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"I always thought the knuckleball was the easiest pitch to catch. Wait'll it stops rolling, then go to the backstop and pick it up." �-- Bob Uecker, major league catcher 1962--67
? Doug Mirabelli is the personal catcher for Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, a duty he has held since 2001, save for a brief stint with the Padres this year. "I'd never caught a knuckleball--I'd never even seen a knuckleball," Mirabelli (right) recalls of his first assignment. "I started warming him up and realized I had no chance. Each inning I'd come back to the dugout and tell Scott Hatteberg, the other catcher, 'I don't know if I can do this.' It's not normal. The pitch doesn't do the same thing every time. Each time I caught a ball I realized how lucky I was-- the ball kind of caught me. I don't remember if we won or lost that game. That's how out of tune you are. Your total focus is: catch the ball. You wouldn't notice if a bomb hits."
? A.J. Hinch, ex--A's catcher, caught Tom Candiotti. "The difficulty wasn't catching it, it was throwing runners out," says Hinch. "Your rhythm is messed up, and your glove is twice the size of a normal glove, so getting the ball out is a challenge. The joy is the guy in the front row giving you a hard time. You want to take off your glove, hand it to him and say, 'Give it a try.'"
?Former Red Sox backstop Josh Bard (above) surrendered four passed balls while catching Wakefield on April 26. Six days later he was dealt to San Diego for Mirabelli. "I had been watching film and decided to try some new things on how I set up and caught it," says Bard of the fateful game. "I wanted to improve, so I tried to implement some things Doug had done. That was a big mistake."
? Chris Bando was a backstop for Candiotti and Phil Niekro in a nine-year career. "Candiotti never knew where it was going; his release point wasn't consistent," says Bando (below right, with Niekro). "I had a kamikaze approach--if I didn't catch it, I was going to try to knock it down with my chest protector. I felt more like a goalie than a catcher."
?Former Astro Alan Ashby caught Joe Niekro. "He threw a hard knuckleball--like a butterfly on steroids," says Ashby. "It was like going to the dentist: The more you dread it, the worse it gets. The first time was bad; the 10th time was worse. If I were young enough to catch, I'd probably work out a trade elsewhere."
? Bruce Benedict caught Phil Niekro. "Phil's knuckleball would do anything, especially if he threw it into a breeze," says Benedict, who had four passed balls in an inning. "I've seen lefthanders swing at what I call 'it' or 'the thing,' and it hit them in the chest. Once, a Cardinals player swung, and the ball went behind him. Phil could have pitched every day. I was the one who needed four days off."