A Knuckleheaded Error
5:30 PM, Jul 10, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
The fact is, the knuckleball has always been something of a novelty act, a little bit of trickery at odds with the game’s speed, size, and power—attributes that tend to earn the easy attention of scouts and fans, as well as money. It’s difficult not to think that the recently retired LaRussa, back for this one game after leading the Cardinals to a World Series victory last year, may be playing somewhat to this prejudice as well, choosing an obvious thoroughbred like Cain, over a pitcher who had no choice but to become a fox. But baseball is about more than power and the pride it engenders, or else Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire would be the only templates that mattered, and R.A. Dickey’s first half of the 2012 season would be irrelevant. Winning is what matters. The minor leagues are full of hulking giants screaming "challenge me!" from the dugout after popping up to shortstop on a slow breaking ball. Their pride demands power versus power—challenge me. It’s the cry of the eternal .230 hitter, always undone by cunning.
LaRussa explains that he's starting Cain because he's afraid Dickey's knuckleball might might mix up starting catcher Buster Posey, Cain’s batterymate with the Giants. It’s true no one wants to see the All-Star game opening with the catcher racing to the backstop to retrieve a bushel of passed balls. But there’s the glass-half full version as well: The top of the American League’s order, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Josh Hamilton, all humbled trying to hit the sweet spot on a hummingbird.
The AL’s top hitters screwing themselves into the ground, shaking their heads in frustration, would be as memorable as John Kruk’s plate appearance in the 1993 All-Star game after Randy Johnson sailed one over his head, and Kruk was happy just to survive by striking out. It was entertainment but it also highlighted Johnson’s extraordinary ability, the fear he instilled in his adversaries, as well as Kruk's sense of humor in the face of failure, a requirement over the stretch of a baseball season. For all the All-Star game’s heroic moments, the game-winning homeruns and masterful pitching performances, it’s the eccentric moments that illuminate for us fans who otherwise have little insight into the kind of talent and sensibility that it takes to play the game of baseball at the level of an All-Star.