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July 24, 2014

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Ron Kantowski knuckles down to write about a fading art in baseball and an oldtimer who wants to keep it alive

KNUCKLEBALL ALIASES

Dry spitter

Flutterball

Floater

Dancer

Butterfly ball

Ghostball

The Bug

PROMINENT KNUCKLEBALLERS

Hoyt Wilhelm

Phil Niekro

Joe Niekro

Charlie Hough

Wilbur Wood

Tom Candiotti

Bob Purkey

KNUCKLING UNDER

During the 1945 season, with baseball rosters depleted by World War II, the Washington Senators featured a starting rotation solely of knuckleball pitchers. They were Dutch Leonard, Johnny Niggeling, Mickey "Itsy Bitsy" Haefner and Roger Wolff, who combined for 60 complete games and 60 wins.

KNUCKLEBALL QUOTES:

"There are two theories on hitting a knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them works."

- famed hitting coach Charlie Lau

"Catching the knuckleball is like trying to catch a fly with a chopstick."

- catcher Jason Varitek

"For a knuckleballer, a pitch count of 150 is not a problem. Unless it's the first inning."

- Dave Clark

One of the most pleasant memories of my youth was playing catch with my dad after he came home from work. We'd lob the ball back and forth, back and forth, until I got bored, or one of the neighborhood girls rode by on her 10-speed, diverting my attention.

Then the old man would toss me a knuckleball. That immediately got my head back in the game. If I managed to catch it, he would let loose a better one, which usually bounced off my kneecap or shin.

My dad coulda been Hoyt Wilhelm, I thought. Instead, he winds up pouring slag at a steel mill.

That was probably the first time I wondered why more pitchers didn't throw a knuckler. Heck, if you can't catch it, how could anybody hit one? Plus, there's no wear and tear on the ol' soup bone.

Wilhelm was just 16 days shy of his 50th birthday when he threw his last knuckleball in 1972. Wilbur Wood, who succeeded him in serving knuckleball sandwiches for the White Sox, once started both games of a doubleheader, and when was the last time somebody who brings serious heat did that?

Yet knuckleball pitchers have become more scarce than a $4 grandstand ticket. Boston's Tim Wakefield and Milwaukee's Jared Fernandez are thought to be the only ones still active in the majors. There was a third - Texas' R.A. Dickey - until he allowed a major-league record-tying six home runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Tigers recently, five of them on knuckleballs. Now he's back in triple-A, where he's considering putting his knuckler in mothballs.

That's where Ralph McNeal's was until I insisted he dust it off for this column. McNeal, who lives with his wife, Shirley, in Henderson, is an old knuckleball pitcher and I mean that literally. He's 71. But as he proved during a catch at the Arroyo baseball complex, he can still make a baseball dance.

He told me it had been 20 years since he threw a knuckleball in anger. Good, I told him. I didn't bring shin guards. Or a cup.

McNeal was born in Ohio but grew up in Homestead, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh, and used to barnstorm with members of the Homestead Grays and other Negro League ballplayers.

"OK, Ralphie boy," I thought, trying to bend my 49-year-old knees into Yogi Berra position. "Let's see what you got."

McNeal tossed me five variations of knucklers - a fingernail ball, a knuckle change (four knuckles down), a fast knuckler (three knuckles down), a knuckle curve (two knuckles down) and a finger knuckle curve (one finger, one knuckle down).

I caught them all. Even the one he threw in the dirt. But I have to confess that my eyes were closed on three of them.

I was starting to feel like Doug Mirabelli, the local kid who has had a long major league career as a backup catcher, primarily because he was the only guy in the Boston organization who could catch Wakefield's knuckler without a butterfly net.

Then I had to remind myself that McNeal is 71 years old. I can only imagine what he must have been like at 21.

You may be wondering why McNeal didn't parlay his knuckleball into fame and fortune. So did I. But it was a different world in the early 1950s, and something just usually got in the way of McNeal and the baseball diamond - such as going to college and going to the service.

Those things were important to McNeal, an intelligent, thoughtful man who became a pioneer in the venture capital industry - he researched, founded and promoted the Small Business Stock Exchange of America Inc., for which he received the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company's National Achievers Award in 1992.

He still tries to catch a baseball game on TV now and then. Usually he winds up being quickly bored.

"I watched the Yankees and KC and part of the Red Sox today," he said. "The pitching was ho-hum - the same bread and butter pitchers trying to hit the same spots. The only real pitchers the last few years have been 'El Duque' (Orlando Hernandez) and Roger Clemens."

And don't even get him started on the hitters. He's tired of these 230-pound muscle-bound sluggers and their spikes made of kangaroo leather.

"All you can hear when they walk is the air coming out of their shoes," McNeal sniffs.

But mention the knuckleball, and his eyes light up like Yankee Stadium on an October evening.

He said baseball's fascination with the 95-mph fastball will probably result in the knuckleball becoming even more rare. But he predicts that within the next decade, the next great knuckleballer will emerge, and he will most likely come from overseas, from Japan or perhaps Korea, where technique and discipline are considered just as important as natural ability.

"Just like (Hideki) Matsui or Ichiro, you're going to get a master (knuckleballer) coming out of there," McNeal said, adding that he'd like to find a 13- or 14-year-old he could teach and coach in Southern Nevada and beat the Japanese to it.

McNeal is convinced that a youngster who wants to put in the time and effort can still make it all the way to the top with a knuckleball and little else.

And even if that youngster doesn't pass Hoyt Wilhelm or Phil Niekro on the way to Cooperstown, there will come a time when he'll have an opportunity to play catch with his son when Mom is inside putting dinner on the table.

Then he, too, will know the perverse pleasure of cutting loose a wicked knuckler and watching it crack off junior's shinbone.

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