Putting a different spin on the knuckleball
“Well, I always wanted to teach my kid to throw a knuckleball, to play seven card stud, and to fix the carburetor on an MG. I guess I’ll just have to do that with a boy.”
R.A. Dickey’s staggering streak of knuckleballing awesomeness may have come to an end Sunday night on national television, but his streak of Hemingway-loving, Kilimanjaro-climbing, Indian-girl-supporting awesomeness remains intact. And as it turns out, he’s not the only knuckleballer making history lately, even if he’s probably the only one you’ve heard about.
Remember Eri Yoshida? She’s the Japanese knuckleballer who made headlines two years ago when she was signed at age 18 by the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden League, becoming the first woman to play professional baseball in the United States since Ila Borders (Yoshida had already been the first to break that barrier in Japan). Her arrival attracted the attention of everyone from casual fans to Tim Wakefield, her long-time inspiration and newfound tutor.
But her first season in the league ended with a losing record and a 12.27 ERA, prompting critics—the New York Times, for example—to do a great deal of paternalistic chiding of Yoshida for overstepping her abilities and of the team for pulling a failed “publicity stunt,” never mind that she was hardly the first teenaged phenom to take a fastball of rookie-year reality to the ribs. Her manager, former Cardinal Garry Templeton, continued to believe in her talent and praise her work ethic, and pointed out to the media that any 18-year-old could reasonably be expected to struggle in a new professional league and a new country. (Yes, that Garry Templeton, who famously wrote his ticket out of St. Louis by flipping off the Busch Stadium crowd on Ladies’ Day in 1981. I love this game!)
Yoshida bounced around a bit for the next year or so, including a stint back in her native Japan, but this month she returned to the States, pitching for the Maui Na Koa Ikaika of the North American League. Reunited with manager Templeton, she’s opened her season with a 3-0 record and a 2.63 ERA. The three wins set a new record for a female professional baseball player in the independent leagues (Borders had two in her career), though the media have mostly lost interest in her story. It seems a fair bet that success wouldn’t have gone to Yoshida’s head anyway: After notching her historic win in the first game of a doubleheader, she served as her team’s bat girl for the nightcap.
Yoshida isn’t the only woman baffling batters with knuckleballs, by the way: 14-year-old Chelsea Baker, a pitcher from Florida who learned her signature pitch from the late Joe Niekro himself, has already been featured on ESPN and had her jersey installed in Cooperstown after pitching two consecutive perfect games for her Little League team. (Chelsea was featured on this weekend’s ESPN E:60 show about Title IX, but I can’t find the video online; I’ll add it later if it appears.)
To pass the time before R.A. Dickey starts his next scoreless streak, please enjoy this fantabulous five-minute video of Eri Yoshida and Chelsea Baker playing some catch and some music together…..
….and, for your next cocktail party or sports-bar trivia night, file away the fact that the Japanese word for “knuckleball” is nakkurubo-ru. The Japanese word for “it’s hopeless,” meanwhile, is shouganai, which might come in handy for Eri and Chelsea’s victims in the batter’s box.
[Julie gets credit as the muse for this post; when I quizzed her for an idea, she suggested following up on Eri Yoshida's story, even though, surprisingly, this topic had NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with Rick Ankiel.]