Monday, June 30, 2008

Spain Crowned UEFA Euro 2008 Champions

Germany 0 - 1 Spain

Game 31
Match Information
Stadium: Ernst Happel Stadion
Match Time: 19:45 UK
Referee(s): Roberto Rosetti (Referee)
Peter Frojdfeldt (Fourth Official)
Alessandro Griselli (Linesman)
Paolo Calcagno (Linesman)
Scoring Summary
Germany Spain
Fernando Torres (33)
Match Stats

Germany Spain
Shots (on Goal) 4(3) 14(8)
Fouls 20 19
Corner Kicks 4 7
Offsides 5 4
Time of Possession 53% 47%
Yellow Cards 2 2
Red Cards 0 0
Saves 6 4
Germany Substitutions
Marcell Jansen for Philip Lahm (46)
Kevin Kuranyi for Thomas Hitzlsperger (58)
Mario Gomez for Miroslav Klose (79)
Spain Substitutions
Xabi Alonso for Cesc Fábregas (63)
Santi Cazorla for David Silva (66)
Daniel Güiza for Fernando Torres (78)
Germany Yellow Cards
Name Min
Michael Ballack(43)
Kevin Kuranyi(88)
Spain Yellow Cards
Name Min
Iker Casillas(43)
Fernando Torres(74)
Germany Red Cards
Name Min
No Red Cards
Spain Red Cards
Name Min
No Red Cards

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How tiny Jamaica develops so many champion sprinters

100-METER MAN: Jamaican Asafa Powell has broken the world record four times.
Alfredo Sosa – Staff

Monitor photo director Alfredo Sosa and reporter Matt Clark talk with some of Jamaica's top sprinters and their coach.

As late afternoon trade winds drift into Kingston's National Stadium, the world's fastest man ambles back to his starting blocks.

Usain Bolt's performance in this training session is less than lighting-fast, however, and it fails to impress his coach, Glen Mills. "Make sure you do them good, otherwise you'll do them tomorrow morning – early," he barks.

A month ago, Mr. Bolt lived up to his name by breaking countryman Asafa Powell's world record in the 100-meter dash. The two hold the five fastest recognized times in the event and will go head-to-head this weekend in Jamaica's Olympic trials.

Yet these men are just two of dozens of top-flight Jamaican sprinters who are poised to put the tiny island nation on the map in the same way Kenyans and Ethiopians are known to dominate long-distance running. Jamaica's Olympic track team is so deep in talent that these trials will be like watching American NBA stars vie for a spot on ™basketball's famous Dream Team.

How does a poor Caribbean country of less than 3 million people produce such athletic riches? Improved coaching and a new system to develop raw talent at home have combined with a tradition of seeing sprinting as an inexpensive ticket out of poverty, observers say.

"Where we are today is [like] a flower," says Anthony Davis, the sports director at Jamaica's University of Technology (UTECH), whose programs and facilities helped shape some of Jamaica's finest runners, including Mr. Powell and Bolt. "You'd have had to plant a seed long ago to get where we are today."

And plant they did.

A little more than 30 years ago, former world-record sprinter Dennis Johnson decided to take what he'd learned at San Jose State University in the 1960s and set up a competitive, US-style college athletic program here in his home country. The goal: produce world-class athletes, especially track stars.

At the time, most considered this crazy talk.

Jamaica had long produced some of the world's top high school track athletes, but then they left the island. There was no place in this former British colony's college system for them. Postsecondary education is based on an older British model in which sports are merely a recreational break from the rigors of academia. The only hope of continuing track after high school was to get a scholarship to a foreign university.

Today, Jamaican sprinters still leave, and pad many NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) track rosters.

"In Louisiana, at a high school track meet, we'll find maybe one or two athletes that could be good enough for [Louisiana State University's track program]," says Dennis Shaver, head track coach of the 2008 NCAA championship LSU track team. "[But] in Jamaica, there are probably 50 women ready to fit right into the program every year."

