The best comeback story of this season is Red Sox knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield. At week's end he was 9-1 and had the lowest ERA (1.66) in the American League. "I never had a stretch like the one he's in now," says former pitcher Charlie Hough, who won 216 major league games throwing mostly knucklers. "And I doubt that Phil [Niekro, a great knuckleballer] had one either. Tim has been phenomenal."
Yet like most knuckleball pitchers, Wakefield hasn't gotten the recognition he deserves. He should have made the American League All-Star team but didn't. His name should be prominent in discussions about the league's Cy Young Award, but the Mariners' Randy Johnson and the Indians' Dennis Martinez usually dominate those conversations. Wakefield has arguably been the most important player in the American League East—coming from nowhere to bolster a pitching staff badly in need of help—yet he isn't mentioned very often as an MVP possibility.
Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, then with the New York Giants, finished fourth in the National League MVP voting in 1952, but no other knuckleballer has ever finished higher than that. None has won a Cy Young either, and none has even received a vote for the award since Niekro in 1982.
Hough thinks that Wakefield has been overlooked in part "because people are waiting for him to fall apart." Wakefield has gotten off to a hot start before. As a rookie with the Pirates in 1992, he was 8-1 and won two games for Pittsburgh in the National League Championship Series. But then he lost his feel for the knuckler, his confidence suffered, and he got pounded wherever he went—in both the majors and the minors—in 1993 and '94. The Pirates finally released him this spring.
But struggling to control the knuckleball is not uncommon. It's an extremely difficult pitch to throw. Those who can throw it effectively should be lauded, but most are treated like novelty acts. Niekro, who won 318 games pitching mostly for terrible Brave teams, should be in the Hall of Fame, but in three years of eligibility he has yet to even come close in the balloting. He and Don Sutton, who spent most of his career with the Dodgers, are the only two eligible pitchers who have won more than 300 games and are not in the Hall, and Sutton pitched for better teams in a better ballpark for pitchers than did Niekro.
Only time will tell if Wakefield goes on to enjoy the kind of career Niekro and Hough had. One factor working against him may be that he didn't come up as a pitcher. He was drafted as a first baseman by the Pirates in 1988. Says Hough, "When I started throwing the knuckleball, I was a pitcher. When he started, he was an infielder. If my knuckler wasn't working, I had a little sinker and a slider. He has nothing else. If he has a good knuckleball, he wins. If he doesn't, he gets killed."
In the monument area beyond the left-centerfield fence at Yankee Stadium, there's a sign that explains the history of the famous NY insignia on Yankee uniforms. The original design, created by Tiffany in 1877, was used by the New York Police Department for its medals of honor. The first one, awarded for valor, was given that year to a patrolman named John McDowell.
One hundred eighteen years later, on July 18, Yankee pitcher Jack McDowell walked off the mound following a shelling by the White Sox and made an obscene gesture to the crowd at Yankee Stadium, earning a medal of dishonor that New York fans won't soon forget. It has been a season without valor in the Bronx, one that began with the promise that the Yanks might make their first World Series appearance in 14 years but has now degenerated into name-calling and finger-pointing.