MMO Interview: Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield Visit R.A. Dickey At Citi Field Last Night

An article by posted on September 20, 2012

In honor of Knuckleball! the movie coming out, Hall-of-Famer Phil Niekro and 200-game winner Tim Wakefield were out and about prior to today’s game alongside the Mets own R.A. Dickey and were kind enough to answer some of my questions as well as some other Mets bloggers while watching BP with us along the first base side.

The interview began with Phil Niekro telling us the fascinating tale of how he began to throw the knuckleball:

“My dad was a coal miner back in Ohio, and he would strike out 17, 18, 19 guys and then hurt his arm. On his coal mining team another guy showed him how to throw a knuckleball. So by the time I was old enough to start playing catch in the backyard, he just threw me one and didn’t know what it was –it probably hit me or something– and it just got to the point where we were playing knuckleball in the backyard all the time. Didn’t know what it was, didn’t know there was knuckleball pitchers in the big leagues. But when I started playing with friends, I found out that’s what I could get guys out with. I played little league, four years of American Legion ball in high school and went to a walk-on camp in West Virginia, and in 1958 the Milwaukee Braves decided they’d take a chance on the knuckleball” -Phil Niekro

On how important the possible Cy Young Award for Dickey is and his great season validating the knuckleball as more than just a trick pitch:

“I think its important for a couple different reason, I mean I’m standing right next to a Hall of Famer , it’s not like I have to give the pitch any more credibility, [Tim Wakefield] has won 200 games. I think what it does is continue to give the pitch validation. It validates how good this can be. It’s not a freak of nature, or if it is a freak of nature, one that can produce an outcome that incredibly favorable for a big league organization. I mean if told a guy that were going to otherwise release in the minor leagues that you could win half as many games as Phil Niekro, wouldn’t you sign up? So the more we can kind of ‘evangelize’ the knuckleball the better because it’ll stick.” -Dickey

“One thing we pride ourselves in, that makes us a valuable asset to an organization is that we can give you innings, we can start. I remember Phil once told me, ‘keep your spikes on’ and early in my career I did that and in between starts I could go down to the bullpen, come in and give them two innings. Because of the pitch we throw I like to this of us as a pitcher and a half, were starters, but we’re relievers too.” -Tim Wakefield

“He deserves to win the Cy Young” -Tim Wakefield

“He’s making us all proud. He makes me want to go and pitch again. I don’t think any knuckler got off to the start he did. If I don’t get to see him on TV or radio, first thing I do is check the box scores the next day to see how he did. No knuckleballer, neither Tim or I or any one has won a Cy Young, so you can’t imagine how much we’re pulling for this guy.” -Niekro

Regarding his Cy Young candidacy, Dickey –as always– had a very humble approach:

“I’m hopeful. We’ll see.”

R.A. also spoke a bit about his journey to get to where he is today as a successful knuckleballer:

“I didn’t get it right away. I think I tied Charlie’s record of most home runs given up in a game when I first took the mound in ’06, but from then on it’s just been about trying to grow and figure out what my own identity is. I spent so much time trying to be Tim, trying to be Charlie, that I lost what was mine and unique about me. So once I embraced that, I started to have a lot more success and that could be anybody in the minor leagues, anyone could become who I am if they’re given an opportunity. You’ve got to have the intangibles.”…”For a long time I had on foot in each bucket. Half the time I’d try to throw my conventional stuff then the other have my other stuff [knuckleball], so it wasn’t until I surrendered and became a full time knuckler that I started to have succes once I finally had the muscle memory, the mechanics and the feel for it where I could consistently throw a good knuckleball.” -Dickey

Dickey and Wakefield had a little bit to say regarding their thoughts of the release of the new documentary, Knuckleball!:

“Cinematography was amazing. For them to slow it down that slow and see it come out of the hand like that. It makes me want to still pitch.” -Wakefield

“I’m very excited. I got to see it at Tribeca film festival, which was amazing. They’ve done a beautiful job with it and I think it really kind of communicates the bond we all have with eachother as well as the pitch and I’m excited for it, I think it’s going to be great.”…”I am not a self-made man by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve had people pour into me like nobody’s business. I’m simply a product of people who have loved me well and given me the gift of what they know. Phil, Tim and Charlie, they represent that for me, so to celebrate the documentry with these guys is a real blessing.” -Dickey

I asked Dickey to give us all a bit of insight into the fraternity of the knuckleball pitchers:

“We all get giddy when were around each other, like a bunch of teenagers at a sleepover. I remember going down to Atlanta and doing the Golf junket and you just see all the documentaries with Tim and Charlie and Phil. It’s just so rare to get together with people who’ve walked a mile in your shoes, there’s an instant bond, because we know how hard it is. It’s not like you can just pick up a ball and get on the mound and get big league batters out, it takes a lot of dedication and emotion and a lot of hard work, and these men know what that’s all about and other people don’t and that creates an instantaneous bond and I’m happy to call them all my friends.”

I asked Niekro about the perception of the knuckleball as a trick pitch:

“I never thought it was a trick pitch. People say freaky pitch, funky pitch, trick pitch. All I know is that’s what I could throw to get them out in the big leagues and I guess that’s what Tim realized, R.A.’s realized, my brother. Knuckleball pitchers. We weren’t freaky, we just something a little different than most guys do and we’re going to throw it. I mean that’s the name of the game.”

“You throw a pitch, and you know that he knows whats coming. Pitch after pitch after pitch, here comes the same thing, and a lot of [people trying to throw the knuckler] can’t figure that out.”…”That’s the confidence that we have to have in ourselves, that we can get you out.”

I asked all three the all important question: Who throws the best knuckleball? Being the gentlemen they are, they all naturally voted for someone else:

Niekro: Dickey and Wakefield
Dickey: Niekro
Wakefield: Dickey

Finally, I asked Dickey who besides himself can throw the best knuckleball in the Mets clubhouse:

“There’s a handful of position players who think they can. They all try to call me over and grade them out. I’d say though that Jon Rauch has a pretty good knuckleball and for a position player, Lucas Duda has a good knuckleball. But when you get on the bump, it’s a little different.” -Dickey

Hopefully you all enjoyed this interview as much as I did. Seeing three greats of an infamous pitch get together and talk openly about everything involving the knuckleball was incredible. We started talking when batting practice was just getting going for the Amazin’s. By the time we ended, the Phillies were nearly through their last rounds of hitting.  Three gentlemen of the game that were an absolute pleasure to talk to. I can’t wait to go see Knuckleball! and I highly suggest you do the same.

I’ll leave you with a quick clip from the interview:

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About the Author ()

Clayton Collier, a senior editor for MMO, is a Journalism major with a minor in Broadcasting at Seton Hall University. He is also a staff member at 89.5 WSOU, Seton Hall's modern active rock radio station. Following him on Twitter: @Clayton_Collier or E-maili him at MaybeNextYearMets@yahoo.com

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