"Jamaicans have played a significant role in the 31 track and field championships we've won over the years," he says, adding that Jamaica will be "very competitive in Beijing."

Competing in the top US schools was, and is, a fast track out of poverty. The problem, as Mr. Johnson saw it, was that too many Jamaicans never came back home, and some even ran for other Olympic teams. (Donovan Bailey of Canada and Linford Christie of Britain are two examples of Jamaican-born Olympic champions.)

That's why Johnson started a sports program at a two-year vocational college here, and that later became UTECH, a four-year college. Through Johnson's work, which has since passed to Mr. Davis, the program now has 280 student athletes and houses the top professional track teams in Jamaica.

By US standards, the training facilities are second class. Jamaica's top sprinters cram into UTECH's tiny gym to pump rusty weights, and they often practice on the school's basic grass track.

"We have to be creative, because we don't have the resources," says Davis, explaining that the lanes of the track are marked with diesel and burned because the school can't afford the machine that lays down chalk lines every week or so. "We had a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what we have."

Davis is pushing to attract more sponsors for UTECH's programs. The British sports drink company Lucozade now offers two full track scholarships to UTECH, and Davis is hoping that success in Beijing will lead to funding for scoreboards and an indoor track surface. And he knows right where he'd put a new athletic center, if he ever gets the money. "We want someday to be the sports center of the Caribbean," he says.

But UTECH's program is only part of the reason for Jamaica's sprinting prowess. "Coaches have played a very important role and are still playing an important role," says Herb Elliot, a Jamaican member of the International Amateur Athletics Federation's Medical and Anti-Doping Commission. "NCAA scouts come here in droves to recruit, but our athletes often come back [from four years at US universities] tired and mediocre," says Mr. Elliot.

Among the most effective Jamaican coaches today is Powell's coach, Stephen Francis, who founded the Maximizing Velocity and Power (MVP) team in 1999 after getting his MBA from the University of Michigan. "My background is different from most coaches, who were former athletes," says the rotund Mr. Francis, explaining that the Jamaican track establishment did not appreciate his maverick style.

"My philosophy is based on doing things the hard way," he says. "We don't recruit superstars." He looks for latent talent and chooses coachable sprinters who don't have supersized egos.

Brigitte Foster-Hylton is one of Francis's first success stories. When she started working with him in 1999, most didn't see her potential. But she's cut more than half a second off her time in the 100-meter hurdles and won bronze in the event at the 2005 World Championships. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the amount of time Ms. Foster-Hylton cut off her time in the 100-meter hurdles.]

Powell – who says in a matter-of-fact manner that he is still the world's fastest man despite Bolt's record run – is another Francis success story.

Powell struggled as the youngest of six siblings growing up in the Jamaican countryside. He was a good sprinter in high school, but not among Jamaica's very best. A few years ago, one brother was shot to death in a New York cab and another died of a heart attack. The tragedies might have derailed some athletes.

Both of his parents are pastors and he credits a strict upbringing for his focus. "I couldn't miss one day in church and my mom and dad still call to see if I'm going to church," he says. "None of this would've been possible without God, and I pray to him each and every day. But I know that God helps those who help themselves, so I try to help myself."

He says he's ready to win the Olympic gold medal that eluded him four years ago.

But given the recent convictions and confessions of steroid use by track and field athletes, some skeptics question the success of Jamaican sprinters. There have been no recent cases of Jamaicans caught using performance-enhancing drugs. "We are far in advance of the US record for [preventing] doping," says Elliot, who's the top enforcement official in Jamaica. "We preach, cajole, and test," he says. Jamaica makes its athletes available for sudden testing 24/7.

Besides, Elliot says, Jamaica won't tolerate cheats. "Sports is such a part of our culture that the disgrace [of doping] is so great that the Jamaicans that live here wouldn't even consider it."

For now, Jamaicans are reveling in having the world's two fastest men heading into the Beijing Olympics.

