Catch as Catch Can

September 09, 2007

YOU SAY YOU'RE 41years old and your fastball is slower than gums receding and your pitches areso wild people get hurt catching you?

Then you must beTim Wakefield, the Red Sox righthander who gives every fettuccine-armed wannabemajor league pitcher hope. His fastball is 75 mph. His curve takes 11 minutesto get home. Yet, through Sunday, he had 16 wins, and nobody in the big leagueshad more.

That's because 92%of the time Wakefield throws the best knuckleball in baseball. Actually, hethrows the only knuckleball in baseball.

Wakefield'sknuckler dips, doodles, flips and foozles. Some nights it does a Braziliansamba on the way to the plate. It doesn't spin, but it does just abouteverything else. It's like trying to hit an overcaffeinated moth.

"There are twotheories on hitting a knuckleball," famed hitting instructor Charlie Lauonce said. "Unfortunately, neither of them works."

NowadaysWakefield's knuckler flits around like a gum wrapper in a hurricane, whichmeans we get the joy of watching hulking batters strike out on 66 mphpuffballs. The other day A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox swung belt-high atone that the catcher caught in the dirt. "You're better off trying to hitWakefield when you're in a drunken stupor," Yankees first baseman JasonGiambi has said.

And if you thinkhitters get facial tics from Wakefield's knuckler, imagine the poor slobs whohave to catch it. "I tried once," says Boston righthander CurtSchilling. "Couldn't do it."

Actually, handlinga knuckleball is easy, as former catcher Bob Uecker once pointed out: "Justwait till it stops rolling and pick it up."

The Red Sox have aguy on the roster—Doug Mirabelli—whose only job is to catch Wakefield, which islike saying his only job is to fill the Grand Canyon with a slotted spoon."It's a very empty feeling to think you're squeezing the ball and then torealize it's not in there," Mirabelli says. "You panic. You jump up andstart to run, but you have no idea which way to go."

Nice guy,Mirabelli. Can't hit a lick, though—.232 lifetime. Boston traded him to SanDiego two years ago and gave the job to a hotshot hitter, Josh Bard. He lastedfive starts with Wakefield, who went 1--4. Bard let more balls get by him thana blind goalie. The Red Sox had to go hat in hand to the Padres to get backMirabelli for

Bard; Mirabelliwas hitting .182 in San Diego, and Boston still had to throw in a good relieverand 100 grand.

"It's notfun," Mirabelli admits. "It's sort of like the Karate Kid, trying tocatch a fly with chopsticks. But when you go a whole game without a passedball, it's very satisfying."

When Mirabelliinjured his calf a month ago, the team brought up journeyman Kevin Cash andstarted saying rosaries. Of Wakefield's first 12 pitches, Cash missed eight."The first one he threw me?" recalls Cash, 29. "I squeezed my gloveand it hit me in the face mask." But he settled down, and Cash andWakefield didn't allow an earned run in their first two starts together.

How and why theknuckleball works is a mystery to Wakefield. His knuckler was hopping aroundlike popcorn in a microwave at the start of the season, then went flat for mostof May and June, and now it's back at its hiccupping best. But ask him aboutthe pitch, and it's like talking to Tolstoy about writer's block. "I don'tknow, and I don't want to know," Wakefield says.

A failed firstbaseman whose father taught him how to throw the knuckleball when he was a kid,Wakefield has found that it's a blessing and a curse. Umpires throwknuckleballs back to him, just to be funny. Players are constantly hollering athim, "Wakesy! Catch mine!" Which Wakefield won't do. "You can gethurt!" he says. Ask his former Pirates teammate Bob Walk about it.Wakefield nearly broke Walk's kneecap playing catch one day.

In 2006, Bostonsigned John Flaherty as a backup catcher. His first spring training game, hecaught Wakefield. The next day he retired.

As for Wakefield,it doesnt look as if hell ever retire. He missed a start with a bad back lastFriday but his arm looks like it could go on forever. Knuckleball god HoytWilhehn threw the pitch until he was 49; Phil Niekro did it till he was 48.Asked if he might try to last until he's 50—which would be his 24thseason—Wakefield answers, "Why not?"

Who'd have thoughtmaking things wobble and weave would be such steady work?

TALK BACK
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com

THE ANIMATED
RIFFS OF REILLY
Watch exclusively on V CAST from Verizon Wireless and Sl.com.

Wakefield's knuckler does a Brazilian samba on its wayto the plate. It doesn't spin, but it does everything else. It's like trying tohit an overcaffeinated moth.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER ILLUSTRATIONFLICKERLAB (ILLUSTRATION)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)