You fly all day. You are picked up on the tarmac by a police car. You change in the back seat, arriving at Fenway Park in record time, with sirens blazing. You throw on your equipment, head out to home plate, and there stands Johnny Damon, your old teammate. And 60 feet 6 inches away is Tim Wakefield, whose mystifying knuckleball has just drastically altered the lives of two catchers, yours and the guy you’ve been brought back to replace.
Oh, and have we mentioned it’s the first Red Sox-Yankees game of the season and there are 36,000 people screaming on every pitch?
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous for a ballgame ever in my career,” said Doug Mirabelli, who is 34 and generally as unflappable as they come.
The last man he caught was a kid named Clay Kingsley, who has a pretty standard repertoire. “Good sinker, curveball, slider. Good stuff,” Mirabelli noted.
Good stuff, and all standard. He could catch Clay Kingsley standing on his head. But here he was, without benefit of anything resembling a warmup and not having seen a knuckleball since last fall. If there ever has been a more daunting situation in the history of baseball, would someone please suggest it? That was beyond fictional.
“Very strange night,” said Wakefield after the 7-3 win against the Yankees. “I probably have never seen this in my whole life. Guy gets out of a cab dressed in uni, puts his gear on, and goes right into the game. Phenomenal job.”
A pitcher gets eight warmup pitches and Mirabelli dropped two of them. “I thought, `Uh-oh, here we go,’ “ Mirabelli said. “But a few innings in, I was relaxed. It seemed like the third inning was when I really started to settle in. I was starting to observe Tim’s mechanics, and it was just like old times.”
He had no passed balls, and there was only one time when he even had to make a tough stop (a bouncer). “One thing that helped was that they were hitting into a lot of outs in the early innings,” he said. “I didn’t have to catch the knuckleball.”
The crowd had welcomed him warmly, and that certainly helped. “I really appreciated that,” he said. “I never wanted to leave Boston. I knew there was no place out there like Fenway.”
He had been hearing things about a possible move back here for a week. “I went to [Padres GM] Kevin Towers and said I would appreciate anything he could do to get me back here. But I also heard the Yankees were interested, and he wasn’t just going to do something to make me happy. He was going to do what was best for the Padres, and I understood that.”
One of the weirdest moments came on the game’s first at-bat when he realized that the Yankee leadoff batter was Damon. “I hadn’t really thought about that,” he said. He, of course, was the only person in the ballpark who hadn’t. “Johnny just said, `Welcome back,’ “ Mirabelli reported.
Mirabelli was well aware of the Josh Bard situation, and he probably had more sympathy for him than anyone. Bard’s struggles with Wakefield led directly to Mirabelli’s return. “I remember when I first started catching Wake,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. My first time ever, in Toronto, I think I had four or five passed balls. Every time you miss a ball, your nervousness rises, and once that starts happening, it gets worse and worse.”
But that was then and this is now and he is the acknowledged master of catching the knuckleball.
The deal actually was finalized Sunday night following a Padres comeback triumph over the Dodgers, and the first person in these parts to know was Gabe Kapler, who is currently living in Mirabelli’s old house. “He text-messaged me, saying, `You think I can stay with you tomorrow night?’ Kapler said. “I said, `No, I packed up your whole house and put it in my pickup truck.’ “
So that was the start of his welcome back to Boston. Riding in a police car was another highlight.
“Have you ever ridden in a police car before?” he was asked.
“That was the first time naked,” he replied.
All this because of a knuckleball. Wakefield had better be buying for a while.