In the early 1960s, a young Baseball fanatic grows up in Hialeah, Fla., without a local major league team to root for. He realizes a dream when he's drafted out of high school as a third baseman by the Los Angeles Dodgers in '66. But once he's in the minors, it soon becomes apparent that he's not a good enough prospect at third, so he's converted to a pitcher. In '69, at the age of 21, he hurts his arm so severely that his only hope of continuing his career is to learn to throw a knuckleball. He finally sticks with the big league club in '73, and for the next 20 years he throws the knuckler for the Dodgers, the Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox.
Now, at 45, with 202 lifetime wins, 61 saves and a sagging body that aches every day, he returns to Florida. Not to retire, mind you, but to pitch in the first game for Florida's first major league team—in a stadium eight miles from where he grew up. And he's pitching against, of all teams, the Dodgers, who are managed by Tommy Lasorda, the first manager he had in professional ball.
What are the odds of this happening? Charlie Hough shakes his head. It's preposterous. "It can't happen," he says. "It can't happen."
It happened on Monday. Before a sellout crowd of 42,334, on a spectacular sunny day at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, the remarkable Hough threw the first pitch—a knuckleball, of course—in the history of the expansion Florida Marlins. Hough says he was the most excited person in the ballpark. He should have been.
His enthusiasm was shared by a sea of boisterous fans, all of whom seemingly were wearing teal-colored Marlin caps. Some novelty stands inside the park sold out of inaugural-game souvenirs "as soon as they let people in," said one vendor. "Man, they were like a bunch of sharks." The crowd greeted Marlin owner Wayne Huizenga with a standing ovation, and then a U.S. mail carrier delivered the first ball, which came from the Hall of Fame, to Joe DiMaggio, who made the ceremonial first pitch. When Hough delivered that first knuckler to Dodger shortstop Jose Offerman at 2:11 p.m., a fan behind the first base dugout held up a sign that read, simply, HISTORY.
With 40 members of his extended family in the stands, Hough struck out Offerman on three pitches and fanned the second hitter, Brett Butler, on four pitches. In the second inning, a two-run triple by Walt Weiss helped the Marlins to a 3-0 lead, and Florida was still on top, 4-3, when Hough left after six innings. "I ran out of gas," Hough said after the game. "I am old." But he got the "W" as the Marlins, who banged out 14 hits, pulled away to win 6-3, giving the franchise a 1-0 record. The Dodgers fell to 7,506-6,849.
When the Marlins signed Hough to a one-year contract, it was not so much with the expectation that he would win a lot of games as it was with the hope that he could work a ton of innings and bring a veteran's presence, including clubhouse humor and on-field professionalism, to a fledgling team. After 27 years in pro ball, Hough has seen most everything and always has an amusing tale to tell. "Some things strike me as funny, as strange," he says. "I'm one of those things."
He laughs in disbelief, and says, "I'm still playing because I hurt my arm once and couldn't play." Hough doesn't know how he injured his wing at Double A Albuquerque in '69, but he remembers the pain was so bad one night that he couldn't start his car with his right hand. "I couldn't throw a ball 30 feet," he says. "I took a [cortisone] shot. I took a few more shots. But I never stopped pitching. I'd rather pitch hurt than let someone else pitch."
He considered a switch to first base, but he couldn't play that position, either. Friends told him to quit. "I can't imagine what else I would have done—probably work at the racetrack," he says. "I was 21, no college, all I ever wanted to do was play baseball. I don't think IBM would have been after me."
So in '69, Hough started throwing that knuckleball. Dodger scout Goldie Holt taught him the pitch, and veteran knuckleballers Hoyt Wilhelm and Jim Brewer helped him refine it. The motion came easily to him; it was as effortless then as it is today. (Marlin hitting coach Doug Rader says Hough burns more calories reading than pitching.) "After 10 minutes, I knew I had it," Hough says. "I told Tommy Lasorda, 'I can do this.' Tommy said, 'You better do something.' "