Wright, Dickey share bond only knucklers understand

Wright, Dickey share bond only knucklers understand

BOSTON -- One untimely spell of rain and snow in Cleveland last week spoiled what would have the rarest of matchups in Toronto a couple of days later. Two knuckleballers -- the only two in the Major Leagues -- were set to pitch against each other.

Blue Jays right-hander R.A. Dickey, who knuckled his way to a National League Cy Young Award with the Mets in 2012, would have faced late-blooming Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright. The last time two knuckleballers started in the same game was Sept. 15, 2000, when Tim Wakefield (Boston) faced Steve Sparks (Detroit) at Tiger Stadium.

Wakefield, Sparks on knuckleball

Once Red Sox manager John Farrell reacted to the postponement in Cleveland by pushing all of his starters back a day, Wright and Dickey got another treat. They watched each other pitch live.

Dickey started Saturday at Rogers Centre and Wright went the next day. They'll get the same opportunity this weekend at Fenway Park, with Dickey facing Boston on Friday and Wright going against Toronto on Sunday.

"I watch R.A. real close. I've watched him ever since I started throwing a knuckleball," said Wright. "He's somebody I've been trying to repeat what he's done in his career with his success. Whenever I get a chance to watch him live, I definitely pay attention. I want to watch tendencies and see if I might pick up on anything that maybe I can use to my advantage. Also, it's just fun to see somebody else doing it in the league."

Knuckleballers face off

Of the 150 current starting pitchers in the Major Leagues, only two know what it's like to making a living as a knuckleballer.

Though Wright and Dickey are both hoping their respective teams win the American League East, they will root hard for each other as long as they aren't playing against each other.

"When he's not playing us, I'm hoping that he's dominant, because the more people see that pitch being dominant, the more respect guys who throw that pitch will get," said Dickey. "Right now, the reservoir is depleted pretty much. The more success that knuckleballers have, the more trustworthy that pitch becomes."

In the history of baseball, fewer than 30 pitchers have thrown the knuckleball with any kind of regularity in Major League games.

Phil Niekro rode the pitch to a Hall of Fame career. Dickey was the first knuckleballer to win a Cy Young Award. Wakefield won 200 games in his career. Joe Niekro, Charlie Hough and Wilbur Wood are the others who had quite a bit of success throwing the unconventional pitch that baffles hitters so much that they sometimes look like they are trying to swat a fly.

"I remember the hitters asking me what to do," Wakefield said, recalling the times his Red Sox would face knuckleballers. "I basically said, 'Good luck. I can tell you how to throw it, but I don't know how to hit it."'

Though Wakefield hasn't thrown a knuckleball in a Major League game since 2011, he has helped keep his favorite pitch alive by working with Wright. That relationship started in '13, Wright's first Spring Training with the Red Sox.

Wakefield gives advice to Wright

"He helps me kind of simplify things," said Wright. "It's more about staying under control, and velocity is not necessarily the key to the pitch. You want to only throw it as hard as your mechanics let you."

Much like Wakefield, Wright threw a knuckleball from childhood on just to goof around. Wakefield was a first baseman in the Minor Leagues who couldn't hit, and his last attempt to save his career was to start throwing a knuckleball full time. Same thing with Wright, who wasn't advancing well enough through the Indians' farm system as a conventional pitcher.

Nearly every knuckleball pitcher has a similar story, which is what makes their club perhaps the most unique in baseball.

"If you look at all of us combined, I don't think there's any of us but Phil Niekro who actually signed his first professional baseball contract as a knuckleballer," said Wakefield. "We were all either conventional pitchers or ex-position players that turned into knuckleballers. You're never too old to pick it up and start doing it."

Though Wright is 31 and just coming into his own now, that is young for a knuckleballer. The 41-year-old Dickey wasn't much younger than Wright is now when he started throwing knuckleballs. Wakefield pitched until he was 45; Phil Niekro was 48 when he threw his final pitch.

A big part of what has kept knuckleballers going is their tight fraternity. Wakefield's career was on the scrap heap after the Pirates released him in 1995, and Phil Niekro mentored him on the comeback trail. Wakefield would later work countless hours with Hough. Dickey leaned on Wakefield, Hough and Phil Niekro. Wright talks to Hough and Wakefield when he needs pointers.

Niekro on Dickey's Cy Young

The knuckleball club has an open-book policy.

"We all share our notes," said Dickey. "There's no real, 'I don't want to share my secrets' kind of thing among the fraternity. In fact, it's the opposite, which is really unique. You want people to learn the pitch well so they can keep the tradition alive."

Sparks has an indelible memory from 1995 at Fenway Park that took place nearly seven hours before his Brewers would play a game against the Red Sox.

"Tim and I met in the bullpen at Fenway Park just after lunch with Phil Niekro," said Sparks. "We were there for a couple of hours and got to bounce questions off Phil for two hours. We got tips for throwing in cold weather, windy conditions or when the ball was slick, and just what his mind-set was in certain situations of games. Just the amount of knowledge he was able to impart that day; here we were, two guys who were just trying to learn from a Hall of Famer, what it took for him to get to the point where he was at.

"It was kind of refreshing for us to realize that even he struggled. We both thought, 'Man, you didn't throw a good one every pitch?' That kind of gives you a little freedom in your delivery when you feel like you don't have to be perfect all the time."

Once Dickey retires, Wright could be required to carry the torch by himself for a while. The Rays have a Minor Leaguer named Eddie Gamboa trying to make it as a knuckleballer. Dan Johnson, a former Major League outfielder, recently signed a Minor League contract with the Rays in hopes of converting to a knuckleballer.

Dan Johnson, knuckleballer

"I don't think it will ever disappear," said Wakefield. "There might not be somebody throwing it for a handful of years here or there, but I think there will always be somebody that comes along and is throwing it in the Major Leagues. I don't think anyone will ever get drafted as a knuckleball pitcher, but I think somebody will always be throwing it somewhere."

And perhaps, Wright and Dickey will both throw it in the same park on the same day at some point this season.

"I think it's going to come," said Wright. "We play them enough this year that it's almost bound to happen. It would have been nice to get it out of the way early, but it's one of those things. The rainout happened, it's baseball and we've got to adjust."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.