FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Before your eyes, he's a knuckleballer. In the clubhouse, he's a wordsmith. At his small corner lot in Fenway's clubhouse, and his similarly out-of-the-way spot at City of Palms Park, he crosses one leg over the other, props a crossword puzzle atop his knee, and obsesses. In fact, some days Tim Wakefield probably writes more words in a mass-media publication than he speaks to the mass media. Just his nature. So, it came as a surprise yesterday to watch a writer tell the 39-year-old that he made the cover of this year's media guide and watch him genuinely light up, and say, quite uncharacteristically, ''Oh, cool. Sweet."
One of the more awesome sections of the annual guide falls this year on pages 428 to 434. That would be the alphabetical listing of all 1,509 players to appear in at least one game for the Red Sox since the team joined the American League in 1901.
''Somebody brought that up to me a couple years ago, how many guys I've played with," Wakefield said yesterday. ''It'd be hard to determine."
Wakefield began scanning the A's and the B's. He skipped some names while reading off others.
''Rick Aguilera," he said. ''We traded for him at the deadline in '95 . . . Luis Alicea . . . Brian Barkley . . . Stan Belinda. I played with him in Pittsburgh, too. Sean Berry. He was here for one day."
That would have been July 25, 2000. Berry was activated, given Wade Boggs's No. 26, went 0 for 4, and was designated for assignment the next day.
Comb the list, top to bottom, in search of each name with a ''1995" or later next to it, and you, as this scribe did, should come up with the names of approximately 300 teammates, the newbies (Mark Loretta, Mike Lowell, etc.) not included. Wakefield, therefore, has played with 20 percent of all of those players to wear a Sox uniform in the past 105 years.
The knuckleballer, who pitched in a minor league game yesterday as he prepares for his 12th season in Boston, signed with the Sox April 26, 1995, and has enjoyed an uninterrupted run ever since. That makes him not only the longest-tenured member of the Sox' big league team, it also makes him one of only a handful of active pitchers to have worn the same uniform without interruption since 1995. That short list: John Smoltz (with Atlanta since 1988), Trevor Hoffman (San Diego, '93), Brad Radke (Minnesota, '95), and Mariano Rivera (Yankees, '95).
He just lingers, much like the knuckleball he was throwing yesterday at 66 miles per hour. The inevitable, and annual question, of course, is: How much longer can he do this?
''I don't know," Wakefield said yesterday. ''As long as I can, as long as they want me to keep coming back, I'll come back. There's so many variables that I can't predict. Like I talked to Flash the other day."
Flash would be John Flaherty, the 38-year-old catcher who came to camp to compete for the job of backup catcher, then walked into manager Terry Francona's office one morning this month and called it a career.
''I saw him," Wakefield said, ''and I said, 'How did you know?' He said, 'I just knew.' And I think a lot of it has to do with you playing so long; spring training, it just gets old. Sometimes that weighs on guys' minds. Can I do this anymore? Do I want to do this? Would I rather be home with my family? I don't feel that way right now.
''Even though it's a grind here, I enjoy coming here and getting my work done. I enjoy competing. I enjoy my teammates. I enjoy knowing we'll go back to Boston and be competing in front of 35,000 fans every night. There's no better place to play."
Last year, those fans saw no better pitcher week to week than Wakefield. He received the least run support of anyone on the staff but still managed to go 16-12 with a 4.15 ERA. He led Sox starters in wins, starts (33), innings (225 1/3), strikeouts (151), complete games (3), and opponents' batting average (.245). (He also led the American League in home runs allowed with 35.)
In hindsight, how does he feel looking back on '05?
''Disappointed," he said. ''I had a good year but we didn't advance in the postseason. I stayed healthy all year and did well, but I was just disappointed. I didn't pitch great in my playoff game against Chicago. I just think we ran out of gas."
Wakefield, though, did no such thing. Before 2004 he dialed down his conditioning program, both during the offseason and between starts, and ''I think that bothered me late in the year. I felt myself get tired."
Before and during 2005, he recommitted to his previous routine, building up and maintaining his abdominals, shoulders, and back.
''I felt a big difference in my longevity during the season," he said. ''I've had that misnomer of being a kunckleball pitcher. I've kind of carried that for half of my career. I don't throw hard, I don't have to do anything, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Then you realize you'd better get in the gym and start working out. I think it really helped me in the long run to pitch as I'm pitching now.
''Have I felt I've aged?" he said, repeating a question. ''No, except when I look on the board and see guys who are born in '83, '82. That's when I feel old. Physically, I don't feel my age at all."
His knuckleball, dancing with the same guided precision, looks young and live, too. The absence of catcher Doug Mirabelli, who served as both backstop and on-field psychologist to Wakefield, appeared to be a significant issue coming into camp, and still could be one.
But, Wakefield contends, ''I didn't have any worries because I knew [Jason] Varitek was available, and also there was the possibility of reacquiring [Doug]."
That possibility isn't likely: The Sox say they aren't actively pursuing Mirabelli, and the Padres have next to no interest in moving him, because they need protection for Mike Piazza and because Mirabelli's scorching the ball this spring. Josh Bard, formerly the backup in Cleveland, is likely to win the job as Mirabelli's successor.
With or without Mirabelli, Francona intends to slot Wakefield between Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett as the team's No. 2. He'll provide a change of pace in the rotation, as he does in the clubhouse.
''I don't know how to explain it," Wakefield said of his disposition. ''When I was younger I used to get really mad. I'm kind of a perfectionist. But I just want to stay on an even keel and not get too happy and never get too sad.
''I'd like to enjoy this when I'm done playing and look back and say, 'Wow, look at what I accomplished.' I can't think about it while I'm accomplishing it. If I get too high on myself, the fall would be even worse. That emotional roller coaster, it's not healthy, it's not productive. Let's just stay on an even keel."
Crossword puzzles and knuckleballs?
''Exactly," he said.