Knuckle curve from Mussina baffled hitters

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third story in a 17-part series looking at Mike Mussina’s journey from Montoursville to the National Baseball Hall of Fame

Practice was minutes away and Montoursville third baseman Ed Rogers was warming up as he and Mike Mussina played catch.

Things started normal, but Rogers suddenly grew fearful. Mussina’s throws were moving in a way Rogers had never seen before.

“He was throwing what I thought were knuckleballs and I was really struggling because the thing was dancing so much. I was just trying to not let it hit me in the face,” Rogers said. “I found out what he was throwing and I thought. ‘Oh my gosh. He’s going to be untouchable.'”

Mussina had just introduced the knuckle curve to Rogers. And Mussina’s opponents felt the same kind of frustration Rogers did over the next decade.

Mussina will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday afternoon at Cooperstown. If not for the knuckle curve, Mussina might not be there. Mussina was a pitcher’s pitcher who kept opposing hitters off-balanced with a potent repertoire, but it was that knuckle curve that helped take him to another level.

“He had that out pitch, the knuckle curve. That was nasty. When you can throw that at any time for a strike, that’s really tough to hit,” Montoursville graduate and former Major Leaguer Tom O’Malley said. “Even later in his career he wasn’t overpowering guys, but he had that out pitch and he had such good command where he could get you out in front or take a little off or add a little bit. Early in his career he had pretty good velocity and could blow it past you, but he had tremendous command of that knuckle curve and that made a big difference.”

More impressive than the pitch itself was how the knuckle curve as born. Mussina becomes a Hall of Famer Sunday and on his plaque they could add inventor to the list of his accomplishments. Mussina taught himself the knuckle curve and then mastered it in the ensuing years.

Originally, Mussina was trying to throw a knuckleball, but could not master it. Like a scientist in the lab, Mussina kept thinking, kept exploring other ideas and kept tinkering. He then adjusted his thought process and adapted. Instead of throwing a straight knuckler, Mussina thought he could develop something different, something unique.

“What basically happened is when I was at a young high school age we were messing around throwing knuckleballs and we can’t make the ball stop spinning. I finally decided as the ball is tumbling in there I wonder if I can make it spin too much?” Mussina said. “Instead of trying to stop it from spinning, let’s throw it like that and try to make it spin too much. I started messing with it and I got pretty good at it. I could throw it over the plate, I could make it drop and it looked different than a regular curveball. It kind of took off from there with it. It basically got me through three years of high school and three years of college and my first 3 to 4 years of pro ball.”

Mussina started utilizing that new pitch his sophomore year at Montoursville and went 6-1 as the Warriors captured the 1985 Class AAA state championship. He already was a good pitcher and adding the knuckle curve to his arsenal was kind of like pouring gasoline on a fire. Mussina went to an even higher level and was virtually untouchable his last two years a Montoursville, earning a scholarship to Stanford.

Throwing the knuckle curve was one thing, but being able to consistently locate it is another. That is what made Mussina so tough at Montoursville. High school hitters simply were overmatched. They literally had never seen a pitch like that before. Mussina could throw a fastball in the upper 80s one pitch and then drop a knuckle curve in there the next. It almost did not seem fair.

“Mike was overpowering with his fastball and knuckle curve. Not a lot of guys could give us trouble against that,” Mussina’s high school catcher, Eric Giles said. “It’s not like a regular curve where it breaks and goes down. It just drops right off the table.”

Ironically, Mussina’s invention meant that no coach could really help him when it came to the knuckle curve. No other pitcher was throwing that and no coach had seen something like it before. Mussina was on his own, but he kept utilizing it through a stellar Stanford career that included a 1990 national championship. It then played a prominent role in Mussina reaching the Majors by 1991 and making him one of the game’s best pitchers by 1992 in his second year with the Orioles when he went 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA.

“Nobody professionally could help me with it. No pitching coach could help me with it, no teammate could help me with it,” Mussina said. “They’re like that’s that thing? Then they try to do it and the ball comes out all over the place.”

“The thing that was unique is that at that time, in those years, the knuckle curve was new to people. Nobody threw that,” former Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. “A lot of times the curveball is a lot harder to teach and throw to be successful and if you make it a knuckle curve, there’s not many that can teach that because it’s so hard to control. He already had that mastered when he came to Stanford. He had command of it that’s and that’s what is remarkable.”

Of course, give Major Leaguers a look at something long enough and they likely will figure it out. The original knuckle curve perplexed hitters early in Mussina’s career and he became a perennial all-star and Baltimore’s ace. Before hitters could adjust and start figuring out that pitch, Mussina already was working on refining it. A fellow Stanford pitcher had shown Mussina a modified version of his best pitch and again the man who graduated Stanford in three years with an economics degree went back to class.

The new knuckle curve was not essentially a true knuckle curve, but it was labeled that way over the final 2/3 of Mussina’s career. He changed the grip and the original knuckle curve that laid the foundation for a legendary career faded away.

“It worked for a while, but I felt like the other one was better and more consistent so I kept working at it,” Mussina said. “I got better at it and used it exclusively the last 12 years that I played.”

The knuckle curve eventually went into hibernation, but its birth opened many doors and as he entered his final two years at Montoursville, Mussina started kicking them down.

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