'Uncle Charlie's' back in town
Curveball weaving its way back into pitchers' repertoires
It was the "yakker" that silenced New York.
From the right hand of Adam Wainwright to the glove of Yadier Molina, the perfect curveball left Carlos Beltran frozen at home plate. As umpire Tim Welke raised his right arm, throbbing Shea Stadium was transformed into a tomb. The St. Louis Cardinals were the 2006 National League champions.
"The guy threw an unhittable pitch," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said in a stone-silent, stunned home clubhouse.
Game 7 of the NL Championship Series -- the Cards clinging to a 3-1 lead, bases loaded and everything riding on this at-bat. If you were to select one delivery as The Pitch of the century's opening decade, Wainwright's hook to Beltran catching the outer edge of the plate would be hard to match.
"What a classic ninth for a classic game," Redbirds manager Tony La Russa said in the afterglow.
And a classic "Uncle Charlie" ended it, sending the Cards on their way to a World Series that they claimed in five games from the Tigers.
By any of its many names, the curveball has been an essential part of the game's fabric since balls were first sewn and thrown.
It might not have the cachet it once held with the emergence of other members of the expanding breaking-ball family: slider, split, slurve, cutter. The slider ruled for several decades, but there are clear indications that the curve has come out of storage and is enjoying a lively renaissance in the hands of an impressive array of young artists.
"I do see the curveball coming back into the game," said one of its masters, Bert Blyleven, and a popular voice on the Twins' airwaves. "Maybe that's because the umpires are calling it more as it crosses the plate -- and not where the catcher catches the ball.
"When I was pitching, I made a study of umpires -- and threw my curveball accordingly. I think some catchers might have become reluctant to call for the curve if they didn't think they could get a called strike out of it."
In the eyes of one Tiger, Gary Sheffield, reports of the curve's demise have been grossly exaggerated.
"I'm seeing a lot of curveballs, as many as I ever have," Sheffield said. "In fact, I'm seeing more curves than sliders. Young guys are coming into the game confident with the curveball in any situation.
"It's about pitching up in the zone with the fastball, then dropping the curveball down in the zone, changing your eye level. If the guy has the same motion and release point and he can make the curveball look like the fastball coming out of his hand, that's the key."
For a catcher, the many options afforded today's pitchers have created complications -- and hours of pregame meetings.
"It used to be easier to call a game before all these new pitches came along," Orioles receiver Ramon Hernandez said. "Now you've got these pitches that are similar to the curve -- slider, slurve, cutter, split -- but just a little different. And everyone throws them a little different, so you have to know how all these guys throw each pitch."
With the strike zone now in force, the slider, with a more horizontal break, is easier for umpires to judge than the classic 12-to-6 or 11-to-5 curveball that drops across the plate from the letters to below the belt.
The curveball has the biggest break of the smorgasbord of offspeed stuff now in vogue. The cut fastball has the smallest break, usually no more than six to eight inches. The split-finger fastball -- thrown between the first two fingers -- has a late downward break, not as sweeping as the curve.
The most effective curveballs in today's game, by most accounts, are unleashed by Ben Sheets, Felix Hernandez, Josh Beckett, Erik Bedard, A.J. Burnett, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Brad Penny, Justin Verlander, John Lackey, Gil Meche, Mike Mussina, Matt Cain, Brandon Webb, Tom Gordon and Francisco Rodriguez. Most are in the 28-and-under age range. Barry Zito? He's trying to regain mastery of his big bender, once considered the game's best.
Sometimes, it's hard to even keep it in the family. Jeff Weaver throws a curveball, kid brother Jered a slider.
"Jeff's is really more of a slurve -- part curve, part slider," Jered said. "It's all in the grip and flip."
Sheffield grew up in Florida with a keen awareness of the curveball's impact. His uncle, Dwight Gooden, is among the game's curveball kings in the pantheon, joining the likes of Dazzy Vance, Bob Feller, Camilo Pascual, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Tommy Bridges, Whitey Ford, Carl Erskine, Don Sutton and Blyleven.
Known as Dr. K in his Mets youth, Gooden brought the curveball behind the heat in a combustible combination that called to mind Feller, Koufax and Ryan. Gooden's curve became known as "Lord Charles" for its royal sweep.
"Doc's 'yakker' was filthy," said former Major Leaguer Rex Hudler, now a broadcaster. "I faced him when he was a phenom at Tidewater in '83, and I was playing for Columbus. He threw me his 'yakker,' and I couldn't move. Never saw anything like it. I was shocked.
