by Richard Johnson
Dervil Burlow was "hanging on by his fingernails."
Someone on or around the ball club would use that line almost every day. It fit Dervil because he was a knuckleball pitcher—an increasingly luckless knuckleballer facing the unspeakable dejection of losing his place on a big league roster.
Dervil was 50 and his floater was barely staying afloat. And when it did run its intended wayward course up to the plate he wasn't getting the confounded thing over.
He didn't have arm trouble or any real physical problem, save the aches and pains that go with a 50-year-old man's attempt to play a game organized for much younger men. He was suffering something closer akin to golf yips, a fraying of nerves or perhaps diminishing powers of concentration—both key ingredients of the knuckleball concoction.
Throwing the knuckler is a strangely delicate business, requiring endless adjustment to release the ball perfectly off the fingertips. Hitting a groove, finding a level of consistency is extremely difficult and for Dervil this season had become virtually impossible.
He was getting to the mound every six or seven days, riding rough patches through the middle innings of blown games and fattening up the old Earned Run Average.
Still, this particular summer there was less of the abject fear of failure that haunted him on past occasions when his knuckler would go awry. This year Dervil KNEW it was over and he wasn't allowing himself to grow despondent. In fact, he was relieved by the new clarity of his status. He was trying doubly hard to take pleasure from his last go-round as a major league baseball pitcher.
In mid-July the Chicago BigStixx had begun to play better ball. No longer mired in the cellar there was half a chance his team made up increasingly of young ballplayers could battle its way into a pennant race. Pitching prospects in Omaha would be needed this summer, not next, and that didn't bode well for Dervil.
His minimal contribution was becoming mortally obvious. If he didn't start getting some batters out soon, he was not going to be sent to the minors, he was going to be released outright. There was no team to pick him up outside the amateur leagues in his hometown of Bainbridge, Ohio. The BigStixx overseers looking down on Dervil from the owner's box, like glassed-off Gods, were going to call it a career for him.
Dervil Burlow had become baseball's oldest cliche—the fading veteran. It was all slipping away without his being able to control it—like the shock sensation of backward movement when the car sitting next to yours edges forward while yours stands still.
But his fade was part of the natural rhythm of the game. It was nothing to be ashamed of. Dervil understood this and was trying to handle the shadowy late afternoon of his career with as much grace and goodwill as he could muster.
And he was succeeding. About the only thing Dervil worried about these days were his reflexes. He didn't want to be Herb Scored in his old age. Otherwise he was savoring each trip to the mound, it didn't matter if he was booed, hissed, knocked out of the box or otherwise humiliated. He was trying to squirrel away the last nuggets of Big League Memories. For once he was trying to live his Love For The Game.
He was one of the few paid professionals who actually felt the romantic notions about the sport that so many who DON'T play the game seem to feel. Yet professional baseball had never been precisely what Dervil had expected.
By all rights, Dervil should never have played professional baseball at all. Except that he was sensible enough early enough to realize that he wasn't going to achieve his boyhood dream on anything that had come to him naturally. So he focused intently on Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro and Wilbur Wood and all those other pitchers who couldn't throw hard, yet had mastered a single trick pitch—the knuckleball. It seemed so simple and so perfect.
He had sent off letters to every living knuckleball pitcher—every professional he knew of with a knuckler in his repertoire. Some responded—Wilhelm's letter being especially encouraging. Meanwhile, Dervil had accumulated a veritable knuckleball museum of clippings; stray references to old-time practitioners of the pitch found in baseball memoirs; tips, anecdotes, hundreds of old news photographs, and occasionally baseball card with pictures of knuckleball pitchers demonstrating their grips; two fingers, three fingers, even Jim Bouton's odd four-finger technique—across, over and off the seams. He lived the pitch and eventually, after commanding himself to throw 10,000 knuckleballs into a net set up in his backyard he possessed a little gem of a rotation-less pitch, something that would dance preposterously on the way to the plate.
He had surprised himself and made it, though it was a tough, hard life, DESPITE the staggering amount of money he had come into in the latter part of his career. He'd lasted so long because his arm had held up, like most knuckleball-throwing arms do. He had been about as effective in his late thirties as at any other time of his career, having followed the usual career path of the knuckleballer. Never sensational, but steady and very effective when getting the pitch over.
Now it was ending, and Dervil was damn sure going to enjoy his final appearances. He was determined to do so.
This night in July against the Kansas City Landsharks, the suspense ended early. The BigStixx were down seven to nothing in the fifth, and so it was time for Dervil Burlow to bring in his mop and bucket. He had been up in the bullpen for a full inning and was actually making the ball jump a little this warm, humid night. Still, inside him there bit a hard a sense of doom. A feeling that though his butterfly pitch was fluttering, this night had the big goodbye stamped all over it. The more he thought of it, the more sure he was that this would be his Last Outing.
