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Jim Murray

The Floater Makes Hough Real Tough

July 15, 1986|JIM MURRAY

Confidence is supposed to be the name of the game, any game, the old coaches tell you. If you think you can't do it, you can't. You have to visualize the ball going into the hole, over the fence, or through the goal posts or you might as well not tee it up, swing at it or kick it. Self-doubt is for losers.

Which doesn't do anything at all to explain Charles Oliver Hough. Charlie Hough--rhymes with tough-- is a right-handed pitcher for the Texas Rangers who is constantly surprised when he gets anyone out, is astounded when the ball gets to the catcher instead of the center-field fence--or beyond.

Charlie is not one of your snarling side-armers a la Don Drysdale, not one of those "Here, hit this if you can, jerk!" throwers.

Hough serves the ball up like a butler pouring tea, not apologetic exactly but fearing the worst. He does everything but close his eyes.

Charlie has been quoted in a magazine as saying that he throws 90% knuckleballs and that the other 10% are prayers. As in "Oh, my God, I hope he doesn't swing at that one!" He says he throws a knuckleball and a Hail Mary ball.

Hough didn't think he was a pitcher when he first came into baseball anyway. He thought he was a third baseman. Only two things were wrong with that image. He couldn't field and he couldn't hit. Apart from that, he was Pie Traynor.

Some hitters have warning-track power. Charlie's was more edge-of-the-infield. "Let's say I didn't need a home run trot," he once said.

It was Tommy Lasorda, of all people, who made Hough a pitcher. Said Tommy, with his characteristic tact: "You might as well pitch. You can't do anything else."

Charlie had a fair fastball and an average curveball, but neither was likely to turn him into Dr. K. In fact, he hurt his shoulder in the minor leagues once and was sent to the instructional league where the Dodger coach, Goldie Holt, after watching him throw fastballs, took him aside and said: "Kid, you either need a new pitch or a new profession. You ever throw a knuckleball?"

Hough's best pitch in those days was a gopher ball. It was what the pitchers call a "two-seamer," which is to say, in Charlie's case, that the batter knocked two seams out of it when it got there.

Major league managers don't trust the knuckleball. It's hard to say why. In its purest form, it is unhittable.

Unfortunately, it's also uncatchable.

Throwing a knuckleball is like putting a note in a bottle and dropping it over the side. It comes to the plate like a hound dog sniffing a cold trail. You not only can't catch it, you can't net it. Batters hate it, catchers have nightmares about it and umpires curse it.

It's the only pitch that can be a strike and a ball at the same time, that can go through the strike zone and immediately leap two feet to the left.

It's not really a knuckleball, it's a nailball. It's gripped with the fingernails. It is not really thrown, it is kind of coughed up, like a guy getting rid of something caught in his throat. It flutters on the way to the plate and then does everything but back up when it gets there.

Managers always seem to think that knuckleballers will make ideal relief pitchers--no one has ever been able to figure out why. The worst thing in the world to have on a pitcher's mound with tying and winning runs on base is a guy who has no idea where his pitch is going--and it's usually to the backstop. But, of the first 340 games he pitched for the Dodgers, Charlie Hough started only one of them.

In the first major league game he ever pitched, Aug. 12, 1970, he struck out Wilver Stargell with the bases loaded. Charlie didn't strut. He turned around to see who'd done it--and for two innings, he listened for voices.

There are a lot of critics abroad in press boxes who raise the point that the Dodgers made a dreadful mistake in trading one of this year's leading pitchers to a contender. Pressed, they will identify him as Sid Fernandez of the Mets (12-2).

But veteran Dodger-watchers also noticed that C. Hough of the Texas Rangers won his ninth game of the season, against four defeats, Saturday, beating the Cleveland Indians, 11-6, and keeping the Texans on the heels of the Angels in the American League West. They probably also noticed that he will be pitching in tonight's All-Star Game.

Knuckleballers are the only athletes in the world who get better in their dotage. For one thing, the knuckleball doesn't put any strain on the elbow or the arm. It wears out catchers, not pitchers. Hoyt Wilhelm threw the knuckler in the big leagues until he was 49.

Even so, knuckleball pitchers now are as rare as aurochs. Only three of them are left in captivity, the Niekro brothers and Hough, and their combined age is 126.

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