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After R.A. Dickey’s most recent performance on Monday, the phenomenon is no longer a fluke. No longer a stroke of luck. No longer a temporary fortuity of the erratic and eccentric knuckleball. Dickey is just that good. 42 and 2/3 innings without an earned run and two straight one-hitters with more than 10 strikeouts have vaulted him into the early pole position for the NL Cy Young Award, and all statistical indications (see: opponent’s batting average, BABIP, ERA, etc.) are that his domination will continue. The Mets knuckleballer has now punched his card to an exclusive cadre of pitchers — a fraternity consisting of legends such as Orel Hershiser, Don Drysdale, Cy Young, Walter Johnson and Bob Gibson — that have not allowed an earned run for more than 40 consecutive innings. So, it’s now time that we acknowledge that Dickey has become one of the best pitchers in baseball, a ruthless mercenary whose dancing knuckleball makes major league hitters swing and miss not by inches but sometimes by entire feet.

The knuckleball is an illusory enigma. A mystical antithesis of what a pitch should be. A dark art of sport. Unlike other pitches that use spin from the pitcher’s hand to create movement, the knuckleball literally creates its movement by its lack of movement.Yes, it moves because it doesn’t move. That’s philosophically terrifying and sounds like it was written by some nihilistic, pot-smoking hipster. Because the knuckler turns less than a quarter of a rotation on its 60.5 foot trek from the mound to home plate, the vortices of the baseball’s seams latch onto invisible chutes and ladders in the air; unseen wind currents and airflow variations that conspire to shake, twist and turn the ball in an asymmetric motion as if in an earthquake. R.A. Dickey himself described it as “trying to hit a butterfly in a monsoon.” Each movement of the knuckler depends upon and is altered by the previous movement, essentially making it the sport equivalent of the butterfly effect. So, what happens when a knuckleball flaps its wings in Queens? Not a hurricane in Myanmar or a tornado in Oklahoma, but groundouts, flyouts, lots of strikeouts and many confused faces. Carlos Peña recently said, “With this, you have no idea what the ball is going to do. If it goes up, you think, OK, it’s going to come down. But no, sometimes it would sail way up. Another one would go up and then it would dive straight down and hit the dirt. It’s like a roller coaster.”

If thrown incorrectly, the knuckleball can also be the easiest pitch to hit in baseball. If it doesn’t knuckle, it becomes a 75 mph beachball. Basically the All-Star Game Home Run Derby in a real game. Imagine kidnapping a random, reasonably athletic man off the streets of New York and telling him to take the hill against the Phillies. Could he even get one out? Probably after a few balls get hit right to the defense, but not much more. That’s what it’s like for a knuckleball pitcher to throw a ball that doesn’t knuckle.

Much has been written recently about the life story R.A. Dickey, so I won’t go into a whole lot of detail. But he’s survived a lot, including scourges such as sexual assault at the hands of a female babysitter as an eight-year-old and a brush with death in the undertow of the Missouri River. After becoming the #1 draft choice of the Texas Rangers in 1996, he was told he did not have an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and lost the vast majority of his signing bonus. I’ve read excerpts from his book, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, but cannot wait to read the text in its entirety. It’s an unbelievable story that Dickey discovered the knuckleball just in time to resurrect his career from the ashes of past failure. Undoubtedly, he’s intelligent enough to have found a career after baseball. But to be able to fulfill his dreams on the fluttering wings of a knuckleball is a story that is meant to be told.

R.A. Dickey has shown that pitchers on their last legs (or elbows, as the case may be) should consider learning to throw the knuckleball. It’s absolutely astounding that he, after the retirement of Tim Wakefield, is the only pitcher in MLB to throw the pitch, and his story could provide rationale for guys like Carl Pavano, John Lackey, Jeff Suppan or Mark Buerhle to take the leap. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work, but the potential reward could be another decade of pitching and making money. Even if there were 50 MLB pitchers who threw the knuckler, batters would never learn to adjust. The pitch is so unpredictable and dynamic that even major league hitters could not actually learn to hit it as they can a curveball, slider or splitter. You simply cannot learn something that changes on every single repetition. R.A. Dickey knows it, and he’s got one of the greatest runs in pitching history as proof.


