• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Knuckleballs

Swimming against the tide (not just about baseball).

January 29, 2019
 
 

(Not to worry -- this is only barely about baseball.)

The pragmatist in me gets a kick out of knuckleball pitchers. Knuckleball pitchers, and the pitches themselves, don’t look quite right. The textbook for baseball says that pitchers win with speed and precise location.  Knuckleballs are usually slow, and they’re kind of wobbly; most of the time, even the pitcher doesn’t know where the pitch is going.  A knuckleball pitcher can look more like a Dad playing catch than an actual pitcher. Many pitching coaches won’t look twice at a knuckleball pitcher, and knucklers look terrible on some of the basic statistics that coaches keep.

But the good ones still get batters out and win games.  Even though they don’t look the part, and violate several of the basic assumptions of the game, they work.  The trick is in allowing knucklers to do what they do, and not to try to turn successful knuckleball pitchers into middling fastball pitchers.  You have to let them do what they do, and be willing to accept the occasional ugly game. Over time, they hold up well. If you can overlook dogma and focus on results, knucklers can be hidden gems.

The Girl has figured out that she’s the equivalent of a knuckleballer in a league that only values speed. 

She participated in debate throughout junior high, becoming really good at it as she went.  She joined high school debate with high hopes.

But the culture changed, and she had a choice to make. 

The junior high league was always about improvement, and about encouraging kids to get up there and do what they could. She thrived. The high school league is cutthroat, with kids from affluent private schools getting private coaching and pulling moves that might be technically legal, but that leave a bitter aftertaste. There’s nothing encouraging or nurturing about it; judges aren’t even allowed to give tips for improvement at the end of a match.

She’s still very good at it, but the culture of the league is unabashedly cutthroat.  It values only one kind of pitcher. She doesn’t want to be that, so she’s walking away.

As her Dad, it’s hard to watch her walk away from something for which she has an obvious talent. But I can’t blame her. She has to choose between being the knuckleball pitcher she actually is, and trying to fake being the power pitcher the league likes. 

She’s wildly smart, but she’s not cutthroat. Her favorite part of debate tournaments was the bus ride home, making up cheesy freestyle rhymes and laughing with her friends.  She’s willing to compete when it’s called for, but she has a sense of fair play that isn’t universally shared. I’ve seen her raise an eyebrow and acknowledge a clever move when her opponent made one; that has never bothered her.  She likes to win, but on her own terms.

I don’t want her to lose that. She knows the kind of pitcher she is, and she knows she’s good at it.  She knows that the current league doesn’t really value that. So she’s leaving.

I asked her what she would rather do with her time.  Warming my heart, she responded “what I really want to do is write.”

She is her father’s daughter. 

Keep on throwing that weird, wobbly stuff, TG.  I’d rather see you develop into the complicated person you’ll be than torture yourself trying to imitate kids who take a sense of fairness as a sign of weakness.  Make those weird, wobbly throws, even if nobody else notices for a while that you’re making batters miss. The world doesn’t need another fast-talking sophist. It needs thoughtful originals who come at ideas in their own way.  We’ll find something else to put on those college applications.

 

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