As pitchers and catchers begin to report to start a new, fresh-faced season of Major League Baseball, the game turns a page in its history as long-tenured players like Tim Wakefield and Mike Cameron announce their retirements.
When Tim Wakefield was a rookie in 1992, I was a 10-year-old kid in love with the game of baseball. I was the embodiment of the movie The Sandlot without the MLB athletic talent of Benjamin Rodriguez (the speed demon who went on to play for the Dodgers in the 1993 film).
I visited the actual farm where Field of Dreams was set in Dyersville, Iowa, throwing from the pitcher's mound as if it was a sanctuary.
Fascinated by the erratic and unpredictable nature of the knuckleball, I recall studying up on Tom Candiotti of the Cleveland Indians around the same time Wakefield was an unknown rookie. I recall another knuckleballer, Charlie Hough, had retired in recent years and the game had but one or two established knuckleballers active.
I practiced that pitch with my scrawny 10-year-old limbs and grips, only to see it sail like a sitting-duck changeup. No movement, no missed bats, some spin and no magic.
The imaginative and spirited mind of my childhood found mystical grace in this American invention of baseball, and the knuckleball embodied the excitement of unpredictability and craftiness possible in sports.
To this day, I practice that pitch knowing full well I'll never master it. The nature of a knuckleball pitcher is like a classic underdog story we love as Americans.
Some knuckleball pitchers, like today's R.A. Dickey, were told they'd never make it without some kind of trick in their repertoire, so they added a knuckler. Others had arm troubles, thus reducing the impact their weakened fastballs could create.
The pitch itself is full of false-starts, epic changes of direction and, at other times, a total lack of breaking movement. The knuckler is a prayer to the controller of the ball's physics, hoping for seams to grant it the ability to dodge bats.
The knuckler is the slowest pitch to ever scowl ferociously at the biggest bats in baseball history, and win.
As a pitch, it's the light-hearted fable of the tortoise and the hare meeting the profound wisdom of James Earl Jones' voice.
Equally important, the knuckler and its master in Wakefield have no advantages in steroid use. The knuckler is like a chess player who simply innovates a new opening in a storied game without cheating.
As I saw Tim Wakefield today, choking up tears to announce he had to say goodbye to the game he loved, I realized how much history the man has experienced in the game and what it means on the parallel path of all my own lifelong changes, successes and tribulations that I share with so many Americans of this generation.
Nearly 20 years is a lot of baseball. Wakefield played through three presidents, two of which were second-term leaders of our country.
Tim Wakefield may not have a stat line that screams "Hall of Famer," and I would be surprised if his current resume gets him into Cooperstown (who's to say he won't coach and become a legend in coaching to get him to the Hall, however?).
But the sheer scarcity of his breed of ballplayer—being a knuckleballer and great ambassador to his teammates, fans and community—makes me sure we have witnessed the end to a rare act in baseball history.
In fact, as the game evolves, if the past is any clue into baseball's future, it is entirely possible fewer and fewer knuckleballers will exist, let alone effective ones like Wakefield.
With this in mind, baseball fans everywhere can celebrate Wakefield's achievements knowing we may have just witnessed one of the most original, creative and honest performances in baseball history.
Thank you for your 19 years of service, Mr. Wakefield, you've done baseball proud.
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