Wednesday, June 6, 2012

knuckle ball catcher

...but a knuckle ball catcher only gets one job to do — Gillian Welch

We have had a century and an half of professional base ball. Base ball is hitting, pitching, fielding and base running. Only in stealing a base can an offensive player initiate play, and often even that is a by product. Usually the pitcher begins play, by throwing. A lot of boys dream of pitching in the majors. They start with a fast ball. No one is known to have thrown a knuckle ball before 1906.

Boys don't wake up and say, "I am going to be a knuckle ball pitcher". Quite often, there is no such ball pitcher in the majors. Right now, there is just one. R.A. Dickey pitches for New York of the National League. He has been a mediocre pitcher at the professional level. He has written an autobiography; he was an English major. Dickey, like many knuckle ballers, developed the pitch to extend his career. It is thrown with less force, and taxes the arm less. Dickey is now 8 and 1 in wins and losses, it is his best season. His career winning percentage is approaching .500. He is thirty-seven years old. There are few ball players playing after 35.

Last year, Tim Wakefield finished his long career with Boston. He had been a first baseman in the minors, and was on his way out. The knuckle ball was his gateway to the bigs. When he retired in February, he was the eldest active ball player at 44.

Dickey's catcher is the franchise's regular starting catcher, Josh Thole. The pitcher and catcher were called 'the battery', and before microphones were announced on megaphones. Some teams have platooned catchers. Usually, out fielders are platooned, lefties and righties in hitting. Sometimes there are players who throw right, and bat left. In the last hundred years there has been seven major league games played with left handed catchers. Some pitchers have a particular catcher. They are the only players that regularly communicate with each other.

Mark Harris wrote a novel in 1956, Bang the Drum Slowly. That year it was on television with Paul Newman as the pitcher (and writer, and insurance salesman). In 1973 Robert De Niro played the catcher. In that story the pitcher was having a contract fight. He ended the holdout only on the stipulation that his ailing catcher would catch him. In 1988 the film Bull Durham concerned finding an experienced catcher to refine an extremely hard throwing and wild pitcher.

Let us revisit Aristotle and the syllogism. (Premise) There are few knuckle ball pitchers. (2nd Premise) Some pitchers have a 'designated' catcher. (Conclusion) Knuckle ball catchers are quite rare.

For a few years, Doug Mirabelli was Wakefield's catcher. The Red Sox traded him away, and had to get him back just to catch Wakefield. A knuckle ball is neither particularly easy to hit, nor catch. Not many catchers can adequately field the pitch.
So, when a knuckle ball pitcher is on a team's staff, there must be someone to catch him. Knuckle ball catchers are very rare, and have a particular ability that is necessary only with the presence of a knuckle ball pitcher.

Gillian Welch's song is auto-biographical, with the addition of a brilliant allusion. She and David Rawlings are a communicative, and intimate battery. They are exquisite instrumentalists (Rawlings plays a 1935 Epiphone Olympic; Welch, a 1956 Gibson J50 ), at times their voices are one as he sings a soft harmony. They have been a couple for twenty years.
postscriptum 3 October 2012:  Dickey finished 20-6 on a 4th place team, in a five team division. He led the league in innings pitched (233 2/3), strikeouts (230), complete games (5). He was second in wins, and in ERA (2.73). He should win the Cy Young award for best pitcher in the National League.

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