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Column: La Russa won’t knuckle under

- Associated Press - Monday, July 9, 2012

Nice to see retirement hasn't dulled Tony La Russa's competitive edge one bit.

Fewer people than ever care who wins the All-Star game, even with home-field advantage in the World Series hanging in the balance, but he still does. And while La Russa knows absolutely no one tunes in to watch the managers manage, he still can't help himself.

Remember that when you see the Giants' Matt Cain on the mound starting Tuesday night for the National League instead of overwhelming fan favorite R.A. Dickey of the Mets. Here's hoping that the game is half as competitive as La Russa envisions and there are still enough viewers hanging around by the middle _ let alone at the end _ to admire his handiwork.

Dickey, a journeyman whose late-in-life mastery of the knuckleball has been the best and most unlikely story of the season so far, seemed like the perfect choice to start what is essentially an exhibition. He brought his mom, his wife and their four kids along.

"Having gotten here as a 37-year-old man and having my family old enough to `get it' has been a real rich thing," Dickey said. "To play long enough for your kids to get it, that's a real big deal."

La Russa knows all the details, but wasn't about to be swayed by sentimentality. He said he decided on Cain, who's no slouch, simply because he's more likely to get through the first couple of innings with the fewest fireworks. That's in no small part because Buster Posey, who happens to be Cain's regular catcher in San Francisco, will start for the NL as well.

"I do think there is an extra plus to being the starter to the National League or the American League. I do think that's something special," La Russa said Monday. "But I don't think it detracts at all from R.A.'s accomplishments and being here. Whenever he pitches, it's going to be a great event for him and for baseball."

La Russa wouldn't be pinned down on exactly when Dickey would get his chance. But he promised the right-hander wouldn't suffer the same fate that befell Tim Wakefield, another knuckleballer and feel-good story who was selected to the AL squad in 2009 at age 42 yet never made it into the game. Then-manager Joe Maddon held Wakefield back in the bullpen anticipating an extra-inning game that never materialized.

La Russa said to keep an eye out for Dickey in the first half of the game, right about the same time Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz replaces Posey behind the plate.

"You really should warm up with R.A., whether it be before the first inning or before his inning," he said. "That's why I don't think I'll bring him in during an inning and it's very likely that when he comes in, it will be just as Buster leaves and Carlos gets to catch. I think that seems to make sense that they would warm up together and get a little familiar."

Dickey didn't sound as convinced. He came to Kansas City thinking he had a chance to start, then learned he wouldn't in a text shortly after La Russa's announcement.

"I'm not going to break down in tears over it, but at the same time I'm a competitor. I want to pitch. I want to start. I feel like I had a good enough first half that I should be considered.

"But I'm not the boss," he added. "I don't necessarily have to agree with (La Russa), but I have to respect it. That's just the way it is."

Either way, Dickey didn't think catching his knuckleball was that big a deal.

"I hope not. You're talking about the best players in the world, and you're asking about a pitch that's too nasty to handle? I hope that's not it," he said. "If that's the reason that's a poor reason."

In fairness, La Russa might be overly cautious when it comes to Dickey, who so far has been much more accurate than most knuckleball pitchers. He not only has more wins, a better ERA and more strikeouts than Cain so far _ he's thrown the exact same number of wild pitches (one) in the same number of innings (120, compared to 120 1-3 for Cain).

But La Russa is dead right about the importance of the pitcher-catcher relationship. It's the most sensitive in baseball, if not all of sports, even moreso when one half of the combination relies on a singularly zany pitch to put food on the table.

Steve Carlton and Tim McCarver spent so much time perfecting theirs that McCarver once mused they were destined to wind up "in the same cemetery, exactly 60 feet, 6 inches apart." Brent Mayne, who spent 15 seasons in the majors and wrote "The Art of Catching" afterward, warned teams lavishing big bucks on pitchers to remember who was on the receiving end.

"It's like having a phenomenal race horse," he said, "but no jockey."

Thoroughbreds like Greg Maddux were touchy enough about their receivers, and he could hit just about every corner of the plate on command. But with knuckleballers, it's not just a matter of confidence that the catcher will call the right pitch at the right time; it's the ability to consistently get in front of a pitch that both might agree on but neither can be certain where it will end up.

If there's any consolation, it's that the batter has less of an idea where that is than either.

"I've heard the quote it's like a snowflake _ no two are alike," Dickey said in a recent interview with USA Today. "It's really like that. They can't anticipate where it's going and that's the whole key. I know I have something to offer that's unique."

And La Russa better get him a turn on the big stage in plenty of time for the rest of us to appreciate it.

___

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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