It flutters, it floats, it dances and dives. It couldn't break a pane of glass, only the backs of mighty big league hitters.
Ah, the unappreciated knuckleball. In the hands of a lonely artisan like Tim Wakefield it is a weapon as potent as a Joel Zumaya 102-m.p.h. fastball, as effective as a Johan Santana slider or a Roger Clemens splitter. Over the years there have been many famous knuckleballers but, as far as we can tell, Wakefield is a fraternity of one right now, either in the majors or anywhere near the majors. Is it possible the casual now-you see it, now-you-don't performance Wakefield put on last night at the Rogers Centre is a dying art?
Twenty-five years ago, there were a handful of practitioners of the pitch that so many in the game love to hate. Charlie Hough, the Niekro brothers, Joe and Phil, and Tom Candiotti all made good livings off the knuckler. Back then, since hitters saw at least one of those pitchers from time to time, there were more hitters who had a handle on what it takes to hit one.
Now, with only Wakefield left to baffle the best hitters in the world, he has the market cornered. There is no way to prepare for him. He just goes out to the mound and throws his 68-m.p.h. flutterballs up to the plate with a motion that suggests he is pitching to a team of fourth-graders. In the main, opponents usually hit like fourth-graders against him, especially at the Rogers Centre.
"I always love pitching here," he said. "I don't know what my numbers are here but I like pitching here. The mound is probably the best mound in the American League. Pitching inside is always a big plus for me. I think maybe the ball moves a little bit more indoors, versus outside where you get a lot of weather conditions."
Few pitchers have set out from a young age to become knuckleballers. Mostly, they have been players who dabbled with the knuckler on the side, just messing, until it either occurred to them or the guy trying to catch it, that this could be a career-saving path.
Wakefield was an aspiring outfielder in the Pirates chain in 1989 and, as it turned out, he was about to be released when a coach watched him playing a little knuckle-catch, as position players are wont to do when they're bored. The coach waited a day or two until Wakefield's name came up at an organizational meeting and suggested they not release him until they had seen him pitch off a mound.
He was impressive enough that they kept him in the minors and, in 1992, he was a key member of the playoff-bound team that lost to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. But the knuckler seems a tough pitch to master and Wakefield struggled. A few years later, after he lost 20 games in the minors in 1994, the Pirates finally let him go. That's when the Red Sox picked him up and he has thrived in Boston, winning 16 games his first season. In 13 seasons, he has won 139 games, including the one last night -- a 4-1 Red Sox victory.
A few months short of his 41th birthday, there is no telling how long he can pitch. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro pitched until he was 48 and won 208 games after the age of 35. Hoyt Wilhelm, the godfather of most modern knucklers, was nearly 50 when he retired.
"I'm feeling good now," said Wakefield. "The ball feels good in my hands. I've got my mechanics down pretty good and hopefully I can keep it going."
It's clearly an old man's game, this knuckleball stuff and Wakefield could very well be just entering his prime, at a time when all those flamethrowers are heading off to the farm to rest their tattered tendons and what remains of their shoulder cartilage.
The only way Wakefield is going anywhere is for big-leaguers to start tattooing him. Off last night, that's not going to happen soon.