In the end, Tim Wakefield was the last to know—which, given his unassuming personality and comfort away from the limelight, was really the only fitting way.
The Red Sox announced Wakefield’s first selection to the All-Star team after 16-and-a-half seasons with a fitting prank Sunday, calling the five other Sox picks for the American League team into manager Terry Francona’s office and leaving Wakefield in the clubhouse.
Wakefield told the story Sunday afternoon as part of a mid-game interview on NESN, laughing as he described the moment Francona finally summoned the veteran hurler. The rest of the All-Stars were packing up to leave, getting ready to waltz past a puzzled Wakefield.
Before they took off, though, they shed their poker faces and broke the news to Wake, handing out “hugs and handshakes,” he said.
Wakefield’s is the kind of story that doesn’t happen enough in sports. He’s a first-time All-Star, and he’s weeks away from his 43rd birthday. As much as his selection is for a remarkable first half of the season—in which Wakefield is tied for the AL lead with 10 wins—it is also a Lifetime Achievement award of sorts.
It’s a fine tribute to a man that has been anything and everything to the Boston Red Sox over a winding career. He deserves it and has for a long time.
Still, there was some question as to whether Wake would have a spot on the team, a debate the righty put to rest last week with his 10th victory. Had they kept him off the roster with that kind of first-half win total, there would have been a public outcry.
But that’s how it’s always been with Wake. He’s slid under the radar for nearly two decades while building one of the most consistent careers in Red Sox history, and he’s been comfortable doing so. Wakefield doesn’t seek praise. And when it finds him—on the rare occasions that it does—he deflects it with sincere modesty and an embarrassed smile.
All this makes the pick all the more fitting. There’s no telling how many more seasons Wakefield has in him, but the All-Star appearance is a ceremonial bow on his career, regardless of when it ends. It validates his worth in tangible terms, something only necessary to those watching outside the Boston area.
Anyone who follows the Red Sox on an annual basis needs no reminder of Wakefield’s value.
He is, indeed, one of a kind. His career has followed a path as unique as it has been wild. To wit, all of the categories in which he’s led the league have been dubious. He surrendered the most home runs in 2005, suffered the most losses in 1997, and twice plunked the most hitters, in ’97 and 2001. Yet he’s garnered votes for the Cy Young Award and the MVP (both in 1995).
He’s been successful as a starter and a closer (picking up 15 saves in 1999), and yet some of his most memorable appearances have been in long relief, including lockdown efforts on back-to-back nights during the most transcendent series in Red Sox history.
His dazzling showings in Games Four and Five vs. the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS were as important as David Ortiz’ walk-off swings in guiding the Sox to the Curse-breaking title.
He’s also been remarkably consistent. At times he seems just the opposite—he can go through month-long stretches or four-inning spans at either end of the pitching spectrum—but his numbers always end up in the same neighborhood.
It’s a really small neighborhood too. Since 2002, Wakefield’s ERA has never fluctuated outside a range of .78 (from a low of 4.09 in 2003 to a high of 4.87 in 2004), an absolutely ridiculous figure given the fickle nature of baseball.
Just ask teammate Josh Beckett, who’s widely regarded as one of the game’s best and yet has seen his ERA sit in the 5.00s and the 3.00s in his brief Red Sox career.
Wakefield has started the most games in Red Sox history, and he’s closing in on the most victories the franchise has ever seen, a record shared now by two guys you might have heard of—Roger Clemens and Cy Young.
That’s a testament to his durability, longevity, and consistency. You can have your five-tool players; I’ll take a guy with that triumvirate of characteristics any day of the week.
But Wakefield’s worth goes well beyond numbers. He’s seen his role change a dozen times over the course of his career, and he’s never complained. He quietly does what is necessary for the team, no matter what.
He also signed what amounts to a perpetual one-year, $4 million deal following the 2005 season, leaving the Red Sox the option to renew each spring. When the team decides it no longer needs Wakefield, he’s ready to walk into the sunset.
How many Major Leaguers have the stability—and I’m talking stability of character, not the wallet—to say the-heck-with-it, even if I win 25 games, I’m not asking for a raise?
The answer: one.
One, as in one All-Star game that marks the official certification of Tim Wakefield as a true Red Sox great.
It seems only fitting that my personal favorite Wakefield memory didn’t take place during a game. After the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series, Wakefield was giving a television interview when teammate Mike Timlin wandered up behind.
Wakefield had been left off the playoff roster due to an ailing back, opening up a roster spot the Red Sox desperately needed for the postseason run. As Timlin described the sacrifice Wakefield made to the camera with everyone watching, noting that the Sox would never have won the crown without such a selfless contribution, Wakefield grew increasingly teary-eyed.
So did I.
Wakefield was overwhelmed and humbled in true Wakefield fashion, because it wasn’t about him.
It was never about him.
But July 14 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, finally, it will be.
Wakefield would never say it himself, but it’s about time.
(This article first appeared at www.examiner.com, where Keith Testa is the New England Pro Sports Examiner.)