Jun 172016
 

Another wonderful documentary about a sport I know little about.  Shit just draws you in…

Modern major-league pitching is mostly about how hard you can throw and how fast your shoulder wears-out before your career is over.  It’s antithetical to the spirit of the game, historically speaking: if I took-away nothing else from the Ken Burns documentary, it’s that this is the singular sport in which skill can outweigh pure athleticism.  I used to think it was bizarre that there were pro baseball players who seemed to have a bit of a beer gut, or couldn’t run the 100-meter dash at Olympic speed.  I kind of get it now…

Football’s about how far and precisely a quarterback can throw the ball, or how hard a linebacker can hit the other guy, or how quickly and nimbly someone can run the ball past defenders.  The trend has been towards larger, more muscular players and an increasing incidence of traumatic brain injury.  There are some really good (but sadly depressing) Frontline documentaries about the phenomenon: aging stars who suffer significant cognitive functional difficulties and/or in their later years commit brutal, uncharacteristic, straight-up insane acts of violence (like murdering loved ones and suicide by drinking antifreeze) that are directly linked to repeated concussions and subsequent brain lesions.  Recent clinical research has shown the same physiological damage in even high school athletes.  Sadly (again) this data has mostly come of autopsies of young men in supposedly peak physical condition who died far too early under strange circumstances.  The kids who don’t exhibit outward symptoms aren’t exactly lining-up to have their brains dissected.  It’s an ugly side-effect of a traditionally-loved sport, and unfortunately there’s no easy fix in-sight.  But I digress…

The standard big-league pitch has a few variations, but is generally expected to be 85-95 mph.  The idea is to simply overwhelm the human nervous system’s response speed.  Fun fact: scientific tests have shown that major-league home-run superstars don’t have faster reflexes than the average person.  Nobody can see a ball moving that quickly and hit it.  They succeed by watching the pitcher’s arm at the moment of release and predicting where the damned thing’s going to be by the time the bat is in collision range.  That certainly doesn’t detract from their skill: I don’t understand how any non-cyborg could ever pull that off once, much less consistently night after night.  Shit’s crazy.

But the knuckleball is a weird-ass pitch. It’s way slower, maybe 80mph, often more like 60.  And it doesn’t have some wild spin on it: in fact, it generally has no spin at all!  That’s sort of the point: to throw one of these, you have to unlearn anything you’ve been taught about how to consciously direct an object’s motion once it leaves your hand.  It’s like a crude mortar shell, or a cannonball fired from an unrifled barrel.  Think Napoleonic-war-era tech:  the thing just ejects, and then the elements decide where the fuck it goes.  It’s not so great if you’re trying to dismast another frigate at 300 yards, but it can wreak havoc on someone trying to intercept said projectile with a narrow piece of wood 54′ away.

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