"In the sprints, we're as good as any," says Fitz Coleman, a technical coach on Bolt's team who is widely regarded as one of Jamaica's best hurdles coaches. "In fact, we just might be the measuring stick at this point in time."

Another reason for Jamaicans' success: their attitude, according to Mr. Coleman. "We genuinely believe that we'll conquer," he says. "It's a mindset. We're small and we're poor, but we believe in ourselves."

Original here

Fantasy Baseball Owner Rips Team In Media

BROOKLYN, NY—Mark Mendicus, 26-year-old Staples employee and principal owner of the fantasy baseball team Beat With Uggla Stick, blasted his underperforming team in the media Monday, going so far as to single out individual players, criticize their recent play, and question their commitment to winning.

"They all suck," a visibly frustrated Mendicus told reporters following Beat With Uggla Stick's head-to-head 8-2 loss to division rivals The Mark Currys. "[Alex] Rios sucks, Delmon [Young] sucks, Pedro [Martinez] fucking sucks. Everybody on my team sucks."

"The Beat With Uggla Sticks have a proud tradition of winning," continued Mendicus, whose team has made the playoffs the past two years, including a league championship win in 2006. "But apparently that means nothing to this group of players. Apparently they'd rather just lose every single 5x5 category. Apparently my players don't care about winning the 12-team Yahoo! Plus 'Mmm…Fantasy Baseball' league pennant as much as I do."

Mendicus had high expectations for his team coming into the season, but his players have been plagued by injuries and inconsistency, losing six of their first eight matchups en route to a 22-46-14 overall record. The historically temperamental owner did not hold back his opinions after their latest humiliating defeat, telling the New York Post that Prince Fielder "had better start hitting some fucking home runs already" before making several vicious personal attacks on the first baseman, calling him a "fatass," a "fat bastard," and a "fat fuck" in the course of one statement.

"I paid $38 for [Fielder], and this is what I get?" Mendicus said, directing reporters' attention to Fielder's "putrid" Yahoo! Game Log. "Twelve home runs. Twelve goddamn home runs. When you pay $38 for a guy, you had better give them a hell of a lot more than 12 home runs through the first half. I got you for your power, buddy, not your walks. This is a batting average league, anyway, not an on-base percentage league, so walks don't fucking matter. It's like these guys don't understand that."

Mendicus continued his heated rant, calling shortstop Felipe Lopez a "talentless hack whose multiple position eligibility is the only thing saving his ass from waivers," claiming that pitcher Ian Snell is "killing [him] in WHIP, absolutely killing [him]," and encouraging outfielder Brad Hawpe to "go eat shit." He then accused the whole team of not stealing enough bases and "not playing like true Beat With Uggla Sticks."

He did, however, reserve some praise for hot-hitting second baseman Dan Uggla upon learning that Uggla homered twice that day, saying, "That's you, Danny."

With his team already down 9-1 in this week's matchup against Gary Sheffield's Head Vein, Mendicus issued an ultimatum, claiming that unless his team delivers at least a tie, there will "be some changes around here." Mendicus said that "no one is safe," and had particularly strong words for pitcher Chris Young, who three weeks ago was hit in the face with a line drive and has not made a single start since.

"Toughen up, you little baby," Mendicus said. "You don't throw with your face, do you? I already got Phil [Hughes] in the DL slot, so you better get your ass back in action."

Mendicus has a reputation for following his players' performance with intense scrutiny and personal investment, often to a fanatical degree. It is rumored that he monitors their progress on multiple Yahoo! Sports box score windows on his computer screen, and will erupt into obscenity-laden tirades at work after a mere groundout or caught stealing.

"Fuck you Edwin, you good-for-nothing piece of shit," Mendicus was overheard as saying while angrily clicking the "Refresh" button on his web browser 14 times after pitcher Edwin Jackson loaded the bases with three straight walks. "Throw the ball over the goddamn plate. I need a win here, you idiot. I'm getting killed in wins."

