Monday, September 20, 2010

Screwball 'Fades' Away

I enjoyed the Babe Ruth bio The Big Bam, and some of the baseball anachronisms that it offered up. One is a pitch called the "fadeaway."

A young pitcher called Hub "Shucks" Pruett--apparently, "Hub" wasn't enough of a nickname, so the boys called Hub "Shucks"--could throw a pretty mean fadeaway, which did the opposite of a curveball, breaking in toward a righty batter's hands from a righty pitcher, and vice versa.

Writes Big Bam author Leigh Montville:

As a kid, Shucks had idolized Christy Mathewson, the master of the fadeaway. The pitch, later known as the screwball, was basically a curve in reverse, thrown with an unnatural twist of the wrist and elbow.

So the fadeway, at least in name, disappeared in favor of the screwball. These days, the fadeaway pops up in basketball--a jumpshot where you fade away from your defender. (Not to get all Pop-Up Video on you or anything, but "Not Fade Away" is a 1957 single from Buddy Holly employing Bo Didley's trademark riff. It was later covered by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen.)

But what the heck ever happened to the screwball or, as it was known on the street, the "scroogie"?

Who do you think of when you think of the scroogie? I think of Fernando Valenzuela, eyes to the skies as he twisted, turned and then dealt his nasty scroogie toward the plate. That was, of course, the early '80s.

I honestly don't know that I've heard of anyone throwing a screwball since then, the pitch losing favor to new-fangled offerings such as the sinker and the splitter and the circle change.

Wikipedia spells scroogie "screwgie." I don't know that either of us are right or wrong, seeing as it's a made up word, but I think Batter Chatter is more correct, as "scroogie" coughs up 45,000 links on Google, and "screwgie" just 2,000.

Wikipedia too offers up Christy Mathewson as the master of the screwball--and its fading predecessor.

One of the first great screwball pitchers was Christy Mathewson (1900–1916), whose pitch was then labeled as the 'fadeaway'.

The online resource offers up more modern names regarding the screwball, including John Franco, Pedro Martinez, Jamie Moyer and Dallas "Stay the F*** Off My Mound" Braden.

But clearly the art of the screwball has been lost; perhaps the peculiar throwing motion--remember, author Montville called it "unnatural"--meant it was a grave arm injury waiting to happen.

Indeed, closer inspection of Dallas Braden's repetoire indicates that he's largely abandoned the screwball for health reasons--though he did throw one during his perfect game, when he'd tried just about everything else to get Gabe Kapler out.

"I was thinking maybe the knuckleball, the gyroball, the behind-the-back pitch, because I'd tried everything else," Braden said. "I threw him a 64 mph screwball and he fouled it off. I threw him one more pitch and it was the correct location."

Web tutorial outfit E-How, not to be confused with former Mets skipper Art Howe, shows how to throw one. E-How also warns of its dangers to young, impressionable arms:

You don't have to be a screwball to throw this pitch, but not knowing how to do it properly may screw up an otherwise perfect arm.

These days, "screwball" is used more to describe a crazy person or the latest Farrelly brothers movie (a "screwball" comedy!) than a pitch. Here are a few synonyms from blockhead, bonehead, bozo, character, crackpot, dingbat, dumbbell, eccentric, fanatic, goof, kook, lunkhead, numbskull, nut, saphead.  

Those put-downs are just a taste of what screwballing screwball Pedro Martinez would hear when venturing into Yankee Stadium a few short years ago.

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