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TANTALIZING, HYPNOTIZING, UNTOUCHABLE
Such are the physical characteristics of his species that Wilbur Wood (see cover) inevitably must look a bit more like the paunchy guy who wears his softball jersey to the neighborhood bar than like the next 40-game winner in the American League. Knuckleball pitchers will look like this, for they tend to run to age and fat and ordinariness. But appearances are deceiving and knuckleballers are nothing if not deceptive.
Their chief deception, of course, is the pitch they throw. It comes to the batter more like a balloon than a missile and it dances before his eyes, tantalizing, hypnotizing, untouchable. With it and it alone, the Wilbur Woods of this world reach for immortality.
Wood, a plump lefthander for the Chicago White Sox, probably will not win 40 games this year. He may not even win 30, even though he had 11 by the Sox' 37th game and is on a schedule that has him starting with only two days' rest about half the time. But he cannot be diminished in the eyes of the bewildered batsmen who have been flailing away futilely at his phantom deliveries.
"I tell you the sensation I get," says Gene Tenace of the Oakland A's. "I see the ball floating up and then I swing. I get a feeling that the bat has made a ripple in the air and has caused the ball to wriggle like a roundworm."
"We batters work hard at polishing our skills," said Mike Epstein of the California Angels after a frustrating afternoon of chasing Wood's wriggles. "We learn through patience and practice to hit the fastball, the curve, the slider. Then, feeling fully prepared, we go out there and face the thing Wood throws. It looks like a batting practice pitch—soft, tempting. Like the one he struck me out with today, it breaks three or four directions. I didn't know where it was headed. The catcher, I'm sure, didn't know where it was headed. And I'm pretty certain not even Wood knew where it was headed."
There is much truth in this final assumption. Knuckleball pitchers can never be really positive about the destination of their pitches, for as Wood himself has observed, "We just aim it for the middle of the plate and hope like hell it goes somewhere before it gets there."
For someone with such a tentative sense of direction, Wood throws with uncanny accuracy. It is his control, in fact, that sets him apart from his fellow knuckleballers, most of whom are of the pitch and pray persuasion. Last year, when he won 24 games, he unintentionally walked only 74 batters in 377 innings, an average of 1.76 bases on balls per nine innings. For the year he averaged a walk for every 20.1 batters faced. He pitched 10 walkless games, and in one stretch pitched in nine straight games without walking more than one man. He is maintaining a similar ratio this year with only 20 walks in 117-plus innings.
"Obviously, the knuckleball makes Wilbur effective," says Paul Blair of the Baltimore Orioles, "but what makes him even more effective is the fact that he throws it over for strikes. It never goes the same way, but it is always in the strike zone."
Unlike some more timorous knuckleball pitchers, Wood will throw his pitch when he is trailing a hitter three balls and one strike. He insists that he uses the knuckler only about 80% of the time, but hitters protest that the percentage is closer to 100. "When he threw me a fastball today," said Epstein, "it was the first time I had ever seen one from him. It took me totally by surprise."