Knuckler - 11/6/2013

     It was the last practice before the Ithaca College Varsity Baseball team’s spring trip to Florida.  I was a freshman, pumped about being part of the squad.  I felt like one of the guys.  I even had a nickname.  Gibby.  I had done a lot less traveling than most of my teammates.  I found myself thinking about the bus ride to New York City and the flight to Florida.  I’d never been on a plane before and was nervous and excited.  As I waited for my turn to throw off the mound in that gym, the thought of playing baseball in the Florida sunshine warmed me.  I had sold raffle tickets back home during winter break to offset the costs of the trip, letting everyone know I was a varsity player.  I had pitched a few innings with the varsity during the fall season and couldn’t wait for the spring campaign.  I’ll admit I was proud of myself.  My baseball dreams were coming true.
     Coach Valesente walked over to me and said, “We’re not taking you to Florida.  It came down to you and Malone, the lefty.  We need that lefty arm out of the pen.  We’re going to start you on the JV and I want you to work on that knuckleball.  I’d like to see you use it 75% of the time.”
      I nodded and tried not to show my disappointment.  No airplane.  No Florida.  No Varsity.  I wanted to cry and did later on in a telephone conversation with Dad.  I had to be tough, especially around Coach Val, a tall imposing figure who could stare wholes right through you.  “Work on that knuckleball during your session,” he said.  A catcher named Ryan who had also been informed that he was not making the trip was told to catch me.  Practice was winding down, and a crowd was gathering.  My knuckleball was dancing all over the place and was hitting everything but young Ryan’s glove.  A properly thrown knuckleball has a mind of its own as the ball does not spin.  It is pushed off the fingertips and is subject to wind, temperature, humidity, and who knows what else.  When it rotates it is easily hit, a meatball.  When it is thrown properly, it isn’t even catchable.  On this particular day, I had it going.  I don’t know if I had a little extra to prove or if I had nothing to lose.  I had already lost my trip and my spot on the team.  I didn’t even know why Coach Val bothered having me throw that day.  I wasn’t part of his plans and never would be.  I didn’t trust the knuckleball.  There is no controlling it, and I had given up the longest homerun of my life with it the previous spring against previously-undefeated Whitehall in the state tournament, the only run given up in a victory for Northern Adirondack Central.  I naively considered myself a power pitcher, plus I liked my curve better.  My foolish nail-biting habit was something I could control even less than the knuckler, and nails are needed to properly execute the pitch.  But for now, the pitch was dipping, dancing, and diving, frustrating poor Ryan.
     “Get out of there and let me catch him,” said Jeff Legase, one of the varsity catchers.  I liked Jeff, but he was kind of cocky, a good-looking guy and very sure of himself.   “I caught a better knuckler than that in summer ball.”  By now, this was the only show in the gym.  Usually practices were meticulously crafted, timed to the minute, but this one was just kind of winding down, the JV pitcher throwing to the Varsity catcher.  Coach Val was now standing on my right.  Legase crouched and I proved him right with the first pitch, a little wobbler that floated subserviently to his glove.  But the next one…I decided to aim right at his facemask.  I pushed off the pitching rubber a little harder with my right leg and let loose the best knuckler of my life somehow.  Legase’s glove moved to where he thought the ball would go, but the ball dropped from his facemask to his crotch at the last second.  WHOP!  The sound echoed in the gym, Legase froze, and then fell forward as agony crept in.  The gym erupted in howls of laughter.  No mercy from this crowd.  Thank God he was wearing a cup.  I heard “Yeah, Gibby!” and felt pats on my back.  “Not much of a knuckler, huh, Gaser?” someone asked.  The knuckler didn’t save the day or change Coach Val’s mind.  It did, however, lift a heavy heart for a little while.