Fluttering, floating, diving and beguiling, the knuckleball confounds everyone it comes into contact with. This includes not only baffled hitters and beleaguered backstops, but often the knuckleballers themselves. And yet, those able to consistently control this most deceptive of mound offerings often enjoy careers of unparalleled flexibility and longevity.
Boston's Tim Wakefield is just this sort of pitcher, a 44-year-old veteran in the midst of a long run as the knuckleball's preeminent practitioner. The 2011 season is his 19th big league campaign, one in which he finds himself just seven wins shy of 200 for his career and 13 away from the all-time Red Sox record of 192 (currently shared by the dynamic duo of Cy Young and Roger Clemens).
But such success was far from a guarantee, a point made abundantly clear in the new book Knuckler: My Life With Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch. The tome, co-written by Boston Globe journalist Tony Massarotti and Wakefield himself, traces his baseball journey all the way to the backyards and Little League fields of his Melbourne, Fla., hometown. You can order the book online here.
But young Tim Wakefield was a very different sort of player then the one a generation of Beantown diehards have come to know and love. This point becomes clear simply by glancing at the numbers he put up during his first Minor League campaign: suiting up for the Class A Short-Season Watertown Pirates in 1988, Wakefield hit an underwhelming .189 over 54 ballgames.
That's right -- hit. Wakefield, one of the most accomplished hurlers in modern-day history, a man who has pitched professionally in four different decades, was drafted by Pittsburgh as a first baseman. Clearly, this phase of his career was not long for this world.
Knuckler recounts how, in 1989, Wakefield was banished to the baseball purgatory that is extended Spring Training, a "Land of Misfit Toys" that many players find to be a "torturous exercise in frustration." To relieve the tedium of these dreary days in Bradenton, Fla., Wakefield would often throw a knuckleball while having a catch with teammates during pregame warmups. Why not? His father, Steve, taught him how to throw it during backyard games of catch, and it had always served as a fun diversion from the back-and-forth monotony.
But then destiny struck, as veteran Minor League manager Woody Huyke happened to observe Wakefield throwing the knuckleball on one of Bradenton's back fields. Here's what happened next:
"Casually, as if simply curious to learn the secret behind a card trick, Huyke wandered over to Wakefield... He watched the knuckler flutter yet again. The wheels in Huyke's mind then began to turn more rapidly, the evaluator intrigued by a discovery that might be worth a try given the player's dwindling prospects as a hitter.
"'You think you can throw that thing for a strike?' Huyke asked nonchalantly.
"Wakefield's reply: 'Sure, I pitched some in high school. I don't see why not.'"
And thus set in motion a most fortuitous chain of events, leading to Wakefield's professional pitching debut later in the 1989 season. By the end of 1991 he had reached Triple-A, and the following season he became a bona fide rookie phenom as a member of the National League East champion Pittsburgh Pirates (going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA over 13 starts).
As Knuckler memorably puts it: "What happened over the final three months of the season was nothing short of what [manager Jim] Leyland would term 'a whirlwind,' that made Wakefield, in the crusty manager's terms, 'the [expletive] Elvis Presley of the National League.'"
But this being the knuckleball, nothing is ever that easy. A complete loss of command resulted in a demotion to Double-A Carolina during the 1993 season, and Wakefield scuffled through the 1994 season with Triple-A Buffalo (5-15, 5.84 ERA) before being released by the Pirates in the Spring of 1995. The Red Sox soon gave him a chance, "willing to spend a dollar for a lottery ticket in exchange for the chance to strike it rich."
Boston has clearly reaped tremendous dividends on this low-risk investment, and Knuckler chronicles the tremendous highs (two World Series rings) and lows (the homer allowed to Aaron Boone that ended the 2003 ALCS, the indignity of middle relief, multiple injuries) of Wakefield's still ongoing Red Sox odyssey.
It's an unlikely story all the way through, but, then again, would one expect anything less from an individual who has devoted his life to that most mercurial of pitches? As former American League umpire Ron Luciano once observed, "Not only can't pitchers control it, hitters can't hit it, catchers can't catch it, coaches can't coach it, and most pitchers can't learn it."
"The perfect pitch."