The call came down from manager Filch Meyers—Dervil would start the sixth. And the feeling inside became stronger. He was standing on the bullpen mound waiting for the BigStixx side to be done in the top of the inning. He surveyed the crowd, guessing that about 25,000 paying customers were on hand to witness his final professional appearance.
As he looked, around a wave of sentiment came over Dervil, and he wanted nothing more than to stop and memorize what was happening within the confines of BigStixx Stadium. He looked hard at the grandstands, making a 180-degree sweep of the ballpark with his eyes. He glanced up at the press box and then to his teammates in the BigStixx bullpen.
When BigStixx centerfielder Clay Grencher ended the inning by fouling out to the catcher, Dervil began his trek to the mound, skipping over the foul line and looking back at his heels like Sparky Anderson (something he had always wanted to do), and then he heard what would be the final announcement of his name on the public address system. He looked over his shoulder to see "B-u-r-l-o-w" printed out on the scoreboard lights as the new pitcher and felt a twinge of emotion rise up from his lower intestines. He had absolutely no fear about the outcome of his pitches. He had never worried less about the behavior of the knuckleball.
Dervil felt the plush, green pile of the short right field grass under his feet as he walked to the mound, then the scrape of the infield dirt under his cleats. He watched the infielders arrive at their positions from the dugout and begin taking lackluster grounders tossed across the diamond by Billy Darryl at first base.
He pounded his glove as he walked and even tried to introduce a slight swagger as he approached the hill. Then Dervil climbed the mound as though it were Mt. Olympus, did everything but plant a flag at the summit. He puffed up two or three times, reached down for the rosin bag in a great swoop, then bounced it in his palm seven times—after the seventh he abruptly pulled his hand away and allowed the bag to drop gracefully onto the sacred soil of the mound.
After a bit more ritual—some purposeful digging with his right foot, banging the ball into his glove several times while facing centerfield, scrunching up his face, then drawing his lips tightly together once or twice like Steve Carlton—he came to be aware that he was overdoing it. His catcher, Mike Hoeft, was standing upright behind the plate staring at him.
He began tossing warmup pitches to Hoeft. After three "fastballs" he dug his nails into the seams and began gingerly tossing knucklers up to the plate. The first few moved slightly, but before finishing the warm-up tosses, he got off a couple of ripplers. Hoeft couldn't handle the last one, even with the oversized gorilla of a catcher's mitt reserved for pawing at Dervil's knucklers.
After picking up the ball, looking it over as if to see if it had magic knuckleball dust on it, Hoeft fired it down to Art Maslomski at second. The ball zipped around the infield, and Dervil took in this ceremony for perhaps the last time from inside its perimeter. He set himself on the mound, visualized the perfect knuckler release in his mind, as he always had done, and watched Phil "Thrill Kill" Threlkeld, the big left-hand-hitting Landshark, establish himself in the batter's box.
Threlkeld was a brontosaurus of a man who, like most free-swinging power hitters, hated to face a knuckleball pitcher - except when the knuckler in question failed to dance. And since Dervil's knuckler had been of a wallflower of late, Thrill Kill was fairly licking his chops.
No matter to Dervil, who was going to enjoy his Last Outing. He was going to take the memory of facing "Thrill Kill" Threlkeld to the hereafter. In fact, as he went into his windup, Dervil anticipated one of those classic self-effacing baseball reminiscences—a tale of the 450-foot Threlkeld home run that sent him to the showers once and for all. He could put a funny Joe Garagiola spin on it and regale the boys of winter someday. There is no shame in telling such a story on yourself. It says that you were once part of the great fraternity of baseball.
Unfortunately for this scenario, Dervil's first knuckleball glided up to the plate at the accustomed 63 miles per hour and then took a nasty careening dive into the dirt just as Threlkeld turned into it. A perfect knuckleball pitch.
"This isn't good," thought Dervil. "I'm going to get it in my head that I can still survive in this league, and I'm not going to enjoy my Last Outing."
He thought of shaking off Hoeft and coming ahead with an eminently tattoo-able Dervil Burlow fastball. But he thought better of it and laid grip to another knuckler. This one headed straight down the chute, then swerved maddeningly away from Threlkeld's waving wand for strike two. Hoeft had managed only to get a piece of his glove on it and slap it on the ground.
It was knuckleball heaven, and "Thrill Kill" Threlkeld was clearly regretting not having taken himself out of the lineup on fully defensible grounds that the soft, irregular pitches Dervil was patsying up to the plate would destroy his timing for two or three days. The big guy was miffed, and now Dervil was ABSOLUTELY enjoying his Last Outing. Just maybe this wouldn't be his Last Outing after all.
