Quick, what's the best part in an action movie? No, it's not the awkward and stilted love scene and it's certainly not the bombastic and impersonal climactic explosion scene. It's when the hero, bruised, battered and beaten, must slowly lift himself up, grit his teeth and decide to carry on.
For pitchers, that's when they turn to the knuckleball. Hurlers enter the professional ranks on the strength of their blazing fastballs, and occasionally (if they're left-handed), on an array of breaking balls. No one dreams of knuckling. For pitcher Charlie Hough, who was seemingly ageless during his career but celebrates another birthday today, his progression was much the same.
Before turning to the pitch that dances and twirls like a young girl's heart when in love, Hough struggled in the Minors, posting a 4.36 ERA in three Double-A seasons. He hadn't even started out as a pitcher -- having spent time as a 19- and 20-year-old at first and third base before Tommy Lasorda told him:
"You might as well pitch. You can't do anything else."
So, in 1970, at the age of 22, Hough took the baseball, gripped it with his fingertips and started pushing it toward the plate. It worked. That season, Hough posted a 1.95 ERA in Triple-A before making his Major League debut with the Dodgers. Over the next 10 years, Hough would become a vital part of the Dodgers' bullpen, three times logging over 120 innings, including an absurd-by-today's standard of 151 1/3 in 1979.
(It wasn't all good though: It was Hough's knuckleball that Reggie Jackson took deep for the third home run in his legendary performance in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.)
No, it was in Texas where Hough really made his claim.
Purchased on waivers from the Dodgers in July 1980, Hough was converted from a multi-inning reliever to rotation cog in 1982. At the age of 34, when most pitchers are wrapping up their careers and being pushed to the bullpen, Hough was just coming into his own. Over the next seven seasons, Hough would win 111 games while averaging 252 innings per year with an above-average ERA+ of 116. Again, this was in his mid-30s -- Hough's knuckleball had turned back time like he was the solution to Cher's hit song.
To put that in perspective: There hasn't been a starting pitcher to top 250 innings since Justin Verlander did it in 2011 -- at the age of 28.
Even better, Hough didn't bother with other offerings aside from his floating huckster of a pitch.
"I throw ninety percent knuckleballs. The other 10 percent are prayers," Hough said in 1986. "I probably could throw other pitches. The only reason I don't is that I love pitching in the Major Leagues."
After leaving the Rangers as their all-time leader in wins with 139 (Kenny Rogers wrapped up his career six wins shy), Hough would join the White Sox for two years and then become the first starter for the Marlins in 1993. It's only fitting that it was a 45-year-old who would get the first start and victory for a brand-new franchise.
He pitched six innings against the Dodgers in the Marlins' debut, getting the victory in the Fish's 6-3 victory.
“It was a such a thrill that nerves never entered into it," Hough said in 2018. "I felt like there was no way we could lose the game. Everything just felt like it was going to work out.”
Along the way, Hough set plenty of kind-of, sort-of records.
His 216 wins are the most for any pitcher with a .500 record.
- He's the only pitcher with over 400 games started and 400 appearances from the bullpen.
- Before Ryan Lavarnway's four passed balls in 2013, it was Hough's catcher, Geno Petralli, who set the record with four passed balls in a single inning in 1987. Petralli went on to have six passed balls in that game. Not surprisingly, he set the modern record with 35 passed balls that season.
- No pitcher has started 40 games in a season since Hough pulled off the feat in '87.
- He was also the last pitcher to throw 13 innings in a single game when he went that long on June 11, 1986, against the Twins. He threw 165 pitches that day and all but one was a knuckler. Even more shocking, he walked only two batters that day.
- He was the last Major Leaguer to have been born in the 1940s.
So cheer up, struggling ballplayers of the world. Perhaps all that's missing between you and 20-plus years in the Major Leagues is a floating, hopping, age-defying knuckleball.