For some players on Mendicus' team, the demand for instant results, the constant threats to be released or traded, and the nonstop verbal abuse is too much. Pitcher Jeremy Guthrie has been dropped and picked up by Mendicus seven times already this season, and he says he doesn't like playing under such volatile conditions.

"I wish he'd have a little faith in me," Guthrie said. "I don't like being picked up the night before my start and then simply dropped the next day. It wears on you as a player. And now I have to explain myself to my kids when they read in the papers that their daddy is a 'shit-for-brains asshole who can't even get five strikeouts when that's all we needed to win the category.'"

"I'm sorry, but when I have runners on first and third and one out, I'm going to go for the double play to get out of the inning, not the strikeout," Guthrie added. "Even though they don't give out 'points' for double plays."

Some players, however, praised Mendicus for his fiery attitude and desire to win, saying they prefer that to the kind of owners who treat their fantasy teams like nothing more than a fun distraction from their real jobs.

"It's good that he cares," said Beat With Uggla Stick catcher Jorge Posada. "Some owners, like Garrett Baldwin of the Smilin' Joe Randas, or Mike Broberg of Tiny Damon, they just sort of check in every once in a while to see how we're doing, but that's it. In fact, I've been on the Tiny Damon's bench since I went on the DL in April, and they don't even have anyone in the catcher slot. That's just shoddy ownership."

"But there's also a thing called caring too much," Posada added. "You can only be called a worthless shitbag after popping out so many times before it starts to sting. It's at the point where playing for Mendicus is almost as bad as playing for Hank Steinbrenner."

Original here

No-hit win makes no sense, except in baseball

Kurkjian By Tim Kurkjian

Baseball is the best game in part because every night you go to the ballpark, you might see something you've never seen before. No other sport can say that like baseball can, and Saturday night at Dodger Stadium was just such a night, a night that made no sense.

The Dodgers did not get a hit, yet won the game. The Angels did not allow a hit, yet lost the game. The final score was 1-0, marking the fifth time since 1900 that a team did not get a hit but won the game. The losing pitcher was Jered Weaver, who threw six no-hit innings but was taken out for a pinch hitter in the top of the seventh inning after 98 pitches. When he left, the Angels trailed, 1-0, thanks to an unearned run allowed in the fifth. This is the third time in the expansion era (since 1961) that baseball has had an eight-inning no-hitter: Boston's Matt Young threw one against Cleveland in 1992, and the Yankees' Andy Hawkins pitched one against the White Sox in 1990. Hawkins' no-hitter was officially considered a no-hitter at the time, but in 1991, the rule was changed, negating his gem. Now, according to major league rules, an official no-hitter is "when a pitcher (or pitchers) allows no hits during the entire course of a game, which consists of at least nine innings.'' So, the no-hitters by Young and Hawkins are not considered no-hitters, nor is the no-hitter thrown by Weaver and Jose Arredondo, who pitched the seventh and eighth innings for the road team Saturday night. So the Angels did not allow a hit but did not throw a no-hitter. Angels manager Mike Scioscia didn't have much of a choice but to remove Weaver. Weaver probably could have gone another inning or two, but the Angels were losing, they've had trouble scoring runs all season, they hadn't scored a run in the first 15 innings of the series at Dodger Stadium, and Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley was dealing. Weaver can blame interleague play for his removal. In the same weekend that the record for RBIs in a game by a DH was set by a National League player (Met Carlos Delgado), an American League pitcher was pulled from a game for a pinch hitter despite holding a no-hitter after six innings. There was a questionable scoring call in the fifth inning. The Dodgers' Matt Kemp, who runs very well, hit a little grounder that was spinning furiously when Weaver reached it about 20 feet from first base. He took his eye off it briefly, then was unable to pick it up. Official scorer Don Hartack, who's employed by the Dodgers, ruled it an error, which was the correct call. Some official scorers will tell you that the first hit of a game has to be a legitimate one just in case it is the only hit of the game. Some may say that Kemp might have beaten out the ball had it been fielded cleanly, and therefore it should have been scored a hit. But imagine the uproar if the Angels had scored a couple of runs, Weaver had allowed no other hits for nine innings, and that play had been scored a hit. It would have been viewed as a homer call for the Dodgers. In the divisional era (since 1969), there have been three no-hitters in which a run was scored by the losing team: Darryl Kile allowed one in his no-hitter in 1993, Joe Cowley in his in 1986, and Blue Moon Odom and Francisco Barrios in their combined no-hitter in 1976. (Cowley walked eight in his no-hitter. Then-White Sox coach Doug Rader jokingly said after the game that "Cowley pitched so badly, I didn't even shake his hand after the game.'') The Angels have thrown eight no-hitters in franchise history; the past six have involved either Nolan Ryan (four) or Mike Witt, who threw a perfect game in 1984, then pitched in a combined no-hitter with Mark Langston on April 11, 1990. The most recent no-hitter at Dodger Stadium was by Kent Mercker of the Braves on April 8, 1994. But those are still in play because a no-hitter was not thrown Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, even though the Dodgers didn't get a hit. This could only happen in baseball, the best game.

