My father in law hates playing second base.
Put him at shortstop. Put him at third. There, he can drill the ball to first as hard as his arm will allow to make the out.
You can't do that at second.
And yet, that's exactly where you'll find him. Second base. He is not happy about it.
Danny is 21 years old. It is his final year of eligibility for junior men's baseball. He's playing for the Leamington Juniors.
It is mid-way through a game, somewhere in the middle of the season. The Leamington Juniors this season are hot, but today, their pitcher is not.
"Put Danny in," suggests someone, as the coach grasps for a reliever. "He can throw."
Danny is tapped to finish the game at pitcher. He takes the mound. He tosses a few warm-up pitches and indicates he's ready to roll.
The batter steps into the box. Danny looks to his catcher for a signal. The man behind the mask wears a wicked grin. Danny knows why. The catcher knows something about Danny that no ones else present at today's game knows.
Danny throws one hell of a knuckleball.
In 1959, Sports Illustrated published a feature on a knuckleball pitcher by the name of Hoyt Wilhelms. Danny poured over the article, which included detailed illustrations of how the pitch works.
The trick is to release the ball without any spin. Spin is the knuckleballer's enemy. Spin is what allows a fastball or curve ball to travel smoothly through the air. Without spin, a knuckleball dips, dives, and dances in a way that is nearly impossible to predict, let alone hit.
Danny spends hours tossing a baseball against a piece of plywood propped against his basement wall. He later tries it with his best buddy and catch partner, Jim.
Jim just happens to be the catcher for the Leamington Juniors.
Jim calls for the knuckleball.
Danny shakes his head. Not yet, he thinks.
Jim signals again for the knuckleball. He won't be deterred.
Danny relents and winds up. His release of that first pitch is perfect. Not a whiff of spin. It approaches the batter nice and slow, as a knuckleball does, then dances its way around the bat.
Jim tosses the ball back to Danny and calls for another knuckleball. They both wear smirks a mile long.
Danny tosses knuckleball after knuckleball. They baffle the opposing team. One batter drops his bat as the pitch breaks past him: his mouth agape at the magic of that untouchable pitch.
Jim and Danny cannot stop smiling. Between innings, their coach tells them to get serious and keep their heads in the game.
On the mound, Danny can't control his giggles. He turns his back to the plate and takes a few deep breaths.
"Come on now," he says to himself. "You're not playing catch with your best friend. This is serious."
Danny joins the pitching staff for the rest of the season, only playing back at second base for the games he doesn't pitch. He finishes the season with four wins, two losses, and and ERA of .195.
The night before we pile the kids in the car for the long drive back to PEI from Leamington, Danny and I take our ball gloves to the front yard. We've been talking so much this week about his knuckleball, I want to see it for myself.
"I'll just try a few warm-up throws before I try the knuckler," he says.
The first pitch drifts across the yard. I watch the seams stand dead still as the ball soars toward me. Ten feet in front of my glove, the ball decides to veer wildly to my left. I barely catch it.
Danny grins. "I never know which way it's going to break," he says.
I throw it back. He winds up again. This pitch again veers left, then at the last second breaks right.
"See what I mean?" he says. We're both grinning now.
By pitch five, we both have goofy smiles on our faces. The pitch is hilarious. Sometimes it floats in like a beach ball, then swings wildly upward. Sometimes it dives at the last second into the dirt. You never know where it will end up.
I've heard the story of the Leamington Juniors many times. I finally understand where the smiles come from.
(Note to Danny: I hope I've been true to your stories. If I've messed anything up, let me know. I'll fix it right away.)
Hey! We're taking a little trip over the next couple of weeks, which means I'll not be around to churn out the comics in the usual way. But fear not! I'll try to maintain my Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule with some rough journal comics I make on the fly.
Maybe it will be great? Maybe!
Please permit me a little braggy-brag. This weekend, I won the 2102 Atlantic Journalism Awards gold medal for sports reporting (of all things). It was for a story I did last year for CBC Radio as part of their Hockey Day in Canada coverage. You can listen to it here.
I went to Halifax for the awards gala. It was a bit overwhelming, but lovely to see so many of the great people I've worked with over the years. Before I left for the trip, I had a little chat with Henry.
Henry: I wish you didn't have to go to Halifax.
Me: It's just for one night. Hardly long enough to miss each other.
Henry: I know. I hope you win. If you don't, the whole trip will be a complete waste of time.