  strategy, and the players knew what was coming.  

 Knuckleballing was a dying craft in the majors, since it took years to learn and perfect.  Most coaches, scouts, managers and owners were not knuckleball enthusiasts.  They grew up with the 95 miles an hour fastball and besides the basic curve, change up, and possible slider, knew nothing of the fork ball, palm ball, screwball or other pitches that had disappeared because of the lax in coaching, futile efforts, dissuasion,  or non attempts.  Jason was a pure knuckleballer.  He threw the ball with knuckles down and not with a fingernails grip.  Fingernails grip pitchers usually threw one delivery.  Jason threw all four deliveries; overhand, ¾ overhand, sidearm, and underhand or submarine.  In all cases the ball reacted differently and was thrown according to the hitter’s position in the batter’s box and whether he was a right or left handed batter.  Jason’s repertoire consists of the normal curve, change up, fastball, screwball, slider and many variations of knuckleballs.  The different knuckleballs were; one and two knuckle curve, three knuckle fastball and a four knuckle flutter or butterfly.  However, as Warren Spahn, pitcher for the Boston Braves Franchise once said: “Hitting is timing.  Pitching is upsetting timing.”  This is what a knuckleballer is trained to comprehend.  

 The cart arrived at the mound.  Bill Green the manager, the pitching coach, first baseman, short stop, catcher, the relief pitcher, Morales and third baseman were there to meet him. “How do you feel?” Asked the Skipper. “Good” replied Jason. “Who’s up?”  “Dwight Karponic, right hander power hitter.  You’ve seen him before.  Our statistics indicate a .289 batting average against you during your association, and a .250 with men on base…so need I say; be careful?” With that exclamation, he handed Jason the ball, hit him on the butt and strode off towards the dugout with Jake Myers the pitching coach in tow.  

 Early in Jason’s minor league career, he and the Skipper played for the Nashville Vols in the double A Southern Association.  The Skipper drafted out of Princeton University, had a couple of call ups to the majors, but, could never establish a professional career as an outfielder.  Finally the rumors of getting involved with the “who you know” crowd,  became true and he got a chance at managing.  He was currently working off the second of a three year contract.  If Chicago wins this last game, undoubtedly his contract will be extended.  The Skipper was probably the last of the breed who didn’t regard the knuckleball as a “Freak Pitch.”  The other managers, for the most part, weren’t used to seeing or feeling the effect of a Hoyt Wilhelm, Ewell Blackwell, “Rip” Sewell, Wilbur Wood, Phil Niekro and other master craftsmen who had hurled the exotics. Gone were the seasoned sportswriters and radio cadre who worked the era.  The only ones left were the “don’t knows” who like the others considered those pitches of yore ancient relics and were contagiously impressed with the radar gun.  It is reckoned with the scarcity of the exotics, development would probably come from overseas where technique and discipline is considered just as important as natural ability.  

Travis Lee the first baseman and team captain who had been a mainstay with the Cubs for years filled him in on the situation.  “You know the basics; you’ve seen these guys before.  Karponic you can handle…you’ve done it before many times.  The score is four to thee, last inning, get this guy out and we’ll call it a World Series.  I’m not going to hold my runner on, since he has got no place to go” John Cox the third baseman said: “I’ll protect the line and stay pretty close to the bag.  You do what we know you can, and we’ll all go home.”  With that, he left and went back to his position.    The catcher asked about the kids, what his plans were in retirement, and they discussed the batter.  Jason threw the customary warm up pitches and Don Ingram; the catcher came back out to the mound to confirm signals and the first pitch.   “Let’s start off with a slow knuckle curve.  You know the batter, toy with him, and let’s keep him guessing.”  With that, the catcher went back behind the plate, put on his mask, adjusted the chest protector, said something to the ump, thumped the oversized mitt  the young ball boy had given him, and squatted in anticipation for the first pitch.  The Umpire, in his black regalia, adjusted his breast protector, shifted his shoulder padding and  refitted his mask.   And hollered “Play Ball.” The Catcher gave Jason a factitious sign, adjusted his mask, thereby letting the infielders know that a curve, either knuckle or basic was being delivered.  Signals were often changed during the game, according to inning thereby keeping the opposing players in the dark.  A second base runner by studying the repetition of signals and signs could often decipher the pitcher-catcher strategy and relay it to the hitter, the dugout and other base runners.  

Jason glanced at the crowd, heard plenty of catcalls and saw a few fans donning their “rally caps” in hope that the home team would score.  Banners were flying, and signs were displaying “Beat the Cubs!”  “Junk the Junkman!” “Sink The Showboat,” “You Gotta Believe!”  The crowd hollered in unison “Let’s go Yankees.” The wind had started to pick up a little.  Jason was hoping it wouldn’t blow too much to affect his knuckleball.  He walked around the mound, noting its condition while spitting in his hand to rub the shine off of the ball.  This was it; he needed a good dry grip on the ball to be effective.  Using powdered rosin wasn’t his thing, to him; it made the ball slippery like a foreign substance. He never used it…why change now?  He had thrown a “spitter” earlier in his career when it was possible, but with all the coverage, T. V. close-ups, and detailed umpiring, the fines and suspensions were not worth it anymore. 

Karponic stepped into the box, about even with the plate and close enough for adequate coverage.  He swung his bat a couple of times, reset his batting helmet, and adjusted his batting gloves.  They had faced each other before.  He smiled at the Junkman, and then became serious and stoic.  Jason knew he had to keep the ball away from his power.  The Knuckleballer and the catcher decided on an outside knuckle curve, thrown with a submarine delivery which when thrown properly would start at Karponic’s knees and break in arc to the outside of the plate.  It’s a pitch that one really needs to follow because of the optical illusion created.   Jason toed the rubber, looked in at the catcher and umpire.  He turned and stretched, looked at the third base runner jockeying back and fourth.  He shut out the crowd and hears the first baseman holler, “A lotta jennica,” the catcher, “Come on Jason…give it to me,” the third base runner, ”here I go,” the short stop clamoring “big man little bat.” Jason delivered, flipped his knuckles; the ball fluttered, spun, rose up in a perfect arc, and broke on the outside of the plate.  Karponic stutter-strode, didn’t swing, but watched the ball break outside into the catcher’s mitt and shook his head.  “Strike One,” with his right hand raised, hollered the Ump.  Karponic glanced at the umpire with contempt.                            ________________________________