R. A. Dickey had a million dollar arm. That’s what Lloyd’s of London said in 1993, when the University of Tennessee star chose the same insurer as fellow Volunteer Peyton Manning. Flash forward two years: Dickey, now a starting pitcher for Team USA, is drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers. But after doctors discovered a missing ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, his lifelong dream – not to mention most of his $810,000 signing bonus – were ripped away.
Nine years later, with his fastball topping out at 86 and a resume that included a season with Venezuela’s Zulia Eagles, Dickey reinvented himself as a knuckleballer, inspired by the late-career successes of Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough (who won 287 and 182 games, respectively, after age 30). As Dickey writes in his excellent memoir Wherever I Wind Up, “Phil and Charlie weren’t far from pitching with AARP cards in their pockets. [That’s] one of the best perks about life in the knuckle world: because you don’t throw it hard and you do no twisting or contorting, the knuckleball puts almost no strain on your arm. It enables you to not only eat innings but inhale them.”
This season, Dickey’s been doing his fair share of inning inhalation. Statistically speaking, he’s the best pitcher in baseball: he leads the league in six pitching categories and threw consecutive one-hitters, a first in the majors since 1988.
In the video above, the Cy Young hopeful – and sudden folk hero – illustrates his three-step process for the perfect knuckleball, a pitch that will not only have your opponents swinging and missing during pickup games, but one that won’t have you massaging a sore shoulder on Monday morning.
Find the horseshoe seam, which is located to the right of the logo on top of the ball. Then, dig your pointer- and middle-fingernails into the leather immediately behind it.
Using your thumb and index fingers as stability points, cock your wrist to 90-degrees – or as close to it as possible.
Wind up and release the ball at what Dickey describes as “the right moment.” This will take some practice, but, as Dickey assures, “letting go at the right moment will enable the ball to not spin. It’ll wiggle up there and hopefully be tough to hit.”