Dervil dug his nails into the seams once more, rocked back, extended forward and released his third straight knuckler. This one, however, came off his fingertips imperfectly. The index finger lifted just a microsecond before the middle finger, and the ball began to rotate ever so slightly on its way up to the plate, destroying any hope that the vicissitudes in the air between the mound and home plate could send the ball on a wayward, unhittable course.
Between the time Dervil released the ball and its arrival at the plate, he could see the expression on Phil "Thrill Kill" Threlkeld's face change from one of utter annoyance at the distraction of a trick pitcher to the glow of sudden, unexpected opportunity.
Threlkeld extended his arms toward the ball, which did not dart away, did not dive into the ground, did not slip under the oncoming lumber. There was a resounding crack. The crack of all ages.
Dervil felt an unseen force lift him from the ground and relieve him of his senses. He had been Herb Scored. He had answered on behalf of pitchers everywhere for Tony Conigliaro. There was a vague sense of men standing over him. Mike Hoeft was there, and Art Maslomski. Then nothing. He assumed he had died.
Then Dervil Burlow began to dream. A wild phantasmagoria of baseball and people. Knuckleballs and "Thrill Kill" Threlkeld. Filch Meyers lifting the ball from his glove. Then he came to. In fact, he was all right and soon had even forgot what had happened. He was back on the mound. But his uniform now felt heavy and woolen, even itchy, though his body was loose and spry, and he felt like throwing fastballs instead of knuckleballs. It was different uniform, a gray Brooklyn Dodgers away uniform, and he was standing on the mound at the Polo Grounds.
He looked at the on-deck circle, and there was Willie Mays, a young Willie Mays swinging two bats, his cap bearing the script "NY" of the New York Giants. He looked up to the press box and could make out a young Ernie Harwell seated next to Russ Hodges. He could read Hodges' lips saying "and he'll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one."
Dervil knew what was going on. He was going to throw a high fastball to the lanky, dark-haired right-hander up at the plate and Bobby Thomson was going to hit the shot heard round the world. Dervil didn't like it much, but it was destiny and he never once thought about crossing up Thomson with a knuckleball. He took a big roundhouse, old-style windup and came in with his fastball. Like Ralph Branca, he tried to throw the lamb chop past the wolf.
But Thomson caught it full barrel and drove the ball over the left field fence. And now Dervil knew the immense pain that Ralph Branca had felt for so many years. He stood like Branca on the mound and watched this villain Bobby Thomson sprinting around the bases and leaping onto home plate and into the arms of his teammates.
Dervil walked slowly into the Brooklyn dugout, his newly-adopted Dodgers having blown an 13...-game lead in the National League pennant race. In the clubhouse Charlie Dressen came over and patted him on the shoulder, but it didn't help. Reporters poured in, and all Dervil could do was sit there, head in his hands until he seemed to black out.
And he was back on the mound. The stands were full, and there was a big commotion in both dugouts. The heavy-set guy was answering catcalls coming from the dugout filled with men in old Chicago Cubs uniforms. It was the uniform that Dervil now wore.
Dervil knew what would happen next. Or least he knew what was supposed to have happened. The big bandy-legged galoot up at the plate with the overhang around the belt was going to point his 42-ounce bat toward centerfield and call his shot.
Dervil stood on the mound and challenged him to do it. He stood there waiting to see if Babe Ruth—two strikes against him—would have the NERVE to foretell a home run for himself and show Dervil up in front of this big World Series crowd in Chicago. If he does, like some say he did, Dervil would cram a little history down his throat. He won't be party to another man's legend. Instead, Dervil would put Ruth on the seat of his pants.
The taunts from the Cubs dugout grew louder.
"Washed-up old lardass," screamed Burleigh Grimes.
Ruth seemed to enjoy the moment. He smiled that big broad smile Dervil had seen before in pictures and finally he DID reach out his big bat and pointed it over Dervil's head toward centerfield in Wrigley Field.
Dervil couldn't believe his eyes. He HAD called his shot.
"Well, sir," thought Dervil Burlow, "I'm no Charlie Root."
Dervil was going to drop Ruth so fast he'd never know what almost hit him. Burlow went into an even bigger roundhouse windup than at the Polo Grounds, kicked his left leg way up in the fashion of the day let loose at the head of the great Babe Ruth. Only the ball got away from him and came out over the plate about letter high and the big fella put a huge hurt on one and damned if it didn't take off like a shooting star, high as the heavens would allow, to straightaway centerfield.
Dervil turned and saw the back of Johnny Moore in center. He saw the ball bounce once on the other side of the wall and thought about kids scrambling for the ball. He wondered if they had any idea how important a ball it was they were chasing.