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The dying art of the knuckleball

Boston's Tim Wakefield, 41, has found longevity with the knuckleball and hopes to pitch until he's 50.
Boston's Tim Wakefield, 41, has found longevity with the knuckleball and hopes to pitch until he's 50.

By John Bolster, Special to

In the Red Sox clubhouse a few hours before the start of a drizzly, early-May game against the Rays, Tim Wakefield wraps his hand around a brand-new baseball and models his knuckleball grip. On television, Wakefield's grip appears claw-like and uncomfortable, but up close, it looks effortless: His hand envelopes the ball easily, fingertips lodged just below the seam, ball snug against his palm. It's a grip that has helped him to more than 170 victories and a solid, if sometimes strange, 16-year major-league career.

Since the low-velocity knuckleball is comparatively easy on the arm, Wakefield can pitch on zero days' rest when his team needs him to, and he routinely finishes among the Sox' leaders in innings pitched. He's 41 now, and could easily extend his career another six, seven, even eight years. (After pitching seven scoreless innings in a 5-0 win over Arizona on Wednesday, Wakefield is 5-5 with a 3.88 ERA this season.) Knuckleball legend Hoyt Wilhelm was one week shy of his 50th birthday when he called it quits. Phil Niekro, a.k.a. "Knucksie", pitched till he was 48. Wakefield says he'll pitch as long as he can -- even into his 50s.

"Barring injury or anything like that -- absolutely," he says.

Considering Wakefield's example (not to mention his current salary of $4 million a year), and the way the knuckleball frequently makes batters look silly, why don't more players try to learn this pitch? Why are Wakefield and Seattle's R.A. Dickey the only knuckleballers currently on a major-league roster?

It's been roughly 100 years since the knuckleball first wobbled into the sightline of a major-league hitter, and yet we're not much closer to understanding the pitch today than that first unsuspecting Dead Ball-era batter must have been, when he stepped in the box and saw it floating in his direction, spinless, hypnotic and uncertain. Indeed, almost everything about the knuckleball -- from its origins, to the best way to grip it, to its flight path, and even its future in the game -- is uncertain.

No one can say for sure who threw the first one, though pitchers Toad Ramsay and Old Hoss Radbourne delivered knuckle-like pitches as early as the 1880s. Those pitches, called "dry spitballs" or "drop curves," traveled with some velocity, and probably had more spin than a pure knuckleball, which sails toward the plate at about the national highway speed limit and (that being the only traffic law it obeys), darts this way and that, or wobbles and drops unpredictably at the last minute. Satchel Paige called it the "bat dodger." Tim McCarver said trying to hit it is like "trying to catch a butterfly with tweezers."

