Knuckleballers take center stage for Red Sox

New Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, right, welcomed Red Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield to Dunedin for the teams’ game on Monday.
Neil Davidson/AP/CP
New Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, right, welcomed Red Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield to Dunedin for the teams’ game on Monday.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — This is not a normal spring training game. The Red Sox sent a knuckleballer, 28-year-old Steven Wright, to the mound Monday against Toronto knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

Tim Wakefield, who won 200 games throwing the knuckleball, was on hand to see Wright pitch in person. Then Wakefield was expected to report to Red Sox camp Tuesday to start working with Wright.

“I’m looking forward to it. Not only to see R.A. pitch, but also this is my first time seeing Steven pitch. Looking forward to working with him,” Wakefield said before Wright’s two-inning performance in which he allowed two hits and struck out three.


Wakefield never met Wright personally but the two had spoken on the phone before Monday. When Wright was in the Cleveland organization last season, former Red Sox coach Rob Leary connected the two.

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“It’s somebody to talk to who knows about the pitch that he’s throwing,” Wakefield said. “When I was first coming up, I had pitching coaches who told me, ‘I don’t know what to tell you.’ It’s refreshing to be able to contribute to the legacy of the pitch by helping him out.”

There is a fraternity among knuckleballers. Tom Candiotti helped Wakefield out, as did Phil and Joe Niekro. Now Wakefield wants to do his part. That Wright is with the Red Sox makes it all the better.

The knuckleball is in vogue. Dickey won the National League Cy Young Award last season when he was with the Mets. Dickey and Wakefield also were featured in the documentary “Knuckleball!”

“It’s not so much a freak pitch any more,” Wakefield said. “In R.A.’s words, he brought the legitimacy of the pitch back by winning the Cy Young. It made all of us proud.”


Wright has yet to pitch in the majors but was 10-6 with a 2.44 ERA in Double A last season. He struck out 103 in 121 2/3 innings and allowed only 91 hits. The Red Sox traded first baseman Lars Anderson to the Indians for Wright last July.

It was a significant trade as far as the Sox were concerned. Their scouts, particularly pro scouting director Jared Porter, identified Wright as having potential. Because of the success Wakefield had, the Sox are open to the idea of having another knuckleballer.

Assistant general manager Mike Hazen, who was also at the game to see Wright pitch, said a good knuckleballer can eat up innings, pitch in different roles and give the opposition a different look. Patience is required but a good pitcher is worth waiting for.

Unlike former teammates Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek, who are special assistants to GM Ben Cherington, Wakefield has no official capacity with the Red Sox. He will do some work for NESN again this season and assist in charitable endeavors. He still lives in Massachusetts during the summer and is open to the idea of a formal relationship with the Sox.

“My main goal is to help Steven and be a mentor to him,” Wakefield said.


Wakefield said every knuckleballer is different. They throw the ball with different grips and at different speeds. The idea, he said, is to make the pitch your own. Wakefield can offer some mechanical advice about how to take the spin off the pitch. There are checkpoints, he said, that can be helpful.

Wakefield could remember only one time in his career when he faced a fellow knuckleballer. It was as a rookie with Pittsburgh in 1992.

Wakefield beat Candiotti of the Dodgers on Aug. 26 that season. Pitching for Jim Leyland, Wakefield threw a six-hitter in a 2-0 victory. Candiotti went six innings and allowed two runs.

“I had to hit against [Candiotti]. That wasn’t fun,” Wakefield said.

Wakefield hopes to see a time when a knuckleball pitcher comes out of the high school or college ranks and climbs to the majors. Most knuckleballers started out as conventional pitchers who turned to the pitch when their careers began to fade.

“I think it’s great. I think it’s going to be a popular pitch among young kids out there,” Wakefield said. “I think it brings hope to a younger generation of baseball players that may not have the velocity to compete at a higher level. If they can learn this pitch it gives them hope that they could one day wear a big league uniform.”