- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Never mind Cooperstown. The Smithsonian should make room for Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield — for his fingernail clippings, maybe. “Never” is a dangerous word to use in sports, but in this case it might apply: We may never see another like him. We may be looking at the last woolly mammoth, the last saber-toothed tiger.

Wakefield is one of just two practitioners in the big leagues of that most infernal of pitches, the one that floats like a butterfly (witness his 417 home runs allowed) and stings like a bee (witness his 2,147 strikeouts). And Tuesday night at Fenway Park, he became the 89th modern hurler to win 200 games, working the first six innings of an 18-6 bludgeoning of the Toronto Blue Jays.

It took him eight tries to nail down No. 200 — thanks to a shaky bullpen that blew leads in three games and the fact that, at 45, none of us is the man he used to be. But it was kind of fitting when you stop and think about it. The occasion, after all, took as long to get here as one of his pitches takes to get to the plate.

Let’s face it, nothing in sports really compares to the knuckleball. You don’t win in football, basketball or hockey by tricking the opponent from start to finish. You might run a gadget play in the NFL or throw a behind-the-back pass in the NBA, but that’s nothing like standing on a hill, 60 1/2 feet away from the most menacing hitters on the planet, and tossing a ball 68 mph over and over — a ball that has no flight plan, a ball that could wind up here, there or anywhere.

That’s the thing about it, the beauty of it. The batter doesn’t know where it’s going, catcher doesn’t know where it’s going, even the pitcher doesn’t know where it’s going. Wakefield’s technique, as he once described to Esquire magazine, is to grip the ball with his thumb and ring finger, “placing the nails and tips of your index and middle fingers inside the horseshoe of the laces.” Then, with the ball against his palm, he throws with “a really stiff wrist” and short follow-through, which limits the spin and causes the pitch to dip, dart and sometimes do the Hokey-Pokey — depending on the air currents and their effect on the ball’s 108 stitches.

If it sounds more difficult than just rearing back, like Nuke LaLoosh, and bringing “the heat,” well, it is. That’s why there have been so few knuckleballers down through the years. It may be, too, that the pitch is looked on as a little desperate, a little rinky-dink — kind of the baseball version of golf’s long putter. Or to put it another way: Work a knuckle-curve into your repertoire, and you’re a stylist. Rely exclusively on the knuckler and you’re running a three-card monte game.

The difference with the knuckleball, of course, is that sometimes the dealer loses — big. After finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 1992 and winning two games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the championship series, Wakefield all but fell off the map. The next year, he went 6-11 with a 5.61 ERA and was sent back to the minors, where he fared even worse — 5-15/5.84 for a last-place Buffalo team in ‘94. That prompted his release and led to him being plucked out of the recycle bin by the Red Sox.

Immediately, his knuckler regained its spontaneity — or whatever it was missing — and he won 14 of his first 15 decisions with the Sox in ‘95. Sixteen seasons later, he’s still plying his trade, still getting hitters to hack futilely at his dipsy-doodle pitch. If he can hang on for another year, he might even break the club record of 191 victories, shared by Cy Young and Roger Clemens, Boston’s Benedict Arnold. The Fenway faithful, who have a particular affection for grit (especially the kind that pulls the Sox out of a five-game death spiral, as was the case Tuesday night) would love to see him do it. He needs six more wins, though, and if they come as hard as this last one … .

No one would call Wakefield a great pitcher or even a very good one. He’s never had more than 17 victories in a season, hasn’t posted an ERA under 4.00 since 2002 and didn’t make an All-Star team until he was 42. What he is, is a useful pitcher, one who will give you innings, keep you in games and, when all is said and done, win a little more than he loses (200-178). For a fourth or fifth starter in these diluted, 30-team times, you can’t do much better.

But after him — what? There’s no other knuckleballer of consequence on the horizon. When Wakefield broke into the bigs, Charlie Hough (216 career wins) and Tom Candiotti (151) were still bamboozling batters with the pitch. Indeed, they helped him learn to throw it, he says. But Tim is looking more and more like the dodo, that strange, flightless bird that disappeared all those centuries ago.

R.A. Dickey throws a knuckler for the Mets, but his victory total is a mere 41 — and he turns 37 in October. Forget about 200 wins; he’ll be lucky to get to 100. The Red Sox are trying to bring along another knuckleballer, Charlie Haeger, on their Double-A farm club in Portland, Maine, but there’s no telling whether he’ll pan out. Four major-league teams have already given up on him.

No, Wakefield might be the last knuckleballer to much remembered — the heir to Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro and the rest. So let’s celebrate his achievement, celebrate No. 200. In fact, if you want to go in on a present for him, I have a few ideas. A bottle of champagne would be nice, of course, but a manicure might be even better.