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Jackie Robinson“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid? That is the only time a man can be brave.”                 – George R.R. Martin

At 1700 Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn, NY, a small plaque is barely visible on the corner of the blighted facade of a high-rise apartment building. It reads, matter-of-factly, “1962: This is the former site of Ebbets Field.” A cluster of overgrown bushes seems to intentionally shroud the marble plate, sheltering the simple reminder of the historical magnitude of the site from the class inequality, poverty and crime that today consume these blocks.

The phrase on the plaque is so terse, so abrupt, so unceremonious–almost an affront to the sacralized history of the ballpark. One wonders if a local petty thief stole an adjacent relief plaque bearing Robinson’s likeness and a longer version of the story. That didn’t happen, but perhaps such a memorial has never been erected precisely because it would be stolen.

In the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, there’s no cinematic end. No museum to commemorate the Brooklyn Dodgers. No reference to Jackie Robinson, who on April 15, 1947, broke the MLB’s color barrier at Ebbets. Not even a baseball field across the street. Just a low-rent high-rise epitomizing the urban decay of Brooklyn. flanked by more rows of the same–an infinity mirror of tenements and poverty.

Despite what some may say, it’s not shameful that the area has become this way. The site is of massive significance, but today’s residents have no duty to honor the site’s august past. Although today’s concrete descendant of Ebbets Field may not endow the proper respect that the site deserves, Major League Baseball has for years taken the initiative to remember the momentous victory that Jackie Robinson achieved that day – a day that occurred more than a decade before the Civil Rights movement even began to enter the consciousness of the public. When Robinson trotted out to 1st base that day in 1947, he entered terra incognita, embraced inherent danger, and overcame his own internal fears. The day occurred seven years before Brown vs. Board of Education, eight years before Rosa Parks took a stand by taking a seat, 10 years before the Little Rock Nine were brought to school by a military escort, 16 years before “I Have A Dream,” and 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That is simply astounding. His bravery was truly a symbol of racial comity and moral fortitude before its time. Robinson did not want to become a martyr, but accepted the possibility.

Robinson endured a fusillade of racially charged insults that would make a normal human being lash out. He never did. True to Manager Branch Rickey’s estimation, Robinson never cracked despite his insides boiling with resentment. It’s a profound story of heroism and something that needs no embellishment. It can be told without hyperbole to any child who asks why every player in baseball wears #42 for a day. One aspect of the story often glossed over is the role of religion. Rickey and Robinson connected over a shared passionate Christian faith. This faith led Rickey to not just look for a player to break the color barrier, but a player who could do so while adhering to a strategy of non-retaliation. The strategy was inspired by Gandhi’s model of nonviolent dissent and foreshadowed the role of peaceful, direct-action protests in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Rickey’s plan required more than athletic ability. It required a saintly arete and a willingness to turn the other cheek amidst fire –as Jesus put it, to “resist not evil.” In Rickey’s initial proposal to Robinson, he famously quipped that he was looking for “a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson prayed every night for the strength to continue, endowing himself with the faith that God’s Providence would protect.

Robinson influenced society not only by wielding a baseball bat but also a pen. He maintained epistolary contact with every American president from 1956 to 1972, imploring each, sometimes combatively, to match his own courage and to seize the opportunity to intervene in the moral history of the nation. Perhaps his most explosive line was written in 1958 to President Dwight Eisenhower. It simply read, “17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change.” Baseball provided Robinson with the pulpit to effect change, but only through his bravery, intelligence and perseverance did he truly give life to that potential.

Cultural diversity remains a defining aspect of Major League Baseball, but its survival now seems perilous. Baseball continues to lose traction with inner-city youth despite pouring millions of dollars into inner-city development programs. These programs provide salutary benefits to many children but are of a more participatory nature than their Caribbean and Latin American counterparts that actively recruit elite athletes. The programs do help some black youths reach high levels of the sport, but the intent is very different from the league’s goals in Latin America.

Going forward, the league must not leave this problem to posterity. It should augment its current participatory model, begin to allocate a portion of inner-city expenditures to developing high-level baseball players and enable them to compete against other elites. It would be a tragedy if one day soon, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day without a single African-American competing. Ebbets Field may have met a cruel demise, but with the proper attention and investment, Jackie Robinson’s great contribution to baseball will not follow the same path.

