Twenty-four years later, Hough can't explain why he has had success throwing the pitch while others haven't, and he is still surprised when a knuckler inexplicably darts in a ridiculous direction. "You're not in charge of what it does," he says, "you're only in charge of letting it go." So he has survived from hitter to hitter, always with the same theory: If a guy hits one knuckler 500 feet, throw the next one the same way; it will do something different, and the guy might swing and miss.
Even now, for an inning, a game, even a month of starts, he can be the most unhittable pitcher in baseball; but he can also be the most hittable. Paradoxically, he has been remarkably consistent despite the inconsistency of his goofy pitch. From 1982 to '89 only Jack Morris won more games, and no pitcher had a higher percentage of his team's wins. Through '92, Hough won 101 games before the All-Star break and 101 after it. He's one of 12 pitchers ever to have pitched in at least 20 games for 20 straight years. He's the only pitcher in history to work at least 375 games as a starter and 375 in relief.
Still, it has been hard for most managers to believe in him and his pitch. "They think of knuckleball pitchers," Hough says, "and they see the catcher running back to the screen." It took Dodger manager Walter Alston 3½ seasons before he trusted Hough enough to make him the bullpen closer in 1976. The next year Hough had 19 saves at the All-Star break, but he was booed unmercifully at Dodger Stadium—even when he warmed up in the bullpen. Twice Hough went into a game and pitched without warming up.
Why the fans hated him, he doesn't know for sure. Maybe it was that his unpredictable pitch made them so nervous; maybe it was that his many three-ball counts were so torturous. Whatever, he was sold to the Rangers during the 1980 season but rarely pitched for Texas that year or the next. Toward the end of the '81 season, Hough finally told Ranger manager Don Zimmer, "I'll cut my throat if I can't win 15 games for this team."
The next year he won 16 games, and then he won at least 14 in each of the ensuing six years. Nevertheless, there was always speculation that the next season would be the one when Hough's lumpy body would give out or his knuckler would stop knuckling. The Rangers let him go after the 1990 season, but he made 56 starts and won 16 games over the next two years while pitching for the White Sox, who did not re-sign him after last season.
One person who stuck by him was Rader, who was Hough's manager in Texas from 1983 to May 1985. "Even back then I thought one day he would go into his windup and...vapor lock" Rader says, laughing. "I thought we'd have to carry him off. That would be the end of Charlie." But Rader recognized a competitiveness in Hough and an athleticism that belies that lumpy body.
These days Hough is pitching with a bad right knee and a bone spur on his left heel that hurts every time he lands on it. His body is perpetually sore. "But I've felt this way for the last 20 years," he says. Hough hardly ever runs, but he does ride the exercise bike. "Not every day; I'm no sicko," he says. "And when I do ride, it's not impressive." Ranger pitcher Nolan Ryan, 46, is a sicko on the exercise bike, and his workouts are grueling. Yet Hough and his funky 65-mph pitch might outlast Ryan, the greatest power pitcher of his era, who is retiring at the end of the year.
"To me, it's funny," Hough says. "Nolan was supposed to be good. Not me. He came out of high school throwing bullets. I don't want to call him a great athlete—Nolan is kind of a clod—but Nolan is a lot like me because he loves being on the mound. We do whatever we have to do to get on the mound."
But it is off the mound where Hough may prove to be most valuable to the Marlins; his self-deprecating humor will keep them laughing even in bad times, and there will be many of those this year. Hough hadn't batted in a major league game since 1980, but this spring he hit a double and even slid into second. "You should have seen that," he says. "It was like a one-car crash in slow motion. I had to think about how to slide."
Hough is a comfortable fit on a team that's filled with nutty characters. Weak-hitting Chuck Carr, who claims he can steal 100 bases this season and play centerfield as well as Pittsburgh Pirate Gold Glove winner Andy Van Slyke, does back-flips and is an accomplished break dancer. Pitcher Bob McClure, 39, wrote a book in 1991 called Rotting: The Craze of the '90s (64 pages, Vantage Press). "It's about doing nothing," McClure explains, "looking like you're doing nothing, but not feeling guilty about it." Reserve shortstop Alex Arias rubs a red-haired "voodoo" Troll Doll because he thinks it will help him get a hit. Leftfielder Jeff Conine says he wants to be dropped into the Great Barrier Reef during a shark feeding frenzy.