It’s not often in sports that you get to say with a reasonable measure of certainty, “Well, we’ll never see that again.’’ But it feels safe to say that we’ll never witness another Tim Wakefield. He has sui generis status in Red Sox history, Knuckleballer Emeritus.
Nudged out the door by the Red Sox’ nonroster (non-) invite to spring training, the noble knuckler called it a career yesterday at age 45 after 19 seasons, the last 17 with the Red Sox. He joined the Sox in 1995 as a reclamation project and exited as the longest-serving pitcher in club history. There is some cosmic mischief in a man who threw the knuckleball, the most asymmetrical pitch in baseball, ending his career with a tidy 200-180 record.
Wakefield is like a Boston sports time capsule. When he was plucked off the scrap heap by then-general manager Dan Duquette on April 26, 1995, Cam Neely was still playing for the Bruins, Curtis Martin, voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this month, had been drafted by the Patriots days earlier, Dominique Wilkins was the Celtics’ leading scorer, and TD Garden was five months away from opening.
His longevity achieved by throwing a pitch so capricious and fickle is a testament to his resiliency and fortitude. No Red Sox pitcher has recorded more double-digit-win seasons than Wakefield’s 11. Roger Clemens had 10. No Sox pitcher tossed more innings (3,006) or made more starts (430). Only the Rocket struck out more batters.
Wakefield so endeared himself to the Fenway Faithful that not even serving up the second-most-painful home run in Red Sox history could sully his career. Wakefield surrendered the stake-in-heart homer to Aaron Boone of the Yankees that decided Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. But no one turned Wakefield into a Buckner-esque figure of scorn, instead all the blame went to manager Grady Little for letting Pedro Martinez wither on the vine.
Yes, sometimes watching Wakefield pitch was like getting a root canal without anesthesia, but if it was that tough to watch, imagine what it was like to be the one on the mound. People always got it wrong, the knuckler didn’t make Wakefield’s career easier. It made it harder. Throwing the knuckleball for a living should enhance Wakefield’s legacy, not diminish it.
The converted first baseman pitched his entire career with a chip on his shoulder because of his signature pitch, his successes attributed to the flukes of a fluttering ball and his failures presented as condemning evidence of why a knuckleball pitcher couldn’t be relied upon.
But even knuckleballers run out of gas eventually.
Sox fans will be spared watching Wakefield, who had 186 wins in a Boston uniform, wheeze his way toward the team’s career wins mark of 192, held by Clemens and Cy Young.
The Sox obviously didn’t want a repeat of last year’s laborious and joyless climb to 200 wins, when Wakefield took eight starts to reach the milestone and turned the Sox into his hardball hostages to history.
Wakefield made it easier by taking the hint and the high road.
Wakefield, known for his altruism off the field, appeared self-centered when in Baltimore last September in the midst of the Sox’ epic collapse, he said, “I think the fans deserve an opportunity to watch me chase that record.’’
You always got the sense that Wakefield felt a bit underappreciated. Think of all the ink that has already been devoted to the conversion of reliever Daniel Bard to a starter this spring. Yet, no one thought much of the Sox bouncing Wakefield back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen most of his career.
He was huge in the 2004 ALCS against New York. In the 19-8 massacre in Game 3, Wakefield sacrificed his Game 4 start and saved the bullpen by going 3 1/3 innings and throwing 64 pitches. Two days later, he came out of the pen again and saved the Sox in Game 5, pitching the final three innings of Boston’s 5-4, 14-inning victory that kept the series alive. Wakefield held the Yankees to just one hit, clearing the way for more heroics from David Ortiz.
There was a palpable sense that Wakefield felt his grip on success was as tenuous as his grip on the knuckleball, a pitch that is thrown by clenching the ball with just your fingernails. That if he just dug his nails in a little deeper he could hold on longer, probably borne of his first taste of success.
Wakefield burst onto the scene in 1992 with the Pirates. He went 8-1 with a 2.15 earned run average, and pitched complete-game victories in both of his starts in the NLCS.
But after that, Wakefield was thrown a career curveball. Released April 20, 1995, by the Pirates, he was washed up at 28, a knuckleball cautionary tale.
The Sox saved Wakefield’s career, but he saved the Sox, too.
Red Sox Nation will always owe Wakefield for his role in helping restore the Joy of Sox after the acrimonious 1994 strike. Even diehard fans were left with a distaste for the game after the strike. Enter Wakefield, an improbable ace who helped the Sox reach the playoffs in 1995.
Wakefield put together a stretch that season worthy of Luis Tiant, Clemens or Martinez, winning 14 of his first 15 starts. After beating the Orioles in August, his 10th straight win, he was 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA. Wakefield ended up 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA, and placed third in the Cy Young voting.
Most took Wakefield for an oddity or an anomaly, but he tacked on 16 more seasons in a Red Sox uniform and two World Series titles.
Like the pitch he threw, Wakefield will be missed a lot.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.