Guide Knuckleballs: And Other Stories About Teenage Years

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Orso will begin his college baseball career in the fall at University of Maryland -- a competitive plateau the New York teenager says he would have never reached without a knuckleball. Pre-knuckleball, Orso was, by his own admission, a "very average" run-of-the-mill high school pitcher whose fastball topped out at 84 mph. He had an ordinary arsenal -- fastball, slider, change-up and an occasional curveball -- a skill set that by itself would likely keep Orso's arm from reaching anywhere beyond high school. The knuckleball had been something Orso, like every pitcher on the planet, had messed around with from time to time.

He often experimented with Wakefield's version of the pitch in leisurely video game sessions, using the controller and his imagination to virtually bewilder one big leaguer after another. But not only throwing a knuckleball himself, but mastering the pitch enough to get him noticed by professional scouts would be a completely different proposition.

Knuckleballers have always been an oddity in baseball , making those who threw it -- and threw it well -- the Niekros, the Hoyt Wilhelms, the Wakefields and the Dickeys -- a unique breed. Even more rare was a pitcher who discovered the pitch on a full-time basis in high school, choosing to lock in on a pitch that Phil Niekro recently told The New York Times he was still trying to figure out when his career ended. He couldn't figure out why.

Maybe it was just the way he could get his arm seemed to naturally land when he threw it or the way he could get the ball to move mysteriously, with knuckleballs dancing in and out of the strike zone. One thing was certain. Orso was going to go out on a limb, against the wishes of his high school coaches who told him not to waste his time with a knuckleball. But I would have never thrown it again if it didn't work the first time. After experimenting with his knuckleball as a freshman, Orso was throwing it on nearly a full-time basis by the start of his senior year.

By the time he became comfortable throwing the pitch, Orso discovered he had more command of the knuckleball than he did his fastball. Orso's coaches made him throw a bullpen session full of knuckleballs to prove he was ready to move forward with the pitch as quickly as he wanted.

Mets’ Dickey reveals sexual abuse as child; contemplated suicide in

Over time, the pitch became more and more effective, consistently finding the strike zone and confusing opposing hitters. But it wasn't until he met Dickey, connected through a mutual friend of Orso's father, when everything started to click. The two met on an out-of-the-way field at the Mets' spring training facility in Florida. For 30 minutes, Dickey preached technique and form, using the image of an invisible doorframe to illustrate to Orso the way his body had to behave if his knuckleball had any chance of having an impact.

The two worked to reduce the spin on Orso's knuckleball, which, despite its rawness, had potential. For Dickey, who made a switch to the knuckleball under former Cy Young winner and Texas Rangers' pitching coach Orel Hershiser, transitioning to throwing this pitch was an act of desperation.

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Since then, Dickey has forged on, despite missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, mastering a knuckleball that he has had come to live with, accepting both the good and the bad. For Orso, the knuckleball also offered a dose of salvation. Without the gyroscopic effect of spinning, the ball's movement is unstable.

Its seams create an uneven flow of air over the surface of the ball, pushing it in random directions, said Porter Johnson, professor emeritus of physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Because the pitch moves relatively slow, there's little margin for error. This high-wire act is another reason few pitchers become successful knuckleballers, said Stern, the filmmaker, who believes many lack the mental toughness to throw such an unforgiving pitch.

When you lose it, you lose it really bad," she said. That's why you really have to trust it and commit to it. Until recently, Dickey's baseball career was a series of setbacks. He made his major-league debut in but was demoted the following year and spent much of the next five seasons kicking around the minors, nearly broke. By the velocity on his fastball was declining, and the Rangers told Dickey his only chance of prolonging his career was switching to the knuckleball.

They assigned him a mentor, former knuckleballer Charlie Hough. Dickey won a bronze medal pitching for the U. Olympic team in In his first game as a knuckleball pitcher in April , Dickey gave up six home runs. But he kept at it, and he gradually improved. Instead of the floater used by most knuckleballers, Dickey began to throw the pitch harder, up to 83 mph, which made it more effective. He's also learned to embrace its unpredictability -- "surrendering to the pitch," he calls it -- a Zen-like approach that dovetails with his hard-won determination to live in the moment.

