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Making a ball 'dance'

The universe doesn't readily divulge such mysteries as the knuckleball

Issue: "The Road to Damascus," Sept. 21, 2002

THE TAJ MAHAL IS A PRETTY NICE BUILDING AND the Eurostar ain't no shabby train, but for pure wonder consider the knuckleball. Consider it now as the boys of summer wind down their pursuits: "the strong men are bent, ... and the doors on the street are shut, ... and desire fails, ... and mourners go about the streets, ... and the dust returns to the earth as it was" (Ecclesiastes 12:3-8). Consider it now as the "curse of the Bambino" still clots the air over Boston, the Chicago Cubs are once more uninvited to the Series, and Hoyt Wilhelm (1923-2002), master of the knuckleball (aka "butterfly ball" aka "floater") has passed from the scene in languid August.

"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar" (Mark Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar). So let it be with Hoyt, too. And even if his mortal coil goes the way of Ted Williams to immortal refrigeration, could we ever know the secret he carried to that way station to eternity?

My college teacher said that when evolution had got itself a full head of steam, the brain reached a critical mass of complication and one day gave birth to consciousness. The idea seemed puerile to me even then, like a silly child's tale with a giant ellipsis that he thought to slip past. For matter is matter, and mind is mind, and the twain touch only by mystery. Likewise, no locus will be found, in the dissected folds of Hoyt's gray matter, for the knuckleball "wonder of the world."

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Of course God knows the way to it-through and through and in and out. For He planted it there, like some cosmic scavenger hunt, to be discovered by men. That was on the same day that He brought forth Wisdom as the first of His works "when He assigned to the sea its limit, ... when He marked out the foundations of the earth" (Proverbs 8:29); when He showed the mountain goats how to give birth and taught the hawk to fly and the horse how to leap like the locust (Job 39:1,20,26). The knuckleball was there in Eden, waiting.

I picture a boy, a bored little goatherd in 4,000 b.c. His companion has gouged sheep guts and fashioned a lyre of sorts. The boy, less musically inclined, is pitching rocks. Since that is his only occupation other than corralling the odd stray billy, it is perfected over time: a science, an art. The boy learns spin. He tries spit. He experiments with knuckles. A new thing is born in the universe.

Though maybe not this scenario. For the secret is in the seams, and a rock has no seams. It's the stitches on the leather, as much as the instinct in the hurler, that makes a knuckler what it is, and very few men now in the game have whipped it into submission, most notably Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox. A mere three practitioners are in the Hall of Fame-Phil Niekro, Jesse Haines, Hoyt Wilhelm. The universe does not readily divulge its mysteries.

Little Leaguers will be inspired to apply themselves to their school science lessons where so much is at stake, for the knuckler is a formidable weapon in the pitcher's arsenal, so nearly impossible to hit (and to catch!) that even Angels contact hitter Orlando Palmeiro, who has rarely whiffed all season, was fanned three times by Mr. Wakefield's gravity-defying antics in the Aug. 15 game. (Bobby Murcer said trying to hit a knuckleball was "like eating Jell-O with chopsticks.")

Boys will pore over wind-tunnel measurements. They will ponder that a spherical object pitched in a vacuum speeds unfettered through the void, but that the invisible ether that inflates our lungs and gives lift to 747s also creates delightfully exploitable circumstances in the 90-foot journey from mound to mitt. They will spend hours fixing thumbnail, forefinger, and middle finger, stiffening the wrist, pressing ball to palm with the left hand, perfecting the "push-off" to minimize rotation and maximize a beneficial turbulence. Aerodynamics will take over, the stitches producing the imbalance of forces that just might make a ball "dance."

They will be tempted to add to the Bible, in wonderment, the following tribute to the glory of God: "Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin" (Proverbs 30:18-19).

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