The first appearance of that pitch in the major leagues came in 1908, when Eddie Cicotte and Ed Summers started throwing it for the Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers, respectively. Ciccotte (pronounced SEE-COT) gripped the top of the ball with his knuckles, whereas Summers, like most of the other players who adopted the pitch, dug his nails into the cover of the ball to produce the same low-spin, high-flutter effect. Despite the fact that very few pitchers since Ciccotte have actually used their knuckles to throw the pitch, the name endures. So does the pitch, just barely.

It wasn't always that way. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers lists 70 pure knuckleball pitchers in baseball history, adding that "literally hundreds" more have had the pitch in their arsenals. In the 1940s and '50s, by co-author Rob Neyer's estimate, "something like half the pitchers in the majors occasionally threw a knuckleball." The 1945 Washington Senators featured four knuckleball pitchers on their staff, and missed winning the American League pennant by a game and a half. (Rick Ferrell was their long-suffering catcher that year, starting 91 games, and allowing 21 passed balls. His backups, Al Evans and Mike Guerra, allowed 19, giving the Senators 40 passed balls that year. No other AL team had more than 18.)

But the flow of flutterballers gradually decreased to a trickle during the ensuing decades, and when Wakefield came up in 1992 there were only two other knuckleball pitchers in the majors, Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti. That's roughly how it's been ever since: "Like some cult religion that barely survives," says former AL umpire Ron Luciano, "there has always been at least one but rarely more than five or six devotees throwing the knuckleball in the big leagues." After Hough retired in 1994, Dennis Springer and Steve Sparks arrived to swell the ranks to four. They were both gone by 2004, but others drifted through, including Jared Fernandez (three teams), Charlie Haeger (White Sox) and Dickey. Fernandez is out of baseball now, Haeger is back in the minors, and Dickey, before a recent win over the Mets, had been 0-3 with a 13.50 ERA in three starts for Seattle. So Wakefield essentially stands alone -- the only player with sufficient mastery of this unpredictable pitch to be an established major-league starter.

Phil Niekro had a Hall-of-Fame career with the knuckleball, winning 318 games.
Phil Niekro had a Hall-of-Fame career with the knuckleball, winning 318 games.

So what does it take to master the knuckleball? "I don't know if I ever did master it," says Niekro, a Hall of Famer who won 318 games with the pitch. "Even by the time I'd retired. I don't know if anyone ever masters it."

There's far more mystery surrounding the knuckleball than hard knowledge. Physicists don't even agree, exactly, on why the pitch does what it does; pitchers report that they can't see the ball's legendary darting movement -- relying on their catchers for word of how well it's dancing -- and most fans have never truly glimpsed one in all its hiccupping glory, either. Viewed from, say, the first-baseline seats, a knuckleball looks totally ordinary, like a guy playing catch.

The pitch gets its movement from the disruption of the airflow around the baseball's seams. The physics are as dizzying as the pitch itself, but suffice to say that the disrupted air causes a pressure drop along the leading seam, and the ball follows the low pressure. As the ball rotates -- slightly, slowly -- the low-pressure spot changes and the ball will shift in another direction. Several other elements enter into the process, including wake, and the Magnus Effect (a physical phenomenon where a spinning object creates a whirlpool of rotating air), but the bottom line is that the knuckleball pitcher wants about half a rotation on the ball from mound to plate, maybe one full rotation, but any more than that and the effect is ruined. You're left with a junior-high fastball spinning toward a major-league batter.

So the knuckleballer needs to muffle spin. That starts with grip. Yet there is no one way to properly grip the pitch; in fact, there are almost as many different knuckleball grips as there have been knuckleball pitchers. Wakefield uses a two-seam, two-finger grip, with his right pinky flaring off the ball on delivery. Niekro used two fingers, straddling the seam; Charlie Zink, a Red Sox prospect with Triple-A Pawtucket, also straddles the seam, Niekro-style, but uses a part-knuckle, part-fingernail grip. "I actually stick my index knuckle on the ball," he says, "and then my middle fingernail." The hybrid grip is working for him: through Thursday, Zink was 8-2 with a 2.33 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP.

