Huntington’s Rhodes baffles hitters with knuckleball

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 11, 2003

FERRIDAY, La. &045; Will Moak was hopeless. He never had a chance at practice Thursday.

Here was the Huntington junior &045; normally a pitcher, mind you &045; being asked to assume the role of a catcher for the absent Ples Arthur, who was at a track meet in Centreville.

Maybe old Arthur knew what he was doing. After all, he has to catch Bronson Rhodes in games, why subject himself to catching the big man’s unique pitch at practice as well.

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Enter Mr. Moak. The unfortunate soul grabbed a mitt, took his one-time-only position behind the plate and watched Rhodes unleash the knuckleball that leaves batters, coaches, fans and, Thursday, Moak gawking and frozen.

&uot;It’s really nasty,&uot; Moak said of the nearly extinct pitch. &uot;I can’t tell you where it’s going. But he hits his spots with it most of the time, which is better than most pitchers can say.&uot;

Hounds coach Michael McAnally said that is what makes Rhodes unusual. Most high school pitchers are lucky to be effective with one pitch, typically a fastball.

But Rhodes, a senior who didn’t pitch at all his sophomore season, has found a way to locate his heater, curveball and, as Moak put it, &uot;nasty&uot; knuckler.

&uot;Look around you don’t see a lot of professional or college pitchers throwing it, so in high school it’s a different look,&uot; McAnally said. &uot;You’ll see a few knees buckle up there. It drops off the table so much.&uot;

Rhodes, six or seven at the time, said a game of pitch-and-catch with his older brother sparked his fascination of the pitch that has little rotation.

Also know as a &uot;floater,&uot; a knuckleball leaves batters jelly-legged when a pitcher places one or more of his fingers curled so as to grip with the knuckles, fingertips or side of the fingers and hurls it in the vicinity of home plate.

&uot;I can put it close to the plate but it’ll start to float and move when the wind gets to it,&uot; said Rhodes, who is 3-4 on the mound this year. &uot;I can get it started kind of outside, but it’s got a mind of its own. If I catch a good one, I’ve got no idea where it’s going.&uot;

Due to the uncertainty of the pitch’s flight, McAnally admits he is a little nervous at times signaling in the knuckler to Arthur.

There is the fear Rhodes will serve it up on a platter, belt high over the plate and a hitter will feast on it across the fence.

On Thursday this was an exchange between impromptu battery mates Rhodes and Moak.

Moak: &uot;Bronson, don’t throw it in the dirt.&uot;

Bronson exasperated: &uot;I don’t know where it’s going.&uot;

Through about 13 pitches of catching the knuckleball, Rhodes made Moak look like he was a colt trying to stand up for the first time.

One time Moak tripped over his own feet trying to calculate where the pitch will end. A couple times he squeezed the mitt to early, missing the pitch entirely.

Moak’s not alone, though. Arthur wants to shake off McAnally sometimes when he sends in the signals for Arthur to share with Rhodes.

&uot;It’s hard to catch. I get a little nervous when coach calls it &045; it’s funny,&uot; Arthur said. &uot;You never know where it’s going to go. Sometimes it will move clear across the plate.&uot;

Rhodes sometimes knows what fingers Arthur will flash him before the catcher relays the sign because he can see Arthur grinning from ear-to-ear through the mask.

Leaving batters frozen at the plate with a pitch few active major leaguers throw nowadays can get to be an ego trip for Rhodes, whose favorite pitch fits perfectly with his thick sideburns and shaved head.

&uot;I can hear (opponents) in the dugout telling each other to watch that ‘special pitch,’&uot; he said

&uot;I’ve laughed at them before. They just kind of stare with their mouth open a bit.

&uot;I throw whatever (McAnally) calls is what I throw. Some days I want him to call it more when it’s working pretty good for me.&uot;

Sort of like yesterday. There was no batter in the box, no blue calling balls and strikes, but Rhodes had Moak baffled and mesmerized.

&uot;You can throw a curve or set the pitching machine to send out a curve, but it’s impossible to simulate a knuckler in practice,&uot; McAnally said. &uot;Our players will tell you they’re glad they don’t have to hit one.&uot;