FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Acceptance, it seems, must come before anything else.
There will be pitches, Josh Bard realized yesterday, that he simply will not catch.
''If he would have thrown it to me a million more times," Bard said of one particular Tim Wakefield knuckler, ''I don't know if I could have caught it."
There will be times, Bard realized, when he will think he has the hang of this, and he'll be reminded that he does not.
''Sometimes," Bard said, ''he can lull you to sleep. And then he'll just throw a stinkin' yo-yo out there and it'll make you look silly."
There will be times, Bard realized, that he will look at a ball in midair and he simply won't know what to do.
''There are pitches," Bard said, ''where I still don't know how I can catch it. With those pitches I need to get something, my arm, my face, my shoulder, whatever, to keep it in front of me."
The advice, of course, is awfully simple. Home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth, before yesterday's 9-4 Sox win, told Bard, who'd never caught a knuckleballer in a game: ''Just catch it." The application is far more difficult. But, with John Flaherty choosing retirement over catching Wakefield, and Ken Huckaby's knee swelled, the job at the moment is Bard's to claim. He looked rather capable yesterday.
He's been thinking about this opportunity since the late-January night when he was packaged with Coco Crisp and David Riske to Boston. On the phone with Theo Epstein, he told the Sox general manager: ''Hey, I'll get a knuckleballer's glove as soon as I can."
Bard had his agent get one overnighted. Rawling supplied him with two models. One, he said, ''is gigantic." A while back, Steve Sparks, the former major league knuckleballer, had Rawlings make a bunch for him, just in case of an emergency. Turns out, Rawlings had some leftovers.
''It's really good," Bard said, ''but I got it late, so it doesn't feel broken in."
The model that arrived a couple days after he talked to Epstein is the one Bard used yesterday.
''It's almost like a softball glove," Bard said.
But, Bard had only a few weeks to break that glove in. So, at home in Denver, he caught a couple of local guys, Brad Lidge and Mike Myers. Lidge throws about 98 miles per hour, Myers in the 70s, and Wakefield in the high 60s. (''The gamut," Bard said.)
Now that he's working with Wakefield almost daily, Bard said, ''The biggest thing has been getting a better angle. Sometimes when he throws it high, your glove gets in your face, and you kind of lose yourself. I'm trying to almost get underneath the ball. It feels like I can see it."
Choosing how -- and if -- to catch a ball, Bard said, ''that's been the toughest adjustment. When to give up and block it and when to hang in there."
The more Bard talks, the more he sounds like a genuine thinker. Intelligence, Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro said, is unquestionably a strength. Shapiro didn't feel comfortable pointing out Bard's weaknesses but offered: ''Good receiver. Soft hands and blocks well. Intelligent and hard worker. Good person and good teammate. He could be a premium backup due to makeup and switch-hit ability."
Want an example of the intelligence and hard work? A couple years ago, Bard's brother realized that Bard sometimes crept too close to the plate. Now, when he steps into the box, he lays his bat down, with the end of the barrel touching the far edge of the plate. Where the knob of his bat sits in the batter's box is where he wants his toe positioned, a 90-degree angle to draw a line in the dirt.
''No matter what the park, or where you're at, I have the feeling like I'm in the same place," said Bard, who guided Wakefield through four scoreless innings.
Bard has played four big league seasons but has only about one full season's worth of experience (156 games, 495 at-bats). He's a .238 career hitter with 13 homers and 61 RBIs. Last year, he hit just .193 in 83 at-bats. Victor Martínez's bat was too good to take out of the lineup, effectively sinking Bard.
''I really wouldn't change last year if I could," he said. ''It taught me so much about how to prepare to be ready. One game to the next I had a different swing. This year, I came with more of a simple plan."
He's implementing that plan at the plate -- he scorched a single to center yesterday hitting lefthanded -- while devoting most of his focus to Wakefield. He's listening. He's learning how to call Wakefield's game.
''To me," Bard said, ''Wake's a pitcher. That he's just a knuckleballer, that's a misnomer. He's got a slower knuckleball, a harder one. Today, he got out of a 3-and-1 count, 2-and-0 count, and 3-and-0 count with his fastball and got popups on all of them. That's what's made him so successful. You don't just do that heaving it and hoping."
Bard knows he'll be heaving his body around and hoping a lot this season.
''But I'm 27 years old, I can switch hit, I need to find the right niche," he said. ''Maybe this is the place. Last year it was a little hard because it didn't matter if I went 3 for 3 or 0 for 6. That wore on me a little bit, but it also made me tougher.
''I think that's what [Terry Francona] and Theo are looking for. Grinders who aren't afraid to make mistakes. Yeah, they've had ultratalented teams here, but they've had guys like Billy Mueller, who's one of my favorite guys in the league. He's had to fight and claw for everything. You look at guys like that, and you think, there might be a place for me here."