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Enjoy Dickey, knuckleball while you can

Fans shouldn't take for granted only man who throws fabled pitch

There are so many reasons folks need to enjoy R.A. Dickey while he lasts as a pitcher in the Major Leagues. But if the past is indicative of the future, this right-hander with the rubber arm for the Blue Jays is on the verge of strolling to the mound just shy of forever.

Such is the life of a knuckleballer.

It's just that when the 39-year-old Dickey goes into retirement one of these centuries, then what?

"Well, I'm certainly cognizant that I'm the only knuckleballer in the big leagues, because it gets pointed out a lot, but I don't think about it very much," said Dickey, an 11-year Major League veteran, who only sort of was telling the truth about his non-knuckleball thoughts beyond himself.

Dickey is as cerebral as they come in professional sports. As a result, you just know he devotes more than a few brain cells to trying to determine what might happen to a pitch that rarely has featured more than a couple of full-time users at the same time in the Major Leagues since the middle of the 20th century.

No wonder Dickey paused ... and then offered a slew of deep thoughts on the knuckleball's future.

"I feel like, well, there is just something about it that has a sustaining aspect and that causes people to remain curious about it, and because of that, a guy or two will always be throwing it," Dickey said. "There have been some guys professionally who have been trying to pick it up. In the Minor Leagues, there are a few guys who throw it presently that I know of personally. There's a guy in Triple-A in Boston, and there might be another guy with Boston."

For sure, there is Frank Viola III, the son of the former American League Cy Young Award winner with the Twins. Since joining Toronto earlier this month, Dickey has helped the younger Viola learn the knuckleball.

So maybe there is hope for the pitch.

"I think so, because I have people call me for advice on how to improve what they have [regarding the knuckleball], or they are just curious about how I started my own journey with the pitch," Dickey said. "But for the most part, there still is a very small percentage of people who are able to do it. Yet with that curiosity, there is hope that it's not going to die, and that hope gives me confidence that somebody will be able to pick up the torch once I leave."

Not that Dickey is leaving anytime soon. For instance: Tim Wakefield was still throwing knuckleballs in the Major Leagues at 45. Phil Niekro did so through his 48th birthday. Then there was Hoyt Wilhelm, functioning as "The Father Of All Great Knucklers" at nearly 50. Which means Dickey is a toddler compared to his knuckleball predecessors of yore, and he is a toddler with a grown-up attitude toward a pitch that wasn't his first choice.

After Dickey struggled with his forkball in Texas, he agreed to evolve into a knuckleballer before the 2006 season, and he slowly perfected the pitch during his stints with the Rangers, Twins, Mariners and Mets before joining the Blue Jays. He also benefited from hitters equating the knuckleball to the bogeyman since they only see the pitch on occasion.

It doesn't just scare hitters.

It also terrifies catchers.

"You really have to do a lot of work behind the plate when somebody is throwing the knuckleball, and it gets to be very tiring, because of the mental part of it all, " said Henry Blanco, the journeyman catcher with the D-backs.

Blanco was Dickey's designated catcher last year with Toronto, and he had a similar role when they both played for the Mets. Blanco's challenge during his times with Dickey was the eternal one for catchers of knuckleballs: Since not even the thrower knows where his floating pitch with little or no spin will land in the vicinity of home plate, you know the catcher doesn't know.

The combination leads to passed balls, bruised egos and more reasons pitchers don't even want to throw the thing.

"Few people can catch it, and it goes back to all of the concentration you have to put into catching a knuckleball, and the concentration [is continuous]," Blanco said. "It will wear you out, but it gets a little easier when you've caught a guy like Dickey before. You have to start by making him feel comfortable with you after some bullpen sessions, and you personally have to try to get into a rhythm. Guys that haven't seen Dickey or other [knuckleball pitchers], I don't think they'll be able to do it."

Uh, no. Even so, knuckleball pitchers have prospered when they've resembled Dickey by lasting in the Major Leagues more than a decade. Jesse Haines, Ted Lyons, Wilhelm and Niekro are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Niekro even did the unprecedented by winning more than 300 games.

As for Dickey, he became the only knuckleballer ever to win a Cy Young Award when he did so in 2012 with the Mets. Then came a dip overall in his statistics last season (14-13, 4.21 ERA), but he still started more games (34) than anybody in the Major Leagues, and he also won a Gold Glove.

Dickey was the Blue Jays' Opening Day starter last year, and soon after Spring Training began in February, Toronto manager John Gibbons crowned Dickey the ace of his staff by giving him such honors again this season.

You know what that means?

The knuckleball continues to live, and to thrive ... for the moment.

Terence Moore is a columnist for

Toronto Blue Jays, R.A. Dickey