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chad finn

Here’s why the Red Sox should retire Tim Wakefield’s No. 49

Dan Shaughnessy remembers Tim Wakefield
WATCH: Sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy joins Boston Globe Today to celebrate the life of Tim Wakefield.

Yes, of course, the Red Sox should retire Tim Wakefield’s No. 49.

Do it next season, the 20th anniversary of the 2004 World Series championship, when he was that extraordinary team’s foremost embodiment of faith and resilience rewarded.

Maybe even attach a fitting special exception to the honor. Retire the number — which has been out of circulation since Wakefield’s retirement following the 2011 season — but permit any knuckleballer on the roster to wear it, should another come along.

Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm wore No. 49 with the Giants. Other knuckleballers who wore the digits include Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti. Retire it, but leave it open to members of the brotherhood of the dancing baseball.

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I think Wakefield would have liked that idea. I wish we could know.

We’re nearly a week beyond Sunday’s devastating news that Wakefield had died at age 57 of brain cancer.

And still, the tragic reality staggers. Wakefield was in the NESN booth just a couple flips of the calendar ago, not looking a whole lot different than when he tossed his last knuckler a dozen years back.

Even when his diagnosis (as well as news of his wife Stacy’s own cancer battle) was revealed in Curt Schilling’s infuriatingly inconsiderate way, who would have suspected that Wakefield’s days had already dwindled to so few?

When Jason Varitek spoke of his friend and longtime teammate through tears, he was an avatar for all of us. “I don’t know if I need to say anything, I think I’m showing it,” he said. It was a day when even stoics cried.

There was so much to like about Wakefield. It’s true, he could be a grump, being a human being, and I must confess that I wasn’t always thrilled when Wakefield, Frank Castillo, or John Burkett seemed to pitch every Red Sox game I attended as a fan from, oh, 1997 through 2003.

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It could be exasperating when, after giving up three homers and seven earned runs in 4⅓ innings, Wakefield would say, “I thought my stuff was good.”

In retrospect, that’s probably how he had to think as someone whose livelihood was beholden to the whims of a knuckleball. It took true guts to go out there in front of 37,000 fans armed with little more than meticulously manicured fingernails, a prayer or two, and a 68 m.p.h. pitch that selected its own flight path.

The suggestion … plea … demand? — yes, it’s a demand, Sam Kennedy — to retire his number is supported by both statistics and sentiment. Wakefield spent 17 seasons with the Red Sox, earning 186 regular-season victories here and an even 200 in his career. Only Roger Clemens and Cy Young won more games for the Red Sox, and only that pair of icons pitched more innings.

Wakefield’s highs were spectacular. In 1995, after Dan Duquette claimed him on waivers from the Pirates, he immediately submitted one of the best pitching stretches by anyone in Red Sox history, and almost certainly the best run ever for a knuckleballer.

In his first 17 starts for the Red Sox, Wakefield went 14-1 with a 1.65 earned run average. The knuckleball that had betrayed him in Pittsburgh learned to dance again in Boston. He was so dominant that you could almost convince yourself that it was going to last forever.

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It did not, knuckleballs being fickle as they are, and Wakefield settled in to what became a long career of riding the ebbs and flows, devouring innings, and doing whatever he could to benefit the team.

His willingness to take his lumps from the Yankees in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS to allow the rest of the staff to align was part of Red Sox lore before that magical October was complete. A smaller marvel: He picked up 15 saves for an admirable 1999 Red Sox team after Tom Gordon’s elbow went haywire.

What in the moment seemed like it would be Wakefield’s lowest point ended up being a confirmation of just how much he was respected.

When one doomed knuckleball refused to cooperate and the Yankees’ Aaron Boone walloped a walkoff home run in the 12th inning of the seventh game of the 2003 ALCS, the look on Wakefield’s face as he walked off the field was one of pure devastation. I remember thinking at the time that I’d never seen an athlete look so sad.

Wakefield was crushed when he lost Game 7 of the ALCS in 2003, but he didn't stay down.Reuters

He later acknowledged that he was sure he was going to become the next Bill Buckner, doomed to eternal association with Red Sox heartbreak. He shouldn’t have worried. The goat from that game was established before Wakefield ever took the mound. Like Buckner (cleared of all wrongdoing by Boston fans years before the national media noticed), Wakefield was a victim of mistakes that came before.

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Wakefield’s baseball feats — and the selfless, fearless, uncommonly resilient manner in which he achieved them — are reason enough to retire his number. But his tireless philanthropy is the greatest measure of the man, and that defines his time in Boston more than any victory or defeat.

The Red Sox’ long relationship with the Jimmy Fund is the single most admirable thing about the franchise, and I don’t even know what would be second. Now listen to what Mike Andrews — Impossible Dream second baseman and longtime chairman of the Jimmy Fund — said when Wakefield won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2010:

“I sometimes try to figure out why somebody like Tim Wakefield is like Tim Wakefield is. I doubt this has anything to do with it, but he had the hard knocks getting to the big leagues, really the hard knocks.

“He was an infielder and got released and had a knuckleball and came back. I think it wasn’t a free ride to the big leagues for Tim Wakefield. Did that make him more of a down-to-earth guy than a lot of them are? Maybe.

“But I think it goes much deeper than that, honestly. I just think it was the way he was brought up. I just think it’s the way he is. He’s very unique, and I don’t mean to single him out as the only giving ballplayer that we’ve had. There are so many that have given so much, but Tim just gives a little bit more, and continuously.”

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Andrews provided the best assessment of Wakefield that I’ve ever heard. And that was 13 years ago. Just imagine how many people he had helped since.

Tim Wakefield gave so much to the Red Sox. He sacrificed, he delivered, endured, and 2004 does not unfold in that unfathomably cathartic way without him. But he gave even more to those who cared about the Red Sox, especially those who needed a boost, a hug, a friend, someone to lean on.

He was the embodiment of what the Red Sox should be. He was the embodiment of what we should be.

No, Tim Wakefield will never be forgotten. But put that No. 49 up on the facade, because every reminder of the man is a blessing.


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.