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Wakefield cracks knuckles ahead of milestone appearance

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - Tim Wakefield is a rare breed in Major League Baseball and the Boston Red Sox knuckleballer will set a new milestone the next time he takes to the mound by becoming the oldest player ever to play for the team.

Tuesday, Wakefield turned 44 years, 281 days old but was not called on to face the Toronto Blue Jays but when he does finally get handed the ball, he will overhaul Deacon McGuire, who was 44 years, 280 days in his last game on August 24, 1908.

Watching from the bullpen, Wakefield sat out Boston's 7-6 extra-inning loss to Toronto but the righthander admitted he was not preoccupied with the impending landmark but proud to have enjoyed a long and successful career.

"You don't really reflect on stuff like that until it really happens," Wakefield told reporters. "You sit here today and go 'Wow, it's pretty cool but then it's 7 o'clock and it's, 'OK got to go play'.

"You have to have a little bit of luck and stay away from injuries to be able to pitch as long as I have."

For nearly two decades, Wakefield has made a career out of one baffling pitch that flutters toward batters, dipping and dancing, floating and darting in enticing slow motion.

Knuckleballers do not always know where the pitch is going and often the catcher can only make a wild guess while batters close their eyes, swing and hope for the best.

Bob Uecker, a former major league catcher and broadcaster famously described the best way to catch a knuckleball was to: "Wait until it stops rolling, then go pick it up."

In his autobiography "Knuckler, My Life With Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch," Wakefield breaks down the mechanics of the befuddling delivery that seems to have a mind of its own.

Wakefield spent his first two seasons in the major leagues with Pittsburgh but ended up in the minors and in 1995 was released by the Pirates and signed as free agent by Boston.

PRETTY AMAZING

"My first couple of years Charlie Hough was in his 40s, Nolan Ryan was in his 40s and it was pretty amazing that those guys were still pitching," said Wakefield, the oldest active player in the major leagues. "I knew how hard they worked.

"You get up in age you have to take care of yourself.

"It means I've persevered through a lot and have been able to last this long."

Approaching his 45th birthday, Wakefield feels he still has more to offer.

Early into his 19th season, he is just seven wins shy of 200 and with four more victories at Fenway, can eclipse Roger Clemens record of 95 at the iconic ballpark.

Working with a pitch that relies more on technique than arm strength, knuckleballers are built for long careers with Phil Niekro teasing batters until he was 48.

Wakefield made it clear he would like to finish his career as a Red Sox but if unwanted in Boston, would consider offers from other teams.

"Until they tell me I stink or they don't want me anymore," said Wakefield about his future in Boston. "It depends on the situation but I wouldn't rule out playing elsewhere."

(Editing by John O'Brien)