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Morken knuckles down

Madison’s Ben Morken shows off his knuckleball grip with a pitch to Morris during the Division II, District 7 loser’s bracket final on Friday in Montevideo. Tribune photo by Tom Larson

In the acclaimed 2012 documentary “Knuckleball!”, longtime Boston Red Sox knuckler Tim Wakefield contemplated his 19-year career and 2011 retirement and said that R.A. Dickey, now with Toronto, would have to carry the torch as Major League Baseball’s lone knuckleball pitcher until another came along to keep the quirky, century-old tradition alive.

Is Ben Morken that man?

“That would be pretty sweet,” Morken said with a laugh Thursday after his Madison Legion team’s win over Osakis in the Division II, District 7 tournament in Montevideo.

At an age when most pitchers are still trying to figure out how to control rudimentary fastballs and curveballs, the 2013 Lac qui Parle graduate estimates he throws a knuckleball about 40 percent of the time. And he usually does it with great effect.

In Friday’s 3-2 loss to Morris that ended Madison’s Legion season, Morken worked all seven innings, allowing six hits and just one earned run.

But it’s not there other times. In a 7-0 loss to Morris in the tournament’s first round game on Tuesday, Morken gave up seven earned runs on 10 hits and he walked four.

“It’s really been an effective pitch for me, but in that (7-0) game I struggled with my location,” Morken said.

At about 6 years old, Morken said he began throwing the knuckleball after reading and seeing pictures about the pitch in one of his father’s baseball books. Morken’s cousin also gave him pointers.

“I’ve always been kind of addicted to it,” Morken said. “I think it’s a really neat pitch.”

Knuckleball is really a misnomer since its practitioners typically don’t throw it with their knuckles. They dig the tips of two or three fingers — often with fingernails filed flat — at a spot just under the baseball’s seam. They flick their fingers toward the plate upon release, just enough to give the ball a downward tumble while keeping it from spinning.

Morken, who also throws a fastball, curve and circle changeup, throws his knuckler with three fingers under a seam in the baseball’s “horseshoe,” the fatter part of the ball where the stitches are furthest apart.

Like all knuckleballers before him, Morken learned that sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Success can hinge on things totally beyond his control, like the weather.

“Some days, it wouldn’t move back and forth and it wouldn’t spin,” said Madison catcher Preston Kraft, who has caught Morken the last two years in prep and Legion ball. “Then, some days it would do both, and some days it would move all the time. It depends on how humid it is and where the wind is from as to how much it knuckles.”

A section playoff game against Springfield this spring is a testament to the knuckleball’s vagaries, Kraft said.

“In that game, with the wind coming in (toward the mound), the pitch wouldn’t spin, wouldn’t move, but it would duck at the last second, so it was almost like a curveball more than a knuckleball,” Kraft said.

Kraft learned to roll with the knuckleball’s punches early on. Some catchers of MLB knuckleballers had a mitt about 50 percent larger in an attempt to keep some leather in front of the pitch to avoid wild pitches and passed ball. And then there’s former big-league catcher Bob Uecker, who once said, “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.”

Kraft said he prefers a smaller mitt, noting that he is too slow when using a larger mitt and that he got used to catching the pitch during “knuckleball wars” with his brother, Evan.

“It’s hard to say what it will do,” Morken said. “But in most games I’ve pitched, I’ve been pretty consistent with it.”

Morken finished the Legion season 4-3 with 41 strike outs and a 2.18 earned-run average.

“He’s always done very well with it,” said Madison Legion coach Jared Weber. “He’s always very accurate and he’s kind of perfected the knuckleball. It’s a hard pitch to hit.”

Last year at LQPV, his first on varsity, Morken grew comfortable throwing the pitch regularly. He was 5-3 with a 3.86 earned-run average and was a key contributor as the 18-10 Eagles placed second in the Class A state tournament.

The Eagles, an 11-9 team in the regular season, caught fire and won seven straight postseason games. Morken helped put his team into the state championship game with a 4-1 win over Browerville in the Class A semifinals. Morken pitched a gem that June day in Chaska, working a complete game and allowing just one run on five hits while striking out five.

This spring, as he battled arm problems, Morken relied on the knuckleball even more.

“I had pretty bad tendonitis early this year so I went more to my knuckleball,” Morken said. “It’s easier on my arm and it worked out pretty well, I guess.”

While the Eagles were 18-3 this year, they missed a shot at another Class A tournament berth when they lost to Windom 1-0 and Springfield 7-0 in the Section 3A playoffs. But Morken pitch superbly in the postseason.

In the first Springfield playoff game this spring, on two day’s rest and still feeling the effects of the flu, he defeated the Tigers 2-1, working a complete game. LQPV head coach Bart Hill said before the game that his optimistic goal was to get three or four innings out of Morken before shutting him down. He allowed only an unearned run on four hits and he struck out eight.

Morken took the loss in the Eagles’ next playoff game, the 1-0 defeat against Windom, again allowing just an unearned run while walking one and striking out eight. Morken didn’t pitch in a 7-0 rematch loss to Springfield that ended the Eagles’ season.

Morken finished the season 6-1 with a 1.30 ERA, 58 strike outs in 43 innings pitched and he walked just 16, earning a spot of the Tribune’s All-Area First Team. A good share of that success was due to his use of the knuckleball and the frustration it instills in those young, green hitters who many times flailed at it and, subsequently, at the rest of Morken’s repertoire.

“I heard some hitters talking some smack about it,” Morken said with a smile, “but it doesn’t bother me.”

“It’s effective,” Kraft said. “When he’s on with that pitch, everything is effective. A lot of times, he threw it first pitch.”

So where does that leave Morken on the list of successors to Wakefield and Dickey? Is he the next Hoyt Wilhelm or Phil Niekro, two of four knuckleballers in the baseball Hall of Fame? Or is he among the many who dabble with the strange and beguiling pitch?

“Ever since I started throwing it, especially this year,” Morken said, “(teammates) like throwing it in practice, trying to get a good one going.”

Morken will enroll at South Dakota State University this fall and said if he did attempt to walk-on to the Jackrabbits’ baseball team, it would only be after working out to improve the velocity of his fastball and only after establishing himself on campus following his freshman year.

Like his funky pitch, Morken’s not sure what he’ll do; if he’ll try to make the knuckleball work in college or not.

“I don’t think so,” he said, “but I don’t know.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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