“Like some cult religion that barely survives, there has always been at least one but rarely more than five or six devotees throwing the knuckleball in the big leagues… Not only can’t pitchers control it, hitters can’t hit it, catchers can’t catch it, coaches can’t coach it, and most pitchers can’t learn it. The perfect pitch.” ― Ron Luciano, former AL umpire
Last March, the Boston Red Sox released backup catcher Doug Mirabelli. Ok, I know this is old news. And even if it weren’t, you’re probably saying, “Backup catcher? Who cares?” And some will say I must be completely bonkers to do another baseball post, since my post on Bill Buckner crashed and burned so miserably (it has the distinction of being the only post I’ve ever written not to generate a single comment, so I guess the Red Sox aren’t the only ones who suffered from the curse of the ex-cub). But my conscience will not let me live with myself if I don’t pen a little something about one of my favorite players. Of course, recalcitrant blogslacker that I am, I have allowed over a month to go by since this happened, so I thought I had better get on the stick before the season is over.
It might seem strange that a backup catcher should be one of my favorite players. The backup catcher is one of the most unglamorous positions in professional sports, ranking just ahead of backup quarterback. Backup catchers don’t get lucrative endorsement deals. They don’t see their picture on the cover of Sport Illustrated. Hell, they’re lucky if the manager remembers their name.
But one of the things I admired about Mirabelli is that is that he was a true professional. He not only accepted this role without complaining, he embraced it and made it his own in a way rarely seen in professional baseball.
Luckily for him, Mirabelli did possess one rather unique talent: he could catch a Tim Wakefield knuckle ball. Or rather, about 100 Tim Wakefield knuckleballs in one game. For those of you who don’t know, the knuckleball is the most difficult pitch in baseball; difficult to pitch (accurately), and maddeningly difficult to hit. The antithesis of the 95 mile per hour fastball, the knuckleball has almost no rotation, which means it literally wanders in an unpredictable trajectory toward the plate. While the typical knuckleball only travels about 60 mph or so, batters often look silly trying to hit it.
Remember that old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs was a baseball pitcher? Remember how the batter would swing the bat about a dozen times in the time it took for the ball to float up to the plate? That’s pretty much what a knuckleball does (while originally held with the knuckles, nowadays it is actually held with the fingertips rather than the knuckles, so the name has become something of a misnomer).
And as difficult as it is to hit, it is equally difficult to catch. Legendary manager Joe Torre once said, “You don’t catch a knuckleball, you defend against it.” Broadcaster and former catcher Bob Uecker quipped, “I always thought the knuckleball was the easiest pitch to catch. Wait’ll it stops rolling, then go to the backstop and pick it up.”
Yet Mirabelli had the soft hands necessary to catch this most elusive of all pitches. He became Wakefield’s personal catcher, guaranteeing him playing time every five days, and Wakefield had some of his best years with Mirabelli as his personal batterymate. I once referred to Gerald Ford as the “Doug Mirabelli of American Presidents”, and I meant it as a compliment. Both were given difficult and thankless jobs to do. Both excelled beyond anyone’s expectations.
Offensively, Mirabelli provided some occasional pop; he was the only player in Major League Baseball history to hit six or more home runs in six consecutive seasons of fewer than 200 at-bats (from 2001 to 2006). But it was his defensive abilities that made him an indispensable part of the Boston Red Sox from 2001 until this year.
It is comparatively rare for a backup player to be one of the clubhouse leaders, but that’s exactly what he was. No less a personality than Curt Schilling wrote on his blog that Mirabelli was one of only two players he’d known “who’s presence in the clubhouse carried onto the field.”[sic]
Mirabelli had an endearingly puckish sense of humor. During the 2003 ALDS against the Oakland A’s, he was one of the players standing on the dugout with letters on their backs spelling out “LILLY”, as a way of getting the Fenway crowd to chant “Lilly! Lilly” at unfortunate A’s pitcher Ted Lilly. During a Terry Francona press conference, Mirabelli playfully talked a reporter into asking Francona why Mirabelli didn’t play more often. Immediately copping to the prank, Francona responded “because he’s such a shitty player!”.
My favorite Mirabelli story involved former Sox pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim. Frustrated by his lack of success and the fans’ subsequent hostility, Kim flipped the Boston fans the bird during the 2003 playoffs. Next spring, during opening day ceremonies, Mirabelli jokingly held Kim’s arms behind his back when the announcer introduced Kim to the fans.
And of course, no one can forget May 1st, 2006. The Sox had traded Mirabelli to the San Diego Padres for second baseman Mark Loretta. In fairness to the Sox, the trade made perfect sense. The Sox were getting a first rate starting second baseman for a back up catcher. The only problem was that Mirabelli’s replacement, Josh Bard–ordinarily a fine catcher in his own right–simply couldn’t handle the knuckler. The Sox were so desperate they traded Bard as well as promising pitcher Cla Meredith back to San Diego just to get Mirabelli back. He was greeted at the airport by the Massachusetts State Police at 6:48 pm, actually changed into his uniform while in the cruiser en route to the park, and arrived at the park at 7:13 pm to a standing ovation from the crowd.
How many backup catchers have that on their resume?
I hope he catches on with another team, either as a player, or perhaps as a coach. At 37, he’s no youngster, and with his combination of personality, leadership, and baseball smarts, I think he’d make an excellent coach. I hope we haven’t heard the last of Doug Mirabelli.