The next step after killing rotation is learning to repeat your mechanics. Wakefield may look like your neighbor's dad soft-tossing at a backyard barbecue when he sends his floaters plateward, but there's much more to his delivery than meets the eye. It's not a gimmicky, trick pitch. "That's the biggest misconception," says Kevin Cash, who replaced Doug Mirabelli as Wakefield's catcher last season. "There's a lot of thought and detail that goes into what he does. He throws the knuckleball, but he's a big-league pitcher. And what he does to major-league hitters at 65 miles an hour, some guys don't have as much success doing it at 95 miles per hour."

While a conventional pitcher throwing a fastball strides toward the plate to increase leverage, and flicks his wrist at his release point to increase spin, a knuckleball pitcher shortens up his stride and keeps his wrist stiff. He also pushes his fingers out behind the ball, straight at the catcher, to kill spin. And it all has to be done just so, every time, or you risk disaster. "You can throw a fastball poorly, and if you have a good arm, it still might work," says Hough. "But a poorly thrown knuckleball never works."

With all its moving parts, and the need to repeat very specific mechanics, the knuckleball delivery lends ready comparisons to the golf swing. Both Zink and Haeger, the White Sox prospect, considered pro golf careers before committing to baseball. "Mentally, just the patience in golf and having to keep the same tempo the whole way through. That really helps you out with throwing the knuckleball," says Zink. "You can't overswing in golf, and you can't overthrow this pitch. So it goes along with what I do really well."

Wakefield adds that, as with the golf swing, there's very little margin for error in throwing the knuckleball. He talks about "going around on one," or "getting too far on the inside of one." Translation: "I'm either hooking it, or slicing it." Either mistake can produce spin, which, in turn, can produce a ball traveling "475 feet in the opposite direction," in the words of former knuckleballer Jim Bouton.

It takes a certain type to throw a high-finesse, low-velocity pitch into the teeth of major-league hitting -- when everyone knows what's coming. "You gotta be pretty calm, and yet pretty competitive," says Hough. "It's not a pitch you can muscle up on."

"You can't care what other people think of it," says Niekro. "Because I was called every name in the book out there on the mound: 'knuckle-brain,' 'pus arm.' Which was okay, because I knew they were frustrated and they didn't like it, they were having a hard time with it."

"It's gotta be somebody that has a carefree attitude," says Wakefield. "I don't mean 'carefree' like you don't care, but that you're not full of care or any less care, you're just in the middle. Where you're willing to take your lumps and not get down on yourself, because when you lose the feel of [the pitch] for a while, it can be bad. But just try to stay as even-keeled as you can."

"I know I get along with all the other knuckleballers," says Zink. "So maybe there is [a type]. We're all really laid-back. I'm guessing that's gotta help."

Through there aren't many knuckleballers in the minors, the Red Sox have one in Charlie Zink, who is 8-2 with a 2.33 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket.
Through there aren't many knuckleballers in the minors, the Red Sox have one in Charlie Zink, who is 8-2 with a 2.33 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket.

If the pitchers need to be laid-back, well, think of the knuckleball catchers. Take an already thankless position and, oh, quadruple the degree of difficulty of its fundamental purpose, namely catching the damn ball. Bob Uecker had a foolproof technique for catching the knuckler: "Wait'll it stops rolling, then go pick it up."

Next time you see Wakefield pitch, take a look at Cash behind the dish. He doesn't square up to Wakefield, but squats at an angle, his knees pointed toward first base. Cash says this gives his receiving hand a better range of motion because it removes one of his knees from the crash-landing area of the knuckleball. With only one knee in the center, instead of two on either side, he can move his catching hand from side to side depending on which way the ball knuckles. "The most important thing is to try to relax your hand as much as possible," he says. "And catch the ball deep, as close to your body as you can." He also uses an oversized "knuckleball mitt" provided by Wakefield. It looks more like a first basemen's glove than a traditional catcher's mitt. As unreasonable as the job may be, though, the ability to catch the knuckleball -- like the ability to throw it for strikes -- can be a ticket to the major leagues.

