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Masked man rides to the rescue

Kevin Youkilis says hello to returning catcher Doug Mirabelli just before gametime.
Kevin Youkilis says hello to returning catcher Doug Mirabelli just before gametime. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

Any skilled professional can catch Curt Schilling or Josh Beckett. But is Doug Mirabelli the only man on this planet who can catch Tim Wakefield?

We know this much: He did it with aplomb for 4 1/2 years, and the five games Wakefield had thrown in his absence this season were terrifying exercises in knuckleball stoppage. Josh Bard was en route to establishing passed ball records that might have endured for centuries, and so the Red Sox did the only thing they could. They asked Bard and Cla Meredith to transport $100,000 with them to San Diego and they welcomed back the man they had traded away in December for Mark Loretta.

When Doug Mirabelli was announced as last night's starting catcher, the crowd erupted as if John Henry had just announced free beer and hot dogs for both Yankee games.

How badly did the Red Sox want Mirabelli back? The police escort was ready on the tarmac when he disembarked from his plane at 6:48 p.m. He dressed in the car. He breezed through the clubhouse, put on his equipment, and headed to the field. He caught Wakefield's first pitch to the newly villainized Johnny Damon -- or, as he's known at WROR, ''Juan Damón" -- at 7:13.

Thank God for Logan. And the Big Dig. Now that's what I call good use of our tax dollars. In Houston or Kansas City, he would have been lucky to get to the park by the fifth inning.

If you want to say that only in Boston would there be such a fuss about a backup catcher, that's fine, as long as you remember that only in Boston does Tim Wakefield take the mound every five days.

''We really appreciate what Josh Bard did," said general manager Theo Epstein, ''and, in time, I'm sure he would have gotten it. But we had a chance to get a known quantity, someone who catches the knuckleball as well as anyone on the planet."

Pity poor Bard. The guy was a member of the Red Sox organization for 93 days, and he will not be remembered fondly by the Nation. He forever will be remembered as a total failure, chased out of town after five futile starts as Wakefield's catcher. For the moment, he is now a continent away, attempting to reconstruct his baseball life.

''I want to say something about Josh Bard," offered Epstein. ''He was unbelievably professional while he was here. He made a lot of friends in this clubhouse in a short period of time. There is no doubt he would eventually have gotten it three days, or three months, from now. But we did not have the luxury of time."

''He had a great attitude," confirmed Jason Varitek. ''But it was a tough situation, no matter who came here to catch Tim, because of the high standards that were set."

Take it from One Who Knows. Until you've done it, you truly have no idea what it's like to catch a knuckleballer.

''You learn how to catch a fastball, slider, curve, change, and then you have to catch a knuckleball," Varitek said. ''It's like taking a lefthanded first baseman and saying, 'You're playing shortstop.' "

One of the side benefits Mirabelli brought with him during his first 3 1/2 seasons as a member of the Red Sox was his bat. Teams don't ordinarily ask backup catchers to do more than, well, catch. Hitting is a bonus. Mirabelli was, for three-plus seasons, an ideal backup catcher because in addition to fulfilling his primary job requirement, he also hit for legitimate power.

In his first 3 1/2 seasons with the Red Sox, Mirabelli had 615 at-bats, or a full season plus a little extra. He produced 31 homers and 101 runs batted in as the backup. What manager in the history of baseball wouldn't welcome that kind of production from the No. 2 catcher?

However, his average fell substantially last year (.281 to .228), although his power ratio remained about the same (13 of his 31 hits for extra bases). He was not off to a good start at the plate in San Diego, with just four hits in 22 at-bats. He has yet to hit a homer or drive in a run, and in his last at-bat as a Padre, a ninth-inning pinch-hit appearance (for Dave Roberts) he took a third strike with the winning run on third.

But the subject of his bat did not come up once in any Mirabelli discussion yesterday. The crisis that mandated his return was the only thing on the minds of Epstein and Terry Francona.

Bard's passed balls weren't the only reason Wakefield started the evening with a 1-4 record. He hadn't exactly been luxuriating in run support, either. But after 4 1/2 years of no-stress afternoons and evenings watching Mirabelli deftly handle the elusive flutterballs, the sight of so many baseballs bounding toward the backstop was unnerving for the Sox brass. It's undoubtedly true that Bard would have gotten more proficient at the task, but when the opportunity to reacquire Mirabelli cropped up, the brain trust decided to move.

There is a story floating out there that the Yankees, themselves in need of an upgrade at the backup catcher position, were likewise eyeing Mirabelli.

''I don't know that we've made a deal in the last three years where someone on the other team didn't say the Yankees were involved," said Epstein. ''You'd have to ask [Yankees GM] Brian Cashman and [Padres GM] Kevin Towers about that."

So I did.

''I couldn't let it be just a one-horse race. They'd have to pay the highest price," said Cashman. ''Everyone in baseball knew [the Red Sox] would be calling [San Diego]. So if I could do anything to delay it or get the price up . . . I'm not saying I did any of that, but that's my job. But at the end of the day, [the Red Sox] got what they needed."

But why would you waste Doug Mirabelli on the Yankees, or any other staff? He's sui generis as a knuckleball catcher.

''Tim Wakefield and Doug Mirabelli was a formula that worked pretty well for us," reminded Epstein.

It worked pretty well last night, too, with Wakefield throwing seven excellent innings before departing a 3-3 game. Passed balls: 0; Seeing-eye Robinson Cano two-run singles: 1. Even Mirabelli couldn't alter Wake's dreary run of '06 bad luck.

The Wakefield-Mirabelli partnership is no longer past tense. Theo made sure of that.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is extras
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