Catching a Knuckleball for the BoSox

The Boston Red Sox's new backup catcher, Doug Mirabelli, was re-acquired by the team for the express purpose of catching for pitcher Tim Wakefield. Wakefield throws one of the hardest pitches to hit — and catch: the knuckleball. Robert talks with Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It was something out of a boy's baseball book, the heroic last-minute arrival at the ballpark last night to save the day. But the hero was not a slugger who hit a late inning home run, although someone else did that. And it wasn't the starting pitcher who tamed the fiercest lineup in the league. Someone else did do that. And it wasn't a fireballing closer who sat down the sides in the 9th inning, although someone else did that too. It was that least heroic of contributors to a great baseball team, the backup catcher.

This is the story of Doug Mirabelli, who rejoined the Boston Red Sox in a hurry yesterday, just in time for the Sox start against the Yankees.

Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe joins us from Fenway Park. And, Bob, let's start with the starter, the Red Sox's Tim Wakefield.

BOB RYAN: Tim Wakefield throws a knuckleball. It is a pitch that floats and flutters and dips and dives. And right now he is the most successful practitioner of the art currently pitching in baseball.

SEIGEL: But his pitches so completely fool the batters that they very often fool the catcher too.

RYAN: It's an extremely hard pitch to catch and not everyone can do so. Which brings us to --

SIEGEL: Doug Mirabelli.

RYAN: Yes. Doug Mirabelli joined the Red Sox in the middle of 2001 and in his capacity as backup catcher was given the task of catching Tim Wakefield exclusively every fifth day, a job description not every catcher in baseball would want. In fact, very few would want. Mirabelli struggled with it in the beginning, but he got quite proficient at it and began to embrace his identity as Wakefield's catcher. It gave him a spot in the lineup every fifth day guaranteed and it gave him an identity.

But then he was traded last December to San Diego and thus began the Red Sox problems in the spring. His successor did not prove to be quite as good at catching that knuckleball as Mr. Mirabelli had been.

SIEGEL: And a week ago, the catcher who was then taking his place, Josh Bard, just made one passed ball after another. Couldn't hold onto Wakefield's pitches.

RYAN: Josh Bard had 10 passed balls, which is a scorer's judgment to differentiate between that and a wild pitch, which is where the pitcher is deemed culpable. 10 of them in five games was an alarming figure and the team felt that they couldn't live this way. So the wheels began to turn, how could we get Doug Mirabelli back from San Diego?

SIEGEL: So yesterday, the Yankees come to town to play the Boston Red Sox. Tim Wakefield is in the rotation, it's his turn to start. And a mayday, literally, goes out to Doug Mirabelli. Explain his arrival in town.

RYAN: The trade was consummated on Sunday. Mirabelli actually played in the game on Sunday against the Los Angeles Dodgers ending late Sunday afternoon. He was put on a charter plane yesterday, flew cross country to Boston, landed at the tarmac at Logan Airport at 6:48 p.m., jumped into an awaiting state police cruiser, changed into his uniform en route, sirens blazing, arrived at Fenway Park, ran through the dugout, picked up his equipment and ran out to home plate where for the first time since last fall, he had to catch Tim Wakefield's knuckleball. Oh, and by the way, it was the first game of the 19 that will be played between the Red Sox and Yankees this year.

If someone had dropped this scenario as part of a subplot in the movie FEVER PITCH, it would have been rejected as being much too much over the top.

SIEGEL: But there he was.

RYAN: There he was.

SIEGEL: And by the end of the evening, we should say the Sox had won their first game against the Yankees.

RYAN: Yeah. Doug Mirabelli had thrown out a base runner, had had no passed balls, had had a homerun knocked down by the vicious wind here and went 0-4, but had done his job. Wakefield pitched seven excellent innings. The Red Sox came from behind to win 7-3. A good time was had by all and Doug Mirabelli was left to reflect upon the strangest day that not only he has had as a baseball player, but that perhaps any major leaguer has ever had in the history of the game.

SIEGEL: Bob Ryan, thank you very much for talking to us.

RYAN: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: It's sports writer Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe talking with us from Fenway Park about last night's extraordinary arrival and performance by backup catcher Dough Mirabelli.

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