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Wakefield, Dickey share a unique relationship

SEATTLE -- One is almost 42 years old; the other is 33. One has won 174 games in the major leagues; the other, 18. One has been with the same team since 1995, while the other has been with four organizations since the end of 2006.

But where it counts -- on the pitcher's mound -- Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey are more alike than not. Both belong to an exclusive club, which has a membership of two: themselves.

Like some sort of endangered species, they are the only two current major league pitchers who throw a knuckleball. As such, they share a unique kinship.

Across baseball, there are approximately 370 pitchers. Select almost any two at random, and the pair could compare notes and share common experiences.

Not Wakefield or Dickey, though. Nobody knows the troubles they've seen. Or felt. Or faced.

Except themselves, of course.

"I don't mean this as any disrespect to conventional pitchers," Dickey said, "but it takes a special amount of fortitude to throw a 65 mph pitch to Vladimir Guerrero."

Knuckleballers were never exactly rampant, but in the modern era, the game has had its share. Some -- such as Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm -- were good enough to earn induction into the Hall of Fame.

Some were good enough some of the time to win 20 games multiple times (Wilbur Wood, each season from 1971 to '74) or consistently win in double figures (Charlie Hough, nine straight seasons from 1982 to 1990).

Most pitched well into their 40s before retiring. But now Wakefield and Dickey stand alone, as if threatened by extinction. If they're not the last of their breed, they are, for now, the only links to the game's most unique pitch.

And though they pitch for different American League teams -- Wakefield for the Boston Red Sox and Dickey for the Seattle Mariners -- and their teams face off nine times this season, they're in this together.

It's such a small fraternity. When I was coming up, it was nice to talk to guys. I remember when I worked with Charlie [Hough] for the first time, I watched him throw and carried a tape recorder with me. I can remember Phil [Niekro] standing behind the screen, watching me throw and giving me direction -- 'Take a little off this one; throw this one a little harder.' I can still hear him.

-- Tim Wakefield on knuckleball pitchers

"It's lonely sometimes," Dickey said of his existence. "You almost feel like a place-kicker on a football team. 'Yeah, you go over on that other field by yourself.' Lots of guys throw a slider or a sinker or a changeup. But only we throw knuckleballs. That's a bond that Wake and I share."

Monday afternoon at Safeco Field, as the Mariners left the field after batting practice and the Red Sox took over, Dickey lingered in the outfield and talked with Wakefield for almost a half hour.

Even from afar, Wakefield could be seen going through his motion, rotating his hand to demonstrate a grip or a release point as Dickey listened intently.

"This is valuable time for me," Dickey said, "because I don't get to see him very often."

Sometimes the two talk on the phone. Wakefield offers advice and, sometimes, encouragement.

"I can't believe how accommodating he is," Dickey said. "It's kind of humbling because he doesn't have to do this."

But Wakefield feels, if not a sense of duty or obligation, then a certain past debt. When Wakefield was learning his signature pitch, he learned from Hough. Later, after he was released by the Pirates and desperate to reclaim his command, he worked with Phil and Joe Niekro, who won a combined 539 games. Still later, he occasionally consulted with Tom Candiotti.

Now it's Wakefield's turn to help someone else, to pay it forward, as it were.

"It's such a small fraternity," Wakefield said. "When I was coming up, it was nice to talk to guys. I remember when I worked with Charlie for the first time, I watched him throw and carried a tape recorder with me. I can remember Phil standing behind the screen, watching me throw and giving me direction -- 'Take a little off this one; throw this one a little harder.' I can still hear him.

"It's not a responsibility that I feel. But I think it's cool to give back to somebody, to be able to help someone like those guys helped me."

Not all knuckleballers are created equal. Some throw harder than others, and some throw the knuckler more often than others.

Then there are the mechanical differences and stylistic variations.

"We're all different," Wakefield said.

But the knuckleballers share enough similarities, especially when two members of the fraternity get together.

"Think about it," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. "They can't talk to someone else in their own dugout [when they're struggling] because the other guys can't relate and can't help them. So they have to seek out like-minded pitchers to share their experiences. There's some commonality there."

Farrell has learned enough about Wakefield's checkpoints that he sometimes sits in when Wakefield and Dickey exchange ideas and offers some thoughts of his own.

Like Wakefield, who was drafted as a first baseman but fell into the knuckleball as a way to avoid being released in Class A, Dickey came to the knuckler late in life. He took his early tutorials, the basics, from Hough.

But Wakefield, who one day could surpass Cy Young and Roger Clemens to become the Red Sox's all-time winningest pitcher, can offer a master class.

"Where he's valuable," Dickey said, "is with the arm arc, the action on the pitch, the rotation. … Charlie was really instrumental in building my foundation. But now I have to execute it consistently, and to do that, mechanically, you have to be so perfect."

Beyond the vagaries of the pitch, there's the mental aspect. Almost every modern knuckleballer has a career record near .500 because the pitch sometimes is as baffling to the pitcher as to the batter attempting to hit it.

"I've learned that being able to weather all the ups and downs that go with throwing the pitch is very important," Dickey said.

It's lonely sometimes. You almost feel like a place-kicker on a football team. … Lots of guys throw a slider or a sinker or a changeup. But only we throw knuckleballs. That's a bond that Wake and I share.

-- R.A. Dickey

In stark contrast to the career of Wakefield, the longest-tenured Red Sox player, Dickey's baseball journey has been nomadic. He spent parts of 11 seasons in the minor leagues and turned to the knuckler three seasons ago.

He just now may be beginning to command the pitch: After moving out of Seattle's bullpen, he's 1-1 with a 1.37 ERA in his past four starts. He'll use the knuckler Tuesday night to try to beat Wakefield's Red Sox.

"I hope we win 1-0, or 2-1," Wakefield said when asked whether he'll feel conflicted. "I want him to do well, and I want us to win."

Dickey echoed that sentiment: "It's not awkward for me. We're human beings; we have a relationship. There's that unwritten code [among knuckleballers], about being as helpful as possible to one another."

Told that Wakefield hopes the Mariners knuckleballer pitches well but loses a low-scoring game Tuesday night, Dickey smiles and nods.

They understand, even if others don't. They know.

"You want to win," Dickey said, "by half a run."

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.