Knuckleballer meets knuckleheads

Mickey Jannis

TV broadcast screen capture shows 33-year-old rookie knuckleballer Mickey Jannis’s MLB debut interrupted by a naughty-sauce frisk. Seriously?

“In putting the [naughty sauce crackdown] plan together,” said commissioner Rob Manfred to The Athletic‘s Brittany Ghiroli on Wednesday, “we tried to come up with a plan that was as unobtrusive as possible given the practicalities of the game and the need to move the game along. We thought the checks between innings was a good way to de-escalate them, maybe is the right word (to use).”

The knucklehead didn’t bank on a knuckleballer being stopped and frisked in a cop stop so ridiculous the most corrupt police department alive wouldn’t find any graft opportunity in it.

“When do you figure we can say for sure that this mid-season crackdown on foreign substances has gone from the ridiculous to the knuckleheaded?” asked Tortilla Fats, with appropriate indignation.

He called me this morning after watching the Astros—whom he doesn’t care about, emphatically—demolish the Orioles 13-0 Wednesday. And, after reading Commissioner Nero’s Athletic comments.

“What are you talking about?” I answered. “Isn’t provoking a couple of pitchers into near-stripteases on or around the mound enough evidence, if you’ll pardon the expression?”

“Go look up what happened after Mickey Jannis pitched the top of the sixth for the Orioles,” Fats said. “You won’t believe it.”

These days, when it comes to baseball in the Age of Manfred, I’d believe just about anything. Fats knows it, too. So when he tells me now that I won’t believe what I’m about to see, I take him at his word.

I knew Jannis was one of those guys who scuffled (not scuffed), shuffled, and shouldered along in the minors as best he could for a long enough time. He’d only been doing it since he was 22 in 2010. Finally, at 33 in 2021, he got the break he’d only been praying for since he went from somewhat low-level Rays prospect to independent leaguer to Mets minor league asset to out of the game, seemingly, until the Orioles took a minor league flyer on him this spring.

I also knew Jannis’s aspiring money pitch was the knuckleball. The pitch that floats like a butterfly and stings just about the same if you happen to get hit by one at the plate. Thrown right, it relies almost entirely on the elements to make its way to the plate doing anything from a line dance to the cha-cha-cha and back to a break dance, before it arrives snickering into or around or within a parking space of the strike zone.

Thrown wrong, it tends to hover like a rescue helicopter. That’s the only thing it has in common with the whirlybirds. Rescue helicopters don’t get hit into the next area codes.

Thrown at all these days, it’s as much of a genuine novelty as baseball people only thought it was back in the so-called Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game.

“You got it yet?” Fats asked impatiently.

“I got it,” I said. I watched Jannis in the fifth strike Yordan Alvarez out, get Carlos Correa to fly out to right, walk Kyle Tucker, and then escape in advance when Oriole catcher Austin Wynns threw Tucker out trying to commit grand theft second. The Orioles might still be down 6-0 at that point but the Camden Yards crowd sure did show the old rookie some new appreciation.

Then I watch Jannis in the sixth. He got Abraham Toro—who was at the plate when Tucker was cuffed and read his rights to end the fifth—to ground out to second. He got Myles Straw to fly out to center. He threw a knuckler with about as much rhythm as a garden slug to Martin Maldonado, and Maldonado swatted the little slimer into left for a base hit. He walked Jose Altuve on five pitches, two of which were four-seam fastballs that couldn’t out-race a horse-drawn produce wagon. But he threw Michael Brantley a nasty little butterfly that Brantley might have been lucky to send to left for an RBI single before Yuli Gurriel flied out for the side.

Then I got what agitated Fats.

The umps decided side retired after one run on two hits and a walk was the perfect moment to stop and frisk Jannis for naughty sauce. It was almost as Twilight Zone as the umps who stopped to frisk Yankee relief pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga—who isn’t a knuckleballer—after he was spanked for four runs on five hits in an inning.

“Knuckleballer searched by knuckleheads,” Fats fumed. “You ought to make that your column headline.”

“I don’t believe it either, Fats,” I said. “That pitch has about as much spin as a windmill. Matter of fact, I’ve seen windmills with more spin rate. What were those umps thinking?”

“You assume they were thinking.”

“My mistake.”

“Anyone with a third grade education can tell you there’s no reason on earth a knuckleball pitcher wants anything on his hands except flesh and fingernails.”

“Have you seen Jannis’s grip?” I said. “He doesn’t use the seams. He’s got his first two fingertips on the meat between the seams. He has his other two fingers inside the turn on one seam and the ball of his thumb under the ball just up against that seam. So why the hell do the umps want to have him checked for naughty sauce?”

“You tell me,” Fats replied. “You’re the expert. I’m just a guy who doesn’t care about the Astros.”

“Jannis isn’t an Astro, remember? That run made the game 7-0, Astros.”

“It’s the Astros, so I don’t care.”

Astros starter Jose Urquidy shook off a leadoff single to rid himself of the Orioles on back-to-back popups and a ground out in the bottom of the sixth. Jannis went out for the seventh. It didn’t exactly go well for him. It only began with Alvarez fouling off two knuckleballs before he got one that didn’t even side step and drove it over the left center field fence.

From there, it was double to the back of center field (Correa), walk (Tucker, again), and Toro catching hold of another knuckler with cement shoes for dancing shoes and hitting a three-run homer. Poor Jannis also had to work the seventh and surrender a one-out solo bomb (to Alverez’s late left field replacement Chas McCormick); then, single, double, RBI single, before he escaped on a ground out and a called strikeout sandwiching another walk.

And, before his evening ended mercifully enough. Something just doesn’t seem right when a guy who waited 33 years to throw major league innings gets left in one inning past his evening’s shelf life.

Did the very absurdity of umpires checking the knuckleballer for naughty sauce squat inside Jannis’s head rent free? Even very well seasoned veterans up from the long days’ journey into the major league night can be leveled by a knuckle sandwich from just about any source.

Did the umps themselves think of how absurd the very idea of it is? Even if most umpires haven’t seen too many knuckleballs since the middle of the Obama Administration, the crew stopping and frisking Jannis had to think the commissioner’s orders now put them smack dab in the middle of a routine that ended up in Sam Kinison’s discard pile.

“The one kind of pitcher you could say doesn’t have problems going in with all these experimental baseballs the last few years should be knuckleballers,” Fats said. “They’re rare enough as it is. Unless this new dead fish ball is so dead that even their fingertips lose a grip.”

“I couldn’t tell you for dead last certain,” I replied. “But it still doesn’t make any sense on earth. Unless there’s some law of physics that doesn’t show up in the usual books, I’d think the only thing the real naughty sauce would do with a knuckleballer is keep the ball stuck in his fingertips.”

“Balk one,” Fats said.

“Only if men are on base,” I said.

“Well, let’s not get technical.”

Technical I can live with. A knuckleballer getting his knuckles rapped on shakier ground than that above an earthquake isn’t all that livable.

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