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YOU SAY YOU'RE 41 years old and your fastball is slower than gums receding and your pitches are so wild people get hurt catching you?
Then you must be Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox righthander who gives every fettuccine-armed wannabe major league pitcher hope. His fastball is 75 mph. His curve takes 11 minutes to get home. Yet, through Sunday, he had 16 wins, and nobody in the big leagues had more.
That's because 92% of the time Wakefield throws the best knuckleball in baseball. Actually, he throws the only knuckleball in baseball.
Wakefield's knuckler dips, doodles, flips and foozles. Some nights it does a Brazilian samba on the way to the plate. It doesn't spin, but it does just about everything else. It's like trying to hit an overcaffeinated moth.
"There are two theories on hitting a knuckleball," famed hitting instructor Charlie Lau once said. "Unfortunately, neither of them works."
Nowadays Wakefield's knuckler flits around like a gum wrapper in a hurricane, which means we get the joy of watching hulking batters strike out on 66 mph puffballs. The other day A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox swung belt-high at one that the catcher caught in the dirt. "You're better off trying to hit Wakefield when you're in a drunken stupor," Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi has said.
And if you think hitters get facial tics from Wakefield's knuckler, imagine the poor slobs who have to catch it. "I tried once," says Boston righthander Curt Schilling. "Couldn't do it."
Actually, handling a knuckleball is easy, as former catcher Bob Uecker once pointed out: "Just wait till it stops rolling and pick it up."
The Red Sox have a guy on the roster—Doug Mirabelli—whose only job is to catch Wakefield, which is like 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 to realize it's not in there," Mirabelli says. "You panic. You jump up and start 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 San Diego two years ago and gave the job to a hotshot hitter, Josh Bard. He lasted five starts with Wakefield, who went 1--4. Bard let more balls get by him than a blind goalie. The Red Sox had to go hat in hand to the Padres to get back Mirabelli for