Dickey bounced between the Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins before catching on with the Mets in He had glimmers of success late last season, but nothing that suggested he could be as good as he is now. It's just growth, and it's been very organic. For someone who spent much of his career struggling to support his family, Dickey did an uncommon thing this past off-season. In January he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro , the tallest free-standing mountain on the planet, to help raise money for a charity that fights human trafficking in India.

The team warned him they could void the remaining year on his contract if he was injured.

A Knuckleball Fraternity of One

For Dickey, who lives in Nashville with wife Anne and four kids, it was a personal quest. Six months later, some bloggers have wondered whether summitting Kilimanjaro gave Dickey a new level of confidence this season. His humility and feel-good story have made him a fan favorite in greater New York, where a book-signing event last month drew long lines of fans despite neardegree heat.

Every dad that comes to a game thinks he can go in the backyard and make his buddy miss his knuckleball. Many fans and sportwriters are clamoring for Dickey to be named a starter for this week's All-Star Game, a decision that rests with National League manager Tony LaRussa. Dickey says he won't allow himself to think much about the possibility, although he admits "it would be an incredible honor. Knuckleballers have always been an oddity in baseball , making those who threw it -- and threw it well -- the Niekros, the Hoyt Wilhelms, the Wakefields and the Dickeys -- a unique breed. Even more rare was a pitcher who discovered the pitch on a full-time basis in high school, choosing to lock in on a pitch that Phil Niekro recently told The New York Times he was still trying to figure out when his career ended.

He couldn't figure out why. Maybe it was just the way he could get his arm seemed to naturally land when he threw it or the way he could get the ball to move mysteriously, with knuckleballs dancing in and out of the strike zone. One thing was certain. Orso was going to go out on a limb, against the wishes of his high school coaches who told him not to waste his time with a knuckleball.

But I would have never thrown it again if it didn't work the first time. After experimenting with his knuckleball as a freshman, Orso was throwing it on nearly a full-time basis by the start of his senior year.


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By the time he became comfortable throwing the pitch, Orso discovered he had more command of the knuckleball than he did his fastball. Orso's coaches made him throw a bullpen session full of knuckleballs to prove he was ready to move forward with the pitch as quickly as he wanted. Over time, the pitch became more and more effective, consistently finding the strike zone and confusing opposing hitters.

But it wasn't until he met Dickey, connected through a mutual friend of Orso's father, when everything started to click. The two met on an out-of-the-way field at the Mets' spring training facility in Florida. For 30 minutes, Dickey preached technique and form, using the image of an invisible doorframe to illustrate to Orso the way his body had to behave if his knuckleball had any chance of having an impact.

The two worked to reduce the spin on Orso's knuckleball, which, despite its rawness, had potential. For Dickey, who made a switch to the knuckleball under former Cy Young winner and Texas Rangers' pitching coach Orel Hershiser, transitioning to throwing this pitch was an act of desperation. Since then, Dickey has forged on, despite missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, mastering a knuckleball that he has had come to live with, accepting both the good and the bad.

For Orso, the knuckleball also offered a dose of salvation. As the great knuckleballers of the past had been for Dickey, passing along some of his knowledge as Orso's agent of change would be Dickey's way of giving back. The spring training meeting provided Dickey not only with a willing participant but an eager student.

At first glance, Orso was about what Dickey expected -- a young, raw pitcher that threw more of a hard forkball than a true knuckleball. When Orso threw, Dickey witnessed a ball that knuckled, but not nearly enough in a way that would fool hitters the way the pitch intended. But Dickey also saw some potential in the knuckleballing neophyte. He saw the makings of someone who, if brought along the right way and who was given the latitude to explore the knuckleball in its proper context, could have a future with the pitch.