Knucking on the door: R.A. Dickey has strong chance to become first knuckleballer to win Cy Young
Baseball's fraternity of knuckleballers can trace its roots to the start of the 20th century, when a fledgling righty named Eddie Cicotte found success by pushing the limits of physics and faith.
Since then, his pitching descendants have fluttered their way to a fragile but fruitful existence. Their ranks include dominant relievers and steady journeymen, Hall of Famers and a 300-game winner. Yet for all of their success, no knuckleballer has ever won the Cy Young Award.
That could change Wednesday night, when Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey either makes history, or falls victim to it.
"I think now we're in a progressive culture," said Dickey, one of three finalists for the NL Cy Young Award. "I don't feel alienated because I'm a knuckleballer. I think people respect what it can do and have seen what it can do."
If so, that respect has come slowly over time. For years, members of the fraternity have said that perception has dogged the knuckleball, a weapon too often dismissed as a "trick pitch." That bias, they believe, is part of the reason that no knuckleballer has ever been recognized as the best in his league.
Dickey represents the fraternity's best chance to win in more than 30 years.
"He should get it. But will he? I just don't know," former White Sox knuckleballer Wilbur Wood said recently. "The odds are against him -- even though he deserves it."
Wouldn't be first close call
Wood knows the power of perception. He knows what it is to be considered a freak, a gimmick, a junkballer. So, he knows better than to forecast a victory for Dickey, even though his credentials are worthy. There is reason to doubt.
Twice the Cy Young Award has slipped through a knuckleballer's fingernails.
The first time came in 1972. Pitching for the White Sox, Wood threw the most innings of any other qualifying starter in the American League while allowing the fewest earned runs. But two first-place votes separated Wood from winner Gaylord Perry of the Indians.
"Well, that's the way the cards fall," Wood said from his home in suburban Boston. "No big deal. But of course I would have loved to have won it."
The second time came in 1979. Pitching for the Astros, the late Joe Niekro won an NL-best 21 games. But in one of the closest elections ever, the award went to Cubs reliever Bruce Sutter, who admitted that the results left him "shocked." "I really thought Joe Niekro would get it," the future Hall of Famer told reporters at the time.
Like Wood, Niekro never dwelled on his close call. He hardly mentioned it to his brother Phil, the Hall of Famer, winner of 318 career games, and perhaps the most prominent member of the fraternity.
"I remember the year," Phil Niekro said this week. "He was pitching well. It would have been nice . . . but he didn't elaborate on that."
It would be three decades until another knuckleballer would even come close.
The fraternity, unusually strong in numbers during the 1970s, thinned out in the 1980s. Wood retired, followed later by both Niekro brothers. They were replaced by the likes of Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti and in the 1990s, Tim Wakefield. But whatever the next generation shared in longevity, they lacked in sheer dominance.
Dickey, baseball's sole knuckleballer, broke the mold.
Can Dickey get the win?
With the Mets, Dickey proved himself one of the game's elite pitchers this season, leading the National League in innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts. He won 20 games despite playing on a team that was 74-88, which will surely carry weight with certain Cy Young voters.
Nevertheless, just like Wood and Niekro decades before him, Dickey faces stiff competition.
His rivals include the Nationals' 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the most dangerous threat. Kershaw posted a league-low 2.53 ERA among NL starters compared to Dickey's 2.73. While Kershaw won only 14 games, some advanced statistics have pegged him as the league's most valuable pitcher.
A close vote could loom. Dickey's chances may ultimately hinge on whether the old bias against knuckleballers lives on into the 21st century.
"Now, maybe changes have been made," Wood said. "Maybe, people are thinking a little bit different."
This week, several Cy Young voters acknowledged that the winning margin could be slim, though none of them said that they factored Dickey's pitch of choice into their decisions.
"In the end, when I filled out my ballot, I wasn't voting on a pitch," said Derrick Goold, a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and one of this year's voters. "I was voting for a pitcher."
Baseball's fraternity of knuckleballers can only hope that others did the same. Cicotte, who popularized the pitch, may be long gone. But the tribe lives on, along with its ambition that finally, the best pitcher in the league might also be one of their own.
"Maybe, we didn't all know each other like we were brothers," said Phil Niekro, who finished a distant second to Tom Seaver of the Mets in the NL Cy Young voting in 1969. "But we all felt like we were all in the same family."