Once again Dervil had failed to strike out destiny, though he had tried mightily this time. He watched Ruth circle the bases and was amazed to see him trotting at normal speed, not the mincing, hurried up step that he'd seen so often in the old newsreel films. The Cubs dugout was quiet again, and Dervil turned back toward the plate.
Only the scene had changed. Now Dervil was in a Yankee uniform. An old one, without pinstripes. Bigger and baggier than the Giants and Cub uniforms he had worn. He looked up and saw a right-handed hitter with a clumsily-lettered block "Cleveland" step in, bang the end of black, thick-handled bat on the outside corner of the plate and look defiantly out at the mound.
Dervil was a little surprised by the show of fearlessness. He suddenly knew he was death on right-handers. He came at them from the side, like a Dan Quisenberry who threw as hard as Nolan Ryan. The Cleveland Indian up at the plate was showing him up with a display of false courage and it made Dervil mad.
He looked at the face of the hitter, a cocked chin and brazen, helmetless head of 1920, and now Dervil caught a whiff of history once again.
This time Dervil was determined to alter the course of events so that Ray Chapman would live as long as Joe Sewell, the Hall of Famer who replaced Chapman as the Indians' shortstop. Sewell lived into his 90s and coached at the University of Alabama. One day, Dervil thought, Chapman might be an old man sitting at home watching Dervil Burlow throw knuckleballs on television.
"Get him, Sub," called out Wally Pipp at first base. But Dervil was not Carl Mays, the ancient "Submariner." He would instead aim for the outside corner.
But Dervil dipped his right shoulder, came from way over on the third base side of the mound and let loose with a killer fastball that was going nowhere near the outside of the plate. It was sailing straight for Chapman's head. Dervil knew it before Chapman did, and he struggled like a man trying to wake himself up from a nightmare.
He finally he got it out—"Watch out!" he called to Ray Chapman. And instinctively the Cleveland Indian at the plate collapsed his body, pulled in his head and Dervil's submarine fastball caught the bill of Chapman's hat and sent it spinning.
Chapman sprang up and shot Dervil a look of stunned surprise. Dervil thought Chapman might charge the mound. But he didn't. Ray Chapman seemed to have caught a whiff of history himself. He looked at Dervil, eyes wide and now faintly confused. Then he nodded at Dervil ever so slightly.
Dervil tried to nod back, but felt only pain.
"My God, he's coming out of it," said a voice he knew. It was Filch Meyers.
Dervil tried to open his eyes, but they hurt too much. He closed them tight and tried to fend off the horrendous headache he had.
"Derve, buddy, do you hear me?"
Dervil hoped that a slight movement of his head on the pillow would suffice.
"Derve, we thought you were gonna leave us. Do you know what happened?"
He nodded again.
"Threlkeld caught you smack between the eyes. You went down like God His own self had reached out and slapped you."
Dervil tried to think of anything but the pain. Then he thought of the dream. Three of them, and more vivid than most. A comatose delusion, he supposed.
Later he could open his eyes a little and listen some more and found that he had been unconscious for three long days and that "Thrill Kill" Threlkeld had spent those three days outside his hospital room. And when the big man was allowed in, Dervil couldn't speak, but he extended his hand and gave a little nod and a crease of a smile. "Thrill Kill" flashed a big grin and said, "That last knuckleball didn't knuckle, Dervil. It just hung there like soap on a rope."
Dervil improved. He was soon able to pick up some of the newspapers which had accumulated and he began to read about the accident. He saw pictures of himself lying flat on the ground, players standing around him looking glum; pictures of him being carried off on a stretcher with Filch and "Thrill Kill" walking alongside.
Then he read recaps of his career that sounded like obituaries. They were filled with tributes that Dervil supposed were meant as eulogies—how when his knuckleball was really dancing he was untouchable. Dervil read on about himself and his place, only moderately remarkable though it was, in baseball history.
He was about to put down the last paper, the sports section of the Sunday Chicago Tribune, when his eye caught sight of a short item on page six, near the bottom on the right hand page in a column made up of several news briefs.
Ray Chapman, former big league shortstop and later head baseball coach at the University of Kentucky, died Saturday in Beaver Dam, Kentucky, at age 101. Chapman played 14 seasons in the American League with the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers, appearing with the Indians in the 1920 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He retired after a knee injury during the 1926 season, finishing his career with a lifetime batting average of .267.
It was a long time before Dervil could set the newspaper aside. He was a man with a very bad headache, but he stood a good chance of once again being a knuckleball pitcher with all his faculties intact.
Richard Johnson is a baseball-deprived American journalist who has spent the last 16 years living outside the USA. After job assignments in Germany and Japan, he now lives in London with his wife and four daughters.