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Dipping into all the mysteries of knuckler

Maybe one day there will be a dad, a baseball version of Richard Williams or Earl Woods, who will take a look at his son's 84-mile-per-hour fastball and rinky-dink curve and suggest that maybe the knuckleball is his boy's best way to the bigs. "I don't know," veteran Sox righthander John Burkett mused last night, "I mean, when did you ever hear a scout say, `Gee, I just saw a high school kid who's got a knuckleball that just drops!'? It doesn't happen."

No, but here in the Hub of Hardball Heartache we have Tim Wakefield as Exhibit A for defense of the little-respected, often-laughed-at, as-hard-to-understand-as-it-is-to-throw knuckler. Wakefield will be on the Fenway Park mound again tonight, making his last home start of the 162-game schedule, and maybe it's his bread-and-butter pitch that makes it easy to forget that he is wrapping up his ninth season in a Red Sox uniform.

If you haven't been keeping score at home, please note that lasting nine years as a member of the Red Sox pitching staff -- be it starter, middle reliever, set-up specialist, or closer -- is no mean accomplishment. Boston pitchers live dog years. One year on the staff, with the Wall rubbing at their rear ends, is easily the equivalent of 2-3 years on any other staff in the majors.

To pitch nine years here, especially nine knuckleballing years, should be worthy of a Harvard Medical School study. Next season will be Wakefield's 10th in the Back Bay bandbox. According to the Sox media guide, only Bob Stanley and Mel Parnell have pitched in Boston for 10 seasons or more.

"You have to have the patience of Job to be a knuckleball pitcher," said Johnny Pesky, an unabashed booster of the 37-year-old righthander. "What he's done in his time here, it's just amazing. I'd stake my house on him."

Given the ongoing, shall we say, struggles of their bullpen, the Sox may have little choice but to toss their last 84 years of history to the wind and lean on Wakefield even more when the calendar flips to October. If he can provide another strong outing tonight in his 32d start of '03, he'll break 200 innings for the first time since 1998, and he has a chance to pick up his 12th victory, which would be his most since that same 17-8 season.

No doubt Wakefield will remain in the rotation should the Sox reach October, and his versatility and dependability offer Grady Little the option to mix him into relief as needed.

Wakefield has been tossing his flutterball since not long after giving up his aspirations of one day making it to the Show as an infielder in the late '80s. Released by the Pirates in spring training 1995, he was signed on a minor league whim, and that whim now reads 102 wins and 89 losses in a Boston uniform.

"Tell you what, you look at what he's done these last few years," said Burkett, "and people always say he's one of the best knuckleball pitchers in the big leagues -- and I'd say he's just one of the best pitchers, period. He can close. He can set up. He can start. What can't he do?

"That pitch of his may look easy. But don't kid yourself, it's not. I know that if I tried to throw it, I'd let it go and start running backward off the mound to get ready for what's coming back."

Doug Mirabelli, like fries with the steak, is the catcher who comes along with Wakefield. Like most backstops who specialize in catching the unpredictable pitch, he wears a slightly bigger mitt. It's actually a fast-pitch softball model.

"Tim gave it to me," said Mirabelli. "He brought it with him. He knows that's part of the deal."

Having seen first-hand the effectiveness of the pitch, Mirabelli needs little persuading that there is ample opportunity for more knuckleballers. The game could use a few more Tim Wakefields. What might be more difficult than finding prospects, he thinks, would be for people at all levels of the game to get over their misconceptions of the no-rotation pitch.

"I think it's hard for a guy to work his way through the minors as a knuckleball specialist," said Mirabelli. "I suppose you could, but you'd have to be absolutely phenomenal. If you had two guys lined up next to each other, a conventional fastball/power pitcher and a knuckleballer, I mean, who are they going to go with? The conventional guy, every time.

"There's just always such skepticism that surrounds the knuckleball. People don't trust it. I think people believe it's a gimmick sometimes. They don't think it's a real pitch, for however they define what a `real' pitch is. But what Tim Wakefield is doing is real, and the Red Sox love him for it."

The hitters come and go. Mirabelli sets up behind the plate, calls for the expected serve, and Wake's quaking offers knock them down in a flurry of popups, grounders, and strikeouts.

"I hear stuff from hitters all the time, stuff like, `What am I supposed to do with that?' when a ball drops a foot in front of 'em," said Mirabelli. "I wouldn't say they're expressing frustration. It's more like they're in awe."

Despite three years of sidecar duty with Wakefield, Mirabelli remains uncertain how the pitch works. Burkett believes the trick to delivering it is a stiff wrist and a simple kick. To understand it, Mirabelli believes, would take more than a rudimentary knowledge of mechanics and physics. He thinks the pitch moves most when the wind is going out, a situation that normally favors the hitter.

"I guess it's about air -- it works best when there is airspace behind the ball, and that's what makes it move all around," said Mirabelli. "When the wind is blowing in, it takes that space away, and the ball stays straighter. Against the wind, it will dance more."

So dads, don't teach your sons to be power pitchers. If you've got the next Venus, Serena, or Tiger on your hands, there could be some kind of wonderful to be had with the pitch that is easy on the arm but so hard on the eyes. Come to think of it, dads, don't teach your daughters to be power pitchers.

"I wonder sometimes," said Burkett, "maybe the first woman to make it to the major leagues will throw the knuckler. It's just one of those things, you never know who can throw it."

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