"Then he threw me his fastball, and it was a blur. I shattered my bat and got a base hit, but I felt the sting in my hands for two days."
Since the beginning of baseball time, the curveball has gone hand-in-hand with the fastball.
|"I'm seeing a lot of curveballs, as many as I ever have. In fact, I'm seeing more curves than sliders. Young guys are coming into the game confident with the curveball in any situation."|
|-- Gary Sheffield, on the curve's comeback|
"A good Major League hitter can hit any fastball -- even 100 miles an hour -- if he knows it's coming," former slugger Willie Horton said. "A guy's got to have that breaking ball to take you off the fastball.
"Take Nolan Ryan. He didn't put it all together until he learned how to trust his curveball. When he figured out how to get his curveball over the plate, it also seemed to help him locate his fastball -- in and out, up and down. That's when he became the man you didn't want to face."
What was Ryan's curveball like when you did put a bat on it?
"It was like a bowling ball," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, recalling his youth as a Dodgers catcher flailing away at The Express' overpowering repertoire.
Like Sheffield, Horton in his time was a feared presence at the plate, with 325 homers and 1,163 RBIs in a career stretching from 1963-80.Yet there was a moment in his budding career when Horton wondered if he belonged.
That's what Pascual's curveball could do to a man.
Twice a 20-game winner for the Washington Senators and three times the American League strikeout king, Pascual was not a big man at 5-foot-11, but his curveball was huge. The Havana, Cuba, native threw it at different speeds for different occasions.
"Coming from the Minor Leagues, I'd never seen anything like it," Horton said. "He threw me three different curveballs first time I faced him, all for strikes, and I couldn't swing at any of them. I was thinking, 'If all these guys are like him, I'm in deep trouble.'
"Next time up, Pascual threw me nothing but fastballs. That's when I realized I needed to keep a book on pitchers. I kept one the rest of my career. There were so many great curveball pitchers. Luis Tiant. Mel Stottlemyre could get you with his curveball and his slider. Jim Kaat and Dave McNally from the left side had good location.
"Catfish Hunter and Mike Cuellar mixed it up as well as anybody. Jim Palmer was up on top, and he'd throw his curveball like his fastball, drop it down on you. You've got to learn to trust your hands, go with the pitch. You try to pull that curveball, you'll just roll it over.
"I'm seeing some good curveball pitchers now. We've got two here in Detroit -- Justin Verlander and Kenny Rogers. It's a weapon, man."
Asked to identify the best curveball he's faced, Sheffield reached back.
"Darryl Kile threw one of the best," Sheffield said of the late right-hander who played with the Astros, Rockies and Cards before his death at 33 on June 22, 2002. "It had a real quick break to it."
Kile, a three-time All-Star and 20-game winner in 2000, was one of the few curveball artists of the slider-dominated 1990s.
"For a while, it was tough to find a curveball pitcher to study," said Steve Trachsel, a 16-year Major League veteran who is now dealing his hooks for the Orioles. "When I would look at how other pitchers were throwing to hitters, it didn't do me much good. Everybody was throwing the slider.
"Darryl Kile was the guy I watched during that time. His curveball was far better than mine. It had a sharp break to it.
"For me, the curveball is a max-effort pitch. It comes down to my arm strength. It's always the final pitch to come around in Spring Training. I judge in Spring Training how I'm doing by how I can control it and the kind of break I'm getting."
The key to a quality curve, in the judgment of Orioles leadoff man Brian Roberts, is "coming out of the same arm angle, same arm speed as the fastball. Tight rotation helps, too."
One lingering problem with the curveball is getting the called strike when the ball crosses the plate at the knees, but the catcher digs it out of the dirt.
"That curveball that bounces in the dirt in front of the catcher is a strike," Trachsel said. "But because the ball hits the ground, there's no way you're going to get the call."
John Barr has been evaluating young pitchers as a scout and executive for a quarter-century. He's the special assistant to Giants GM Brian Sabean now, but Barr's roots are firmly planted in high school and college diamonds across the land, his homes away from home since 1984.
"When I see a young kid who can spin a curveball hard, 72-76 miles an hour, I see it as a sign that his arm strength will give his fastball more velocity as he matures," Barr said. "I'm seeing a lot of good curveballs thrown by young guys. It's always been an effective pitch -- and always will be."
Keep trying to master that curveball, young man, and someday you might find yourself in Wainwright's shoes, dropping the hammer in a Game 7 in October -- and leaving a great hitter such as Beltran muttering under his breath about that dastardly Uncle Charlie.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.