If you haven't read Joe Posnanski's fantastic piece on the knuckleball, do so immediately.
The knuckleball is a beautiful pitch. As Posnanski writes, "It is the only thing in sports I know of that is a constant surprise not only to the opponent or the fans, but also to the person who is actually initiating it." Every athlete, at least those who throw or shoot objects, knows what will happen if he or she executes their motion perfectly. A knuckleballer hopes.
Nobody goes out for a casual catch with their father or friend and says "let's throw a few split-finger fastballs." You toss a ball around all while messing with a knuckleball grip in the hopes of miraculously discovering the right way to throw it. Usually, the ball has just enough cruel rotation on it so that it doesn't work.
But when you get a knuckleball right, it's like you just won the lottery. Only instead of getting money, the little white orb you just threw doesn't have any spin. It dances, it dives, it does seemingly whatever it wants.
With Tim Wakefield announcing his retirement, though, there doesn't appear to be a true knuckleballer coming through the ranks. There doesn't appear to be the next Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield or Niekro ready to break through. Sure, R.A. Dickey throws one, but he only began to use a knuckleball when his regular stuff -- which was good enough for him to make the majors -- failed him.
Six years ago, Charlie Haeger was a young knuckleballer who had worked his way to the top level of the White Sox farm system. He was drafted in the 25th round by the Sox out of high school in 2001, back when his 90 mph fastball was good enough to get him picked. He left baseball for a year in 2003 to play golf, but before he did, he started messing around with a knuckleball.
In 2004, he was back in the White Sox organization as a knuckleballer. By 2005, he had reached Double-A Birmingham, where he threw two shutouts. In 2006, he posted a 3.07 ERA with Triple-A Charlotte and made his big-league debut. In the majors, Haeger posted a 3.44 ERA in 18 13 innings.
But Haeger, who spent plenty of time working on his knuckleball with Hough, never was able to find the touch with his knuckeball in the majors. After allowing 11 runs (nine earned) in 11 13 innings with the 2007 White Sox, Haeger landed in San Diego, where he allowed 10 runs (eight earned) in 4 23 innings.
Haeger had some stabs of success with the Dodgers in 2009 and 2010, but never was a serious threat to stay in the majors. His first two games with Los Angeles in 2009 went great, as Haeger allowed three runs in 14 innings with nine strikeouts and four walks. But he was lit up by the Reds in his next start and was booted from the starting rotation.
He began 2010 by striking out 12 Marlins in six innings, but was shuffled between the bullpen and rotation after that before being sent down to the minors for good in late June. Haeger was released and spent 2011 with Seattle's Triple-A and Boston's Double-A affiliates, marking the first time since 2005 he didn't throw a pitch in the major leagues.
Haeger's future is uncertain -- I can't find out if he's still with Boston, some other team or is a minor league free agent.
But hopefully he keeps on fighting the good fight, armed with a 70 mile-per-hour pitch and a prayer as to where it's going. Because, to steal a line from Theo Epstein, baseball is better with the knuckleball.