Which brings us back to the question of why more players don't learn the pitch. Hough has a good answer: "Why don't more guys throw 95 mph? Because it's really hard to do!" A lot of pro ballplayers break out their knuckleballs during warm-ups or downtime, but according to Zink, not many can throw one out of 10 well, just playing catch. "Then when you get on the mound," he says, "it's a whole other feeling -- and to have to throw it for strikes, consistently, is really difficult."

The casual look of the pitch disguises its degree of difficulty. Beyond that, the culture of sports has changed. How many drop-shot artists are left in tennis these days? Golf is increasingly power- (and equipment-) driven; the yardage at Augusta has increased from 6,925 yards in 1990 (and the previous 50 years) to more than 7,400 this year. Needless to say, baseball is no exception. Minor league dollars go toward developing pitchers with killer arms. The knuckleball is a finesse pitch, and a homespun (or not spun) one at that. Most guys learned it from their fathers, or taught themselves. Very few coaches can coach it. Niekro and Wakefield honed theirs for years in the backyard.

"I never played Little League, or Pony League, or T-ball," says Niekro. "My first organized game was when I was a freshman in high school. By that time I was already throwing the knuckleball, and had been throwing it in the backyard with my dad for years. No one ever told me I couldn't do it. But nowadays, what kid can go up to a high school coach and say, 'I want to be a knuckleball pitcher'? The high school coach will say, 'I don't know anything about that, I can't help you."

Knuckleball pitchers are found, or "stumbled into," in Hough's phrase, but rarely made. Wakefield started out as an infielder in the Pirates organization and was converted after one of Pittsburgh's coaches saw him fooling around with the knuckler during warm-ups. Three years later he made the big-league club, went 8-1 and beat Atlanta's Tom Glavine twice in the NLCS. Zink began as a power pitcher at Savannah College of Art and Design, of all places, where the coach was ex-Boston pitcher Luis Tiant. (Clearly the Red Sox, starting with Ciccotte in 1908, are dialed into the butterfly ball).

In 2002, a Red Sox trainer asked Zink to throw a flutterball during warm-ups. The trainer opted not to wear a mask -- a decision he regretted when Zink's first floater popped him in the eye. "He wanted to see it..." says Zink, chuckling. Zink had taught himself the pitch after watching Wakefield in the '92 playoffs.

At the moment Zink appears to be Wakefield's most likely heir apparent, but Haeger, who spent parts of 2006 and '07 in the majors, has pitched 65-plus innings at Triple-A Charlotte this season, and could yet make a return to the bigs. Cash has faced both pitchers and says, "they're definitely on the right track to throw it at the big-league level."

There are others, and rumors of others. Simon Ferrer is throwing the pitch with the Class A Modesto Nuts, a Colorado Rockies affiliate. Dickey throws a hard knuckleball and is experimenting with the slower "pure" version as he struggles to secure a place in Seattle." Sean Flaherty, a former prodigy (he threw the pitch regularly in high school), went to the University of Miami on a baseball scholarship in 2005, but has since left the program, whereabouts unknown.

It's common for end-of-an-era alarm bells to be rung when the major-league knuckling population dips so low, but it seems clear that baseball's most perplexing and charming pitch does indeed have a future. Which is a good thing, because what's not to like about the knuckleball? It's the tortoise-beating-the-hare; it's analog in a digital world; it's a curiosity -- and a seriously effective pitch. It also has a pronounced comic side: Niekro tells of striking a guy out on a pitch behind him; Zink witnessed a batter pull a ribcage muscle swinging at one of his pitches; and Wakefield once plunked Terry Steinbach with a 65 mph floater that landed "so perfectly square on the elbow that he had to come out of the game," he notes, with a grin. It's a finesse pitch and it's sly, but it's also in-your-face.

As Niekro says, "I was throwing the 'here-it-comes, the 'I'll-tell-you-it's-coming-now. Can you hit it? Go ahead and hit it.'"

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