For use in season preview editions Baseball '93
Apr. 02, 1993
Undated (AP) _ Dennis Burlingame has been throwing a knuckleball for five years in the minors, always as a backup pitch and never pushed by the Atlanta Braves to make it anything more.
That is, until this season.
''They said to me this spring that they wanted me to work on it more,'' he said. ''It's because of Wakefield, what he's done. My friends are even calling me 'Dennis Wakefield.'''
Minor league pitcher Scott Centala is getting the same kind of pressure from the Kansas City Royals.
''It's the Wakefield thing,'' said Bob Hegman, director of minor league operations for the Royals. ''Obviously, with his success, the knuckleball is something to look at.''
Lots of teams are looking, too. Once a pitch that no one wanted to see - not hitters, not catchers, not pitching coaches and not managers - the knuckler is flipping and floating its way back into baseball.
Los Angeles has a knuckleballer working with Tom Candiotti, Boston has a guy throwing a knuckle-curve, the way Burt Hooton used to, and the Chicago White Sox have the only left-handed knuckleballer.
Pittsburgh's Tim Wakefield, meanwhile, is getting most of the credit for the resurgence, just the way Roger Craig once made the split-finger fastball the rage.
''I don't know if I'm the one bringing it back or not,'' Wakefield said, somewhat sheepishly. ''I don't like to be placed on a pedestal like that.''
''There were guys throwing it before me, and there will be guys throwing it after me,'' he said. ''I'm just one of them.''
It may take awhile before more knuckleballers start showing up in the majors. But now, more than at anytime in recent years, more guys are throwing knucklers in the minors.
''I think Tim Wakefield has opened up the eyes of a lot of organizations,'' longtime knuckleballer Tom Candiotti said. ''Maybe what he's done will help save some careers.''
It did for Wakefield.
After hitting .189 as a first baseman in Class A in 1989, he went to the Florida Instructional League and worked on the knuckleball that he learned to throw at age 5. He developed it, got called up by Pittsburgh last July 31, went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA down the stretch and won twice in the NL playoffs against Atlanta.
''I think a lot of knuckleballers happen by accident, like Wakefield,'' Montreal pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said. ''Maybe a guy gets hurt, and uses it as a last resort. Or maybe a guy is a little short with his stuff.''
There used to be plenty of knuckleballs. The Washington Senators had a starting rotation of four knuckleballers in the 1940s with Roger Wolff, Johnny Niggeling, Dutch Leonard and Mickey Haffner.
As the years wore on, however, power pitchers were encouraged and knuckleballers were discouraged.
''I remember one of Phil Niekro's concerns when I pitched with him was not letting the knuckleball die,'' Candiotti said. ''It was kind of a burden, in a way. I kind of felt I had to keep it alive.''
''Now, I'm not worried. I think a combination of things have happened lately to make it popular,'' he said. ''Phil won 300 games with it and has got a chance to go to the Hall of Fame. People see Charlie Hough is going to start the first game for the Florida Marlins. I've done OK. People have seen with Wakefield that you can win with it.''
Plus, it's a pitch that most everyone - sand-lotter or big-league star - has tried to throw. Wakefield and Candiotti began experimenting with knucklers playing catch with their fathers in the backyard.
''All baseball players fool around with one at some point,'' Wakefield said.
Mickey Mantle used to throw a great knuckleball in practice and Kirby Puckett, Wade Boggs, Tim Raines and Tim Wallach now throw good ones on the sidelines.
Wallach pitched batting practice for the Expos last season before they faced Wakefield and the Pirates. Wallach got to throw his knuckleball for real when he pitched twice in pair of games for Montreal.
''I got Will Clark to ground out on a 3-2 knuckler and I got Ron Gant to pop up on a 3-2 knuckleball,'' Wallach said.
As for hitting a knuckleball, Wallach's advice is to wait for a pitch high in the strike zone.
''If you do hit it, I think it carries better than any other pitch you hit,'' he said.
George Hendrick had his own strategy: He just sat out any game a knuckleballer started. And Bob Uecker had the best advice for catching a knuckleball: ''Wait until it hits the backstop, and then pick it up.''
Braves minor league pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton has some advice for any pitchers looking to pick up the knuckler.
''To me, it's just as much mental as physical,'' said Dal Canton, a former knuckleballer. ''You have to convince yourself that you're a knuckleball pitcher and just keep throwing it. And if you have any doubts that it works, just look at Wakefield.''
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