Project Knuckleball; the Sporting Scene

By McGrath, Ben | The New Yorker, May 17, 2004 | Go to article overview

Project Knuckleball; the Sporting Scene


McGrath, Ben, The New Yorker


As season-ending home runs go, Aaron Boone's eleventh-inning shot for the Yankees against the Red Sox last October looks pretty unimpressive in retrospect. Watch the video replay once more: a paunchy, goateed pitcher, his cap pulled down low, begins to wind up for what appears to be a practice pitch--hasn't a batter stepped in already?--and releases the ball from a contorted claw's grip, right pinkie finger extended, with a prim, abbreviated follow-through, the right foot landing in quick succession after the left, as though in a limp. The miles-per-hour indicator flashes "69" at the top of the screen as the ball floats, then hangs. If you didn't know better, you might not believe that the Boston pitcher--he's quietly walking off the field now, as Yankee Stadium erupts with joy--intended to get Boone out, or that he had any business being on the mound in a post-season Game Seven in the first place, much less during extra innings. In fact, though, Tim Wakefield, the pitcher in question, had beaten the Yankees more often than any pitcher all season by doing much the same thing. Sixty-nine m.p.h. is routine for a sophomore in high school; it is on the fast side for a Wakefield delivery.

The Yankees and the Red Sox are engaged in what is often called an arms race. This past off-season, the two teams, already possessing stratospheric payrolls, went about adding more firepower to their rosters. The Sox, most notably, added a couple of hard-throwing All-Star pitchers (New York allowed fewer runs last season), while the Yanks added a couple of All-Star sluggers (Boston scored more). In Fort Myers, on the first Sunday in March, the Yankees arrived at City of Palms Park (Florida's Fenway) to play the Red Sox in a meaningless early spring-training game that was nonetheless billed by various players and writers as "Game Eight"--the continuation of last fall's epic series, which seemed merely to have paused for the winter. Before the game, several fans paraded around the grandstand carrying signs taunting Alex Rodriguez, New York's studly new third baseman (he'd recently posed with his wife for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue), and alluding to the simmering steroids controversy (the Yankees' new right fielder, Gary Sheffield, was among those called to testify before a grand jury). Obscured by all the commotion was the fact that, in this cold-war buildup, the weakest arm may still make all the difference.

Two miles down the road, at about the same time, a twenty-four-year-old former art student named Charlie Zink was throwing from a practice mound at the Red Sox' sprawling Player Development Complex, while the rest of the hundred or so minor-leaguers in the Boston organization, spread out over five diamonds, took batting practice and shagged fly balls. Zink was twelve when he first saw Wakefield--then a rookie with the Pittsburgh Pirates--pitching in the National League playoffs, in 1992. Now, although he is capable of throwing standard-issue jock heat, Zink was trying to mimic the Wakefield delivery as well as he could, right down to the apparent lack of exertion and the junior-varsity speed. From a side view, there was nothing at all remarkable about Zink's pitches, except that occasionally the catcher didn't catch them. In those instances, the coach who was standing behind the mound tended to exclaim, "That is outstanding!" Zink, who went undrafted as a fastball pitcher, is, at the Red Sox' urging, reinventing himself as a rare specialist: a knuckleballer. With Wakefield, one of only two knuckleball pitchers currently on a major-league roster, and now Zink, the Red Sox are cornering the market on low-grade weaponry. Project Knuckleball is only just beginning its second year, but, according to Baseball Prospectus, a leading baseball-analysis Web site, Zink is already the Red Sox' top-rated prospect.

The knuckleball--also known as the knuckler, the fingernail ball, the fingertip ball, the flutterball, the floater, the dancer, the bug, the butterfly ball, the moth, the bubble, the ghostball, the horseshoe, the dry spitter, and, curiously, the spinner--has been around, in one form or another, for nearly as long as professional baseball itself, though for much of that time it has been regarded with suspicion. …

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