Wakefield imparts knuckleball knowledge

Wakefield imparts knuckleball knowledge

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Eri Yoshida stands 5-foot-1 and is just 18 years old, but there is no wavering in what she wants to achieve and who she will emulate along the way.

"Of course, it's to try to become a pitcher like Tim Wakefield," said Yoshida, who is Japanese, through an interpreter.

That quest landed Yoshida on Field 5 of the Red Sox's Spring Training complex on Tuesday, throwing knuckleballs as her idol stood right behind her. Earlier in the day, she stood intently within view of the bullpen mounds and watched Wakefield throw his side session. She also spent some time at camp on Monday, meeting, among others, Daisuke Matsuzaka. Talk about a dream experience.

During Yoshida's throwing session, she wore a gray Red Sox T-shirt with Wakefield's last name and his No. 49 on the back.

"I'm impressed," said Wakefield. "She spun a couple, but for the most part, it was very good. She was able to take the spin out of a lot of them and they had quite a lot of movement on them."

So what was it like for Yoshida to not only meet Wakefield but gain personal instruction from him?

"I never thought I could ever feel this happy," Yoshida said.

You see, Wakefield is the reason Yoshida built her goal of becoming a professional knuckleballer. She discovered some video of him a few years ago and the wheels started spinning. Perhaps that was the pitch that could lead her to become the first Japanese female to pitch pro baseball.

Yoshida started mimicking Wakefield's delivery in her backyard with her father and made enough progress to pitch for a Japanese independent league team (the Kobe 9 Cruise) last year. This winter, she has been pitching for the Yuma Scorpions of the Arizona Winter League and earned a win by pitching five shutout innings against Team Canada on Feb. 12. Yoshida has a fastball of about 60 mph and a knuckleball that travels in the low 50s.

The brief detour from Arizona to Fort Myers was hardly an inconvenience for Yoshida. She probably would have walked that distance if flights weren't available.

Masa Hoshino, who serves as Matsuzaka's interpreter, stood between Wakefield and Yoshida so they could have a conversation.

"I think everything that he taught me is going to give me a chance to really work on what I need to work on, but also, I got a chance to meet him, and it really gave me some courage and the confidence I need to really get back to training hard," Yoshida said.

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In truth, the 43-year-old Wakefield, who has 189 career wins in the Majors, not to mention two World Series rings, was every bit as touched to spend time with Yoshida, who throws her knuckler from a sidearm release point.

"It's an honor to have somebody carry on a knuckleball tradition, and somebody that's doing it because she likes what I do," Wakefield said. "It's pretty cool to have someone come over to the States from Japan. I heard about her last year. I know she's pitching in independent leagues now. But for her to come all the way to Fort Myers and watch me throw, it was an honor for me to just talk to her and give her some tips."

If there's one thing Wakefield can relate to when it comes to Yoshida, it's that there aren't many knuckleball coaches around. This marked the first time she got to have hands-on instruction from someone who throws the same pitch she does.

"I had seen film of her and I was pretty impressed at the film. But to see her in person and to actually see her throw, I was very impressed with how she threw and the knowledge she had on the knuckleball, because she told me she was self-taught," Wakefield said. "This is the first time she's actually ever had coaching throwing a knuckleball. I kind of know where she's at, because I was there when I first started throwing -- nobody knew what to do. It's pretty cool that I'm able to give back to somebody that wants to carry on the tradition of throwing a knuckleball."

Wakefield was only too happy to share his knowledge.

"Just mechanics stuff," Wakefield said. "Some of my checkpoints that I use to try to throw with a stiff wrist and things. I just saw a couple of things that she was doing wrong, and she was able to correct it."

The only difficult part of the day for Yoshida was when a reporter asked her what the biggest thing was that she learned from Wakefield.

"Everything," Yoshida said. "I'm going to remember everything."

The messages Wakefield provided to his protégé were as much mental as physical.

"I think the most important thing [Wakefield said] was to really pitch with confidence," said Yoshida.

As for where Yoshida will pitch in 2010, she has options. The Mie Three Arrows of the new independent Japan-Future league has a spot for her if she wants to return to Japan. The Chico Outlaws (based in California) of the U.S. Independent Golden Baseball League recently offered her a contract.

At the end of the throwing session, Yoshida and Wakefield spoke.

"I told him that my dream is to become a pitcher like him, and I was able to tell him that in English directly," said Yoshida.

Before the knuckleballers parted ways, Wakefield signed a baseball for Yoshida and said, "Good luck."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.