If we really all have a calling, I think we know what Tim Wakefield‘s is- the ability to befuddle the best baseball players in the world with a spinless, teasing, fluttering pitch, which he did for 19 years. From 1995-2011, Wakefield worked his knuckleball magic for the Sox, finally retiring at the relatively advanced age of 44. In that time, Wakefield racked up 3,006 innings for the Sox, first in team history. Even if he’s far from the greatest Red Sox pitcher of all time, Wakefield has a number of impressive accomplishments to his name- two World Series titles, 200 career wins, and a lone All-Star appearance in 2009. Yet at the start of his professional career, Wakefield never expected that he would end up on the mound.
A stud first baseman during his four years of college baseball at Florida Tech, Wakefield felt that he had the tools to make it at first when the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in 1988. That dream faded fast, as a Pirates scout bluntly informed him that he would never be good enough to reach the majors as a position player. From there, Wakefield’s famous knuckler was born. Three-plus years later, he debuted for the Pirates on July 31st, 1992, hurling a complete game. The unheralded rookie was nearly unhittable, surpassing all expectations with his 8-1 record and 2.15 ERA. In the NLCS, he beat Tom Glavine twice, only missing out on his first World Series appearance and a likely NLCS MVP honor due to a heartbreaking collapse that condemned the Pirates to 20 straight losing seasons. Luckily for Wakefield, he would leave Pittsburgh in early 1995, thanks to his own ineptitude and inability to consistently control the knuckleball. His poor numbers even in the minors meant that Wakefield was headed to Pawtucket when the Sox signed him in late April instead of the more glamorous confines of Fenway.
Wakefield had a very auspicious start to his Sox career. He earned a quick call up to Boston, and established himself as not just a solid starter, but a Cy Young candidate (he finished third in that season’s vote). His perseverance and stellar return to the big leagues (16-8, 2.95 ERA) made him a no-brainer for Comeback Player of the Year. In all honesty, that first year was Wakefield’s best in Boston. The thousands of innings that follow tend to blend together in our memories. Wakefield was always there every fifth day, and you knew he would be pretty good, though not great. One pitch in Wakefield’s career is unfortunately impossible to forget, and that’s the knuckler that Aaron Boone hit into the left field seats of Yankee Stadium in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. That moment seemed to be a cruel sign that the Curse of the Bambino was real and here to stay, that Wakefield, Grady Little, Bill Buckner, and every other member of decades and decades of Red Sox teams that had choked in the clutch would never be redeemed. But the very next season Wakefield was pitching in Game 1 of the World Series at Fenway, and Bucky Dent‘s homer soon took its rightful place as the undisputed worst blast against the Sox in history.
Despite a few dark marks during his career, Wakefield had a very good run for the Sox as a jack of all trades in the pitching staff; he could start, eat innings, relieve, close–the guy did it all without an ounce of pride and went down as one of the greatest “good guys” of the baseball world after he retired. Check out his full line of stats here!
Ultimately, Wakefield should go down in history as a man who served admirably for many years both on and off the field. Based upon his dedication to local charities, including New England’s Pitching for Kids organization, the Touch ‘Em All Foundation, and the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston the Sox nominated him for the Roberto Clemente Award eight times, and Wakefield finally won it in 2010, check out this video of the last out thanks to Junichi Tazawa and Wake’s curtain call soon after:
His positive influence in the community should endure, just as Wakefield did for nearly two decades in the majors thanks to his grit and magical knuckleball.