Wilbur Wood has never met R.A. Dickey, but the two are bonded at the fingertips.
Wood grew up in Belmont, signed with the Red Sox out of Belmont High in 1960, and eventually developed a mesmerizing knuckleball that helped him string together four 20-win seasons with the White Sox in the 1970s.
Dickey, a proud son of Tennessee and ace of the Mets staff, just became the first knuckleballer ever to win the Cy Young Award. In 100-plus years of big league baseball, only some 80 pitchers have made their careers off the knuckler. And now, after all those innings, and all those decades, and all the disrespect heaped on a pitch and those who dared throw it, the knuckleball finally has class, charisma, and a seat right there next to Bob Uecker in the front row.
Or does it?
“I’m very happy for Dickey, I really am,’’ Wood said Friday, ticking through the names of other renowned knuckleballers, including Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, and Tim Wakefield. “But did I think he would get it? I really didn’t, if you want to know the truth, because no one else has done it.
“I mean, he had all the numbers, don’t get me wrong, and he deserved every bit of it . . .
“But you know, there’s been a way of people saying, ‘Ah, he throws a freak pitch.’ So they figure, ‘Ah, we’ll go with a fastball, curveball, slider, so forth and so on.’’
Oh, but that’s sure to change now. Shouldn’t Dickey’s magnificent season (20-6, 2.73 ERA in 33 starts, 233⅔ innings) and his Cy Young Award once and for all convince the baseball world that the knuckler is no gimmick? All that matters is the result, those 20 wins and but a half-dozen losses.
Fastball, curve, slider, or knuckler. Who cares how the message gets sent? Only results matter.
Kids across the country, and a whole bunch more in the Dominican Republic, now will have to embrace (ever so delicately, of course), the dipping, soaring, confounding pitch that the 38-year-old Dickey sent fluttering right into the record book, right?
“Ah, I would doubt it very much,’’ said Wood, now 71 and living in Bedford, and still working part-time as a pharmaceutical representative. “There are just too few who throw it.
“I mean, you know, there are many who can throw it, be it infielders or outfielders, but they’ve only got one problem: They can’t throw it over the plate.’’
Wood is probably right, and he may be his own best proof. If he didn’t change baseball’s mind-set, who will? His run in the 1970s was astounding, to the point that by comparison it humbles Dickey’s accomplishments.
■ In Wood’s formidable four-year run (1971-74) when he won 20 or more each season, he not only compiled a 90-69 record, he also made 181 starts and pitched 1,390⅓ innings. In two of those seasons (1972-73), he led the major leagues in innings, averaging a whopping 368.
Asked if he iced down his durable left arm after games, Wood chuckled, “Ice? Let me tell ya, there was no ice in those days. Damn little, let’s put it that way.
“Sure, it was around, but you rarely saw it. Guys only used it if maybe they sprained an ankle or hurt a knee. No ice.
“And you threw, all the time. None of this five-, six-, seven-man rotation stuff. You were out there with the ball in your hand every four days. You didn’t want to get out of the groove, the routine. To be honest, I couldn’t go every five or six days. I had to pitch.’’
■ For all his mastery, Wood never finished better than second (1972) in the Cy Young voting. In those four brilliant seasons, he lost out to the likes of Vida Blue (24-8) in 1971, Gaylord Perry (24-16) in ’72, Jim Palmer (22-9) in ’73, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter (25-12) in ’74. Of those four Cy Young winners, all but Blue made it to the Hall of Fame. Palmer and Hunter each had 20-win streaks lasting four years or more. Perry won 20 games in five seasons, but never put any back-to-back.
“I came close, yeah, no cigar, but I came close,’’ said Wood. “I was beat out by some damn good pitchers, but in my case, it would have been a stroke of luck anyway. I mean, I pitched, hell, well over 300 innings several years in a row. But I was able do it, had fun doing it.’’
Asked if by saying “stroke of luck,’’ he meant that the knuckleball’s lack of esteem held him back in the Cy Young balloting, he said, “Absolutely!’’
■ Ever-durable, Wood started both ends of a doubleheader in the Bronx on July 20, 1973, losing both to the Yankees. Nearly 40 years later, doubleheaders have all but vanished from the schedule and no pitcher since Wood has taken the ball for two starts in the same day. The last pitcher to start and win both ends: Cleveland’s Emil Levsen in 1926.Continued...