The Ultimate Knuckleballer

Ricardo was baseball’s ultimate knuckleball pitcher.

Born with a physical deformity to a poor family in that hotbed of baseball talent, the Dominican Republic, Ricardo’s handicap made him a multimillionaire before he was twenty years old.

What was that handicap? His right hand included four shortened fingers and an unusually long thumb.

The result? When Ricardo would throw a baseball, his hand would release the ball from all four fingers and thumb simultaneously. The ball would have very little or no spin. Any ball leaving Ricardo’s hand would be susceptible to even the slightest atmospheric conditions as it would flutter unpredictably from the mound to home plate.

Unlike Wilber Wood, Phil Neikro, and most of the other knuckleball pitchers of the past who had to contort their pitching hand into a shape that could launch the pitch (i.e., thus the name “knuckleball”), Ricardo could make this pitch very comfortably. In fact, it was the only way he could throw.

Furthermore, because Ricardo would expend far less energy serving up one of his “flutterballs” than the other flamethrowing members of his team’s pitching staff would need to throw their heat, Ricardo could be used in relief between starts.

No one in the history of the game could throw a more aerodynamically unstable pitch than Ricardo. No one can hit them. Even the best hitters in the game only foul off an occasional pitch.

The fans called him “Dr. K”, both for “knuckle”, and because he would accumulate an enormous number of strikeouts every game, which, ironically, was part of the problem.

The problem? Well, Ricardo was not only unhittable; he was also uncatchable. His team’s general manager instructed his scouts to search the globe for a catcher who could hold a third strike from Ricardo, because none so far could. Just blocking the ball was an accomplishment; actually catching it would be considered an accident.

Ricardo would commonly record three, four, five or more strikeouts every INNING. How? After they struck out, hitters could usually get to first base before the catcher could retrieve the ball from the backstop and throw him out. Then on the next pitch the base runner would usually be at least 75% of the way to second base before the catcher could get his hand on the ball. Getting to third was just as easy. Getting home was a little more challenging. But before long another passed ball would allow him to score.

Another problem is that hitters liked to bunt Ricardo’s pitches to the left side of the infield. After Ricardo would field a bunt, he would fire an unreceivable knuckleball to first base, which despite the throw’s accuracy, would commonly bounce off the wall in front of the seats on the right foul line. (Remember, he can’t throw anything else.)

Similarly, runners would take unprecedented leads because his hapless infielders would have enormous problems with his pickoff moves.

He played one full season in the bigs. During April, he started 10 games and lost them all. Also, he appeared in relief 10 more times with no saves and five more losses. In each game in which he appeared he more than broke the previous record for the number of strikeouts in a single game (even as a reliever).

From May through September, he would pitch only when the team’s GM thought he may have found that ultimate catcher who could catch, or at least block, Ricardo’s wobblers. But he was never found.

He finished the season with a record of 0-35, and an earned run average of 0.00. Although he would typically lose games by scores of 25-3, 22-7, 31-5, and worse, he accumulated more than seven times the number of strikeouts that the previous season record holder.

Unanimously voted Cy Young, he was just as unanimously denied any offer of employment by every major league club the following spring.

Today, Ricardo’s an aeronautics engineer for Lockheed.


My favorite baseball outcome

Today is Wednesday, October 15, 2003, which means that last night the Cubs lost to the Marlins. The series is now tied and game seven is set for tonight.

Whenever a game seven arrives in either the World Series or either of the league championship series, I think of what my answer might be if someone were to ask me what I would like to see happen in the deciding game. Well, here’s my answer:

Chess Tips

I was about 10 years old when my father taught me how to play chess. But I didn’t play with any skill until I found a book that was entitled “Chess – the Easy Way”, by Reuben Fine. When I learned Mr. Fine’s suggestions for better chess, I improved rather quickly. I started to beat my formerly dominant friends who would push all their pawns at the start, bring out their queen too soon, and launch poorly planned offensives. In this entry I wanted to share with you I remember from that book.

Mr. Fine listed ten commandments for the opening, of which I remember six:

  1. Play to get control of the center of the board as quickly as possible. The center of the board consists of those four squares that are located three and four squares in front of your royal couple. Consider the opening as a race to control the middle.

  2. Make no more than two or three pawn moves in the opening. (And not P-R3; remember rule 1.) P-k4 and P-q4 are solid pawn openings.

  3. Get your knights and bishops out of your backfield (knights first). Consider rule 1 as you do.

  4. Do not bring your queen out in the opening; she is too valuable in the mid and end game.

  5. Castle early, preferably on the king’s side. (I have since learned that perhaps a better strategy is to empty your backfield of all pieces but your king and rooks, watch your opponent’s movements, and castle your king away from danger.)

  6. Whenever possible, make developing moves that also threaten your opponent. This forces your opponent to react and thereby fall behind in the race (rule 1).

Also, you need to know the relative value of all pieces, as follows: pawn: 1 point; knight: 3 points; bishop: 3 points; rook: 5 points; queen: 9 points. For example, a queen for both rooks is not a good trade; as is a rook for a bishop and a pawn; another pawn makes it about even.

Since the game depends upon the health of your king, it’s more difficult to assign him a value. Personally (me and not RF speaking), judged only as an offensive tool, I think the king is worth less than a pawn in the opening (while you’re trying to guard him from multiple enemy pieces), and as much as four points in the mid to end game, when the king needs to become an active offensive weapon.

This value system lets us define when the opening becomes the mid game. When 15 or more points (total of both sides) are off the board, the mid game has arrived. The end game is here when 25 points have been captured.

Double up your rooks behind an advancing pawn or in an empty column, preferably near the center. Pawns and bishops also do a great job of supporting each other, as do both knights.

Learn how to force checkmate on a lone king with only a king and a queen. When you figured that out; do the same with a king and a rook. Then, can you do it with both bishops? You’ve really arrived when you can capture a king on an otherwise empty board with just a bishop, knight, and your own king. (A pawn and a king requires promotion.) Although these situations do not occur all that often, you’ll be able to visualize very important strategies that have wider applications.

Another helpful visualization activity is chess problems. I do the one in Saturday's Inquirer nearly every week. Again, these contrived problems don't normally occur in real games, but they also help you appreciate the larger strategic picture.

Finally, sit on your hands (my rule). I’ve lost more games due to my impulsive reactions than to any opponent.