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1991 was one of the most historically transformational years in recent memory. The USSR collapsed, creating a patchwork of 15 post-Soviet states, some so obscure that we shortcut-seeking Americans refer to them simply as “the Stans.” Operation Desert Storm was launched, precipitating the deterioration of U.S. relations in the Middle East. Stateside, Magic Johnson announced that he had acquired the HIV virus, sending shockwaves through the sports world and destroying his star like a supernova.

1991 also gave us the greatest World Series ever played. Kirby Puckett was immortalized after his epic Game 6 performance against the Atlanta Braves, which included a gravity-defying snare over the plexiglass fence of Ron Gant’s deep fly ball, and of course, the historic 11th-inning shot to left-center that gave the Twins a 4-3 victory and spawned Jack Buck’s iconic, “And we’ll see you tomorrow night!” call. As a sidenote, if you haven’t already seen this, check out the video of Joe Buck, in one of the most eerily serendipitous moments in sports history, honoring his late father by making the same call, in the same game, in the same inning, one day away from exactly 20 years later. Game 7 was just as memorable, with Jack Morris throwing a 10-inning shutout in one of the greatest and most clutch pitching performances ever.

Even though I lived in Minnesota at the time, I was five years old, and to put it simply and tragically, didn’t care. It wasn’t until about 1995 that I really became a Twins fan, which gave me the privilege to grow up in Minnesota during the glory years of Ron Coomer, Pat Meares and the briefly-promising Marty Cordova. Pure legends of the game. From 1993-2000, the Twins averaged 66 wins per year (would have been more if not for the 1994 and 1995 strike-shortened seasons). I distinctly remember attending a game with my grandpa around that time where we bought upper-deck tickets and immediately proceeded to walk to our new seats on the third-base line.

Another time, my dad and I went to an interleague game with the sole purpose of watching Mark McGwire in the midst of the great steroid-fueled home run race of 1998. When he stepped up to the plate, the venerable Bob Tewksbury began throwing what appeared to be fly balls towards the plate (which apparently is known as an Eephus pitch), forcing McGwire to ground out twice. Unfortunately, YouTube has no footage of this game, but here’s an example of how the pitch looked. In the past, Tewksbury has called this pitch “the dominator.” Needless to say, 12-year-old me was horribly disappointed.

Attendance dropped and interest waned so intensely that in 2002, the Twins were nearly contracted by Major League Baseball. Facing almost certain condemnation, stars like Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Corey Koskie resurrected the franchise by reaching the ALCS in 2002, a story which still gives goosebumps to dedicated Twins fans. The team went on to win five more division titles from 2003-2010, but each renewed hope brought more despair. All five post-seasons ended in the ALDS, four to appease the insatiable bloodlust of the Yankee gods, amounting to a grand total playoff record during that chimerical span of 2-15.

It could be worse. I could be a Pirates or a Royals fan. But then again, I’m not a believer in the old adage “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” To steal a line from Seinfeld, I would prefer a “barren, sterile existence that ends when you die” to repeatedly falling for the same old ruses of love and lust. The Twins making the playoffs qualifies for the same treatment. It may sound fatalistic, but every year that the Twins took the field in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Evil Empire, the inevitable was being cruelly postponed. Even my apotropaic attempts to change the outcome — mainly turning off the TV or putting on a new shirt — proved to be in vain.

The 2011 season began with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau both nursing injuries. Morneau was still recovering from a 2010 concussion, and Mauer had “leg fatigue” or something like that. I really don’t remember, probably because I’ve tried so hard to forget. The season never looked promising, and it was punctuated by a torturous “20-year anniversary of the 1991 World Series” celebration. Reminded me of that part in The Hangover where Alan (Zach Galifianakis) says, “We don’t remember anything from last night. Remember?” Yes, I remember how I was five at the time, and I also remember how I don’t remember…but thanks for reminding me. Brutal.

Hopefully the Twins’ current 2-7 start will be a distant memory in a few weeks, but I’m not holding my breath. As the old saying goes, “Things may not be looking so good when Carl Pavano is your Opening Day starter.” Maybe I just made that up, I don’t know. One thing is for sure though, at least Minnesota fans can still count on Ricky Rubio…next year.

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