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Wakefield has Pirates aflutter

He learned it in the most innocent manner: playing catch with his dad in the back yard of their Melbourne home.

The knuckleball was a toy for Tim Wakefield, something to play with when he wasn't hitting home runs and defending first base through high school and college baseball.

The knuckleball no longer is a diversion. After a career-saving move from weak-hitting first baseman to unhittable pitcher in Class A ball three summers ago, the knuckler has become Wakefield's livelihood.

As each pitch meanders toward home plate tonight, the Pittsburgh Pirates' chances of winning the National League pennant will rise and fall _ and dip and bob and weave and float _ with it.

Down two games to none and having been totally outplayed by the Atlanta Braves in the NL playoffs, the Pirates need to do something different in Game 3, and they're hoping Wakefield's slow, darting delivery will be just the difference.

At the least, Wakefield's knuckleball, which he throws at an agonizing 60 miles per hour or less, will slow the Braves. With luck, it stops them cold.

"He's been like managing a dynamite keg," Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland said. "With a knuckleball pitcher, you never know what to expect."

The Braves certainly don't. Wakefield was promoted to the majors July 31, and the Braves got one look at him, getting seven hits but losing 4-2 on Aug.


To prepare for tonight's strange encounter, they brought in minor-league pitching coach and former knuckleballer Bruce Dal Canton to pitch batting practice Thursday.

"The thing about a knuckleball is it could be quite a few different things," Atlanta's Sid Bream said. "It's not a set thing like a curve, slider or changeup. It might break right, it might break down, it might break left. And I've seen them at times take off."

Because it is so slow and because it moves so unpredictably, the knuckleball requires a hitter to be patient but also flexible enough to make quick adjustments. Wakefield throws it 80 to 95 percent of the time.

"A lot of guys feel they want to wait back on the ball a lot more," Atlanta's Ron Gant said. "It throws your rhythm off."

Up until three summers ago, Wakefield, 26, never imagined he would be throwing the knuckleball off a mound, much less in the NL playoffs.

He learned the fingertip grip and finesse from his father, Steve.

"I think it sort of developed out of fun," Wakefield said. "He would come home from work and we would play catch in the back yard. He would get tired and start throwing the knuckler, probably just to get me tired, because I'd miss the pitch and have to run back and chase it to the fence. I think he figured I'd get so tired I'd want to go inside and we could have dinner."

Wakefield kept toying with the knuckler when he went on to star as a first baseman at Melbourne's Eau Gallie High and the Florida Institute of Technology, where he played against Eckerd and Tampa and led NCAA Division II batters with 22 home runs in 1987.

The Pirates made him an eighth-round pick in the 1988 draft, but he had troubles adjusting to professional baseball, hitting .189 with three homers in 54 games. The next year started with extended spring training in Bradenton, and minor-league coach Woody Huyke noticed Wakefield throwing knuckleballs.

"He asked me if I could throw it for strikes," Wakefield recalled. "I said yes." Wakefield went on to start the season at Augusta, then moved to Welland, where the coaches began the transformation, using him on the mound in 18 games, all but once in relief.

That winter, at the team's organizational meeting, a Pirates official asked Huyke whether Wakefield could hit. "I'll tell you what," Huyke responded. "He throws a pretty good knuckler."

That was that. Encouraged by Pirates coaches to throw the knuckler more, Wakefield worked his way up from Class A Salem (10-14, 4.73) in 1990 to Class AA Carolina (15-8, 2.90) in 1991 to Class AAA Buffalo (10-3, 3.06) this year. With their pitching staff hurting in July, the Pirates called him to the majors.

He responded with a six-hitter in his major-league debut and went on to post an 8-1 record and 2.15 ERA in 13 starts. Tonight, in just his 14th major-league game, he will carry the Pirates' season to the mound with him.

"It's been a tremendous ride for me," Wakefield said.

Wakefield was doubly fortunate: The Pirates gave him the second chance to become a pitcher, and they were willing to tolerate the frustrations of the knuckleball.

"He's very tough to manage," Leyland said. "Still, to this day, I haven't figured out when to take him out."

Minor-league pitching coach Spin Williams spent hours working with Wakefield on his fingertip grip and mechanics. This spring, Wakefield met with White Sox knuckleballer Charlie Hough for a lesson. During the season, he visited with Los Angeles' Tom Candiotti, the only other major-leaguer who features that pitch, then went out and beat Candiotti and the Dodgers 2-0.

Tonight, with a nation watching, Wakefield will try again. The Pirates don't expect him to knuckle under to the pressure.

The knuckleball

The ball is gripped along the seams with the fingernails or knuckles of the index and middle fingers. This pitch is pushed, rather than thrown, ideally making only 1/4 of a revolution during flight. The ball's seams create air disturbances, causing unpredictable ball movement, usually a rising and sinking pitch.