Russell Martin was sitting at his locker in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, talking about catching the knuckleball, when former major-league catcher Sal Butera, a Jays coach, joined the conversation.
Butera caught knuckleballer Joe Niekro with the 1987 World Series champion Twins. Martin, the Jays’ big free-agent addition, is learning to catch right-hander R.A. Dickey, the game’s pre-eminent knuckleballer, this spring.
The two catchers engaged in a lively, fascinating conversation about the perils of handling knuckleball pitchers. Once Butera arrived, I didn’t even need to ask a question; he and Martin took it away, offering revealing thoughts one of the game’s most difficult skills.
Here’s how it went:
Martin: I feel like it’s going to be tough every time. R.A.’s knuckleball, it’s tough to follow. You never know what it’s going to do. But the more you catch him, the more repetitions you get, the better it is. The more you work at it, the easier it gets.
Sal actually helped me, in the setup and how to position myself to feel more comfortable behind the plate. The one thing he told me was to just relax. And don’t try to follow the ball with the glove the whole way. Wait for the ball to get to a certain area, then commit.
Keeping the arm relaxed helps a lot. My first bullpen I caught R.A., my shoulder was burning after like 30 pitches. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I guess I’m not used to doing that with the glove. So, keep it relaxed. Make your move at the last second.
Butera: It’s the physical wear-and-tear, the mental wear-and-tear, every pitch. You can’t take any pitches off. Especially when you get men on base, situations like that.
Martin: Any time there is two strikes, any time there are men on base, you’ve got to lock it in completely.
Butera: It’s almost like in reverse. You have to relax more in the tenser situations. If you get tense, that’s when it’s going to break down.
Martin: Some knuckleballs are kind of similar. Then there will be the one that just kind of takes off. That’s the one you have to be ready for at all times. That’s what is tough. They all kind of dance a little bit. But then you get one that goes, ‘Whoosh.’ Or the other way.
Butera: One thing people don’t realize is that the elements really change it. That’s why most knuckleballers like to pitch indoors. Niekro was that way. He always wanted to pitch in the Metrodome. It was constant.
Martin: R.A. is the same way. He knows exactly what kind of wind helps him out. He says a slight breeze coming toward him is what works the best.
Butera: Having the wind at your back, Niekro hated it. He wanted the resistance of the wind. There’s a science to it.
Martin (laughing): Blow the A.C. really hard.
Butera: Back in the Metrodome, we had those blowers behind home plate, big fans. Turn those babies on, you talk about resistance, holy smoke, it was like throwing into a tunnel. Although they never admitted that, of course. Never happened!
Martin: You could hear it?
Butera: Oh yeah.
People don’t realize when you change teams, especially as a catcher, and you’re trying to learn a staff – it affects everything you do. You want to maintain your offense, but you’re putting so much time into learning a pitching staff, learning what they want to do, trying to accelerate that process so that when you get into a season, you’re pretty comfortable.
Martin: It’s work. I enjoy it. I’ve been doing it for a while now. The knuckleball is tough. But I try to find a way to enjoy it. It changes the monotony of doing the same thing over and over. One day, you have a knuckleball. Really, there is no strategy. I’m just sitting back there. I’m just catching it.
Butera: He’s got the perfect mentality to handle a staff. He’s flexible. He understands strengths and weaknesses. Guys who are rigid, they got locked in. Especially with our staff â the young kids, (Mark) Buehrle, Dickey — there are a lot of different mindsets going on. He’s got the perfect mentality for it.