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Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Can Wakefield teach Flutie the knuckler?

By Anna McDonald

Tim Wakefield says throwing a knuckleball looks easy. It only travels 65 miles per hour. How difficult can it be, right?

"Everybody thinks that they can get up there and pitch," says Wakefield, the knuckleballer who played 19 seasons in the majors, including 17 seasons with the Boston Red Sox. "Until they try to throw a knuckleball to a hitter and throw a first strike, then it becomes more of a challenge."

On Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET "The Next Knuckler" will premier on MLB Network. The MLB Productions reality series will show just how difficult it is for even the best athletes to learn the knuckleball. Wakefield will teach the pitch to a group of former NCAA quarterbacks who will compete for an invitation to spring training with the Arizona Diamondbacks. It's an eclectic group: Doug Flutie (Boston College), John David Booty (USC), former major league infielder Josh Booty (LSU), David Greene (Georgia) and Ryan Perrilloux (LSU and Jacksonville State).

Tim Wakefield
Tim Wakefield will attempt to teach his signature pitch to five former quarterbacks.
The quarterbacks had never tried to throw a knuckleball before so this made teaching them a challenge for Wakefield.

"There was one quarterback who had a pretty hard time," Wakefield said. "The reason why we picked quarterbacks though is because obviously they are good athletes. They were obviously great at what they did. The throwing motion of a quarterback is similar to my motion of how I threw [the knuckleball]."

Wakefield and Kevin Millar will co-host the reality series. Wakefield has worked with R.A. Dickey and Charlie Haeger, just like Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough mentored Wakefield.

"I've passed on little nuggets that helped," Wakefield said. "I think it's a pitch that can be taught. I think you have to have the athleticism to take the spin off of a baseball. Some guys can't do it and some guys can."

Is there a secret to throwing the knuckleball?

"Obviously the secret is to throw it without any spin," he says. "As long as you know how to take the spin off of it consistently I don't care if you hold it with four fingers or two. It doesn't matter. Once you get that feel of throwing it consistently without any spin on it then you go from there."

For the Diamondbacks, it's a little PR and the chance to find a hidden gem.

"We were thoroughly impressed with this concept when we first viewed a sneak peek of the show," D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall said. "This is tremendous exposure for our brand, but there could also be payoff on the field if the winner has actually mastered the knuckleball and can help our team. I know our players will be very interested in seeing his talent level firsthand, and even if he does not make our big league club, there is a strong possibility he could make our Double-A or Triple-A roster. This is a huge opportunity for these former quarterbacks as well."

Without the knuckleball, Wakefield never would have made the majors.

"I was actually drafted as a position player and once they put a wood bat in my hand and they were throwing a lot harder than I was used to in college I couldn't hit anymore," he said. "It was by luck that somebody saw me fooling around with a knuckleball and converted me into a knuckleball pitcher."

The winner of the competition will have a chance to pitch for the Diamondbacks in at least one spring training game ... and maybe have a second career as a knuckleball pitcher. Flutie may be 50 years old -- but, hey, that's almost prime age for a knuckleballer.

Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.