It has literally nothing to do with Tim Wakefield himself and literally everything to do with that topsy-turvy knuckleball of his. For years now—almost 15 in Boston, to be exact—I have sat on the couch to watch Wakefield pitch, and my head acted just like his signature pitch. A slow, swerving, dancing, darting concoction of half-snores and drool. On a good day, I managed to keep my chin from spiking the center of my chest or, even worse, the floor. For the life of me, I just can’t stay engaged when I see the spin-less floater tossed up to the plate over and over...and over. I would leave Wakefield alone by himself on my screen, throwing his tumbling teasers to the world’s best hitters, to go fetch a glass of water. I’d come back, and there he was. I’d get up to dig a magazine out of the mail, flip through the interesting stories, skim the less intriguing, and then come back to the ballgame—and Wakefield was still there.
“Geez, does this guy ever get knocked out?”
Yes, sometimes he does, but the majority of the time he just absorbs the blows. This I have come to learn. It’s taken me all these years to warm up to watching Wakefield pitch, but I finally got it. If I’m not guilty of negligence, then there isn’t a soul on this earth that is.
In the earlier years, Wakefield was nothing more than an average pitcher, a guy I figured would get his jock cleaned by some of baseball’s more menacing lineups. For the longest time, sending Wakefield to the mound was nothing more than a cruel, sinister joke. I have always marveled at his courage, because after all, you couldn’t pay me enough to stand 60 feet, six inches from men who make a living whirling a deadly weapon around and dangle a treat at 58 miles per hour. No thanks.
But this season has been different. I have watched Wakefield from the beginning, and I watched him win his American League-best 11th game of the season Wednesday evening at Fenway Park, pitching six innings against the Oakland A’s. What struck me was that I can’t remember the last time Wakefield didn’t take the mound for the Red Sox and just do his job. But Wakefield should be used to that; he’s been making believers out of doubters his entire career. It’s not entirely our fault. I mean, Wakefield wasn’t even supposed to be a pitcher to begin with.
Wakefield was a corner infielder in college and was drafted as a hitter in the eighth round of the 1988 Amateur Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He holds single-season records for home runs (22) and RBI (71) in addition to the career home run record (40) for the mighty Panthers. The Florida Institute of Technology Panthers, that is. By all means, Wakefield should be writing computer code instead of scouting reports. After being told by a scout that he would never make the big leagues as a position player, Wakefield began tinkering with the knuckleball and made the switch to full-time pitcher in 1990. By ’92, the Pirates were calling for Wakefield in August in search of another arm to boost them into the postseason. Wakefield threw a complete game against the St. Louis Cardinals in his major league debut, and the good times rolled. Wakefield finished the year 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA, was named National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year by the Sporting News, and beat Tom Glavine twice in the NLCS. However, the Pirates lost to the Atlanta Braves in seven games. Control problems over the next year and a half, combined with the '94 players strike, led to Wakefield’s release in April 1995. Once again, fools did not believe.
A week later, the Boston Red Sox jumped on the opportunity to pick up Wakefield, and what a ride it has been—for both sides. Over the next 15 seasons, Wakefield won two World Series rings and provided valuable innings out of the bullpen in the playoffs. After giving up a walk-off home run to the Yankees’ Aaron Boone in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, a bomb that sent the Yankees to the World Series and the Red Sox to another winter in Babe Ruth’s gas chamber, Wakefield apologized to the fans. It never, ever was about him.
I can’t tell you how he got this far, because nobody really knows. Wakefield has always just kept moving. In all likelihood, he isn’t going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but there’s no shame in that. Wakefield has tasted the top of baseball’s Mt. Everest...twice. He currently sits 11 wins shy of 200 for his career. He is third in wins in Red Sox history, only behind Cy Young and Roger Clemens. Pedro Martinez is Jesus Christ in Boston, and he provided some of the most magnificent years we have ever seen on a mound. But even he hasn’t won as many games in the colors as Wakefield has.
Off the field, there aren’t many people with a bigger heart than “Wake.” Among his many charitable contributions, Wakefield has done work with the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston, New England’s Pitching in for Kids organization, and the Touch 'Em All Foundation. He has been nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award, honoring great community service, seven times. Wakefield has never cared about the fame, money, or celebrity. It’s always been about the baseball and the people who he shares a neighborhood and a city with. We’ve seen big cities bring gifted men to their knees. We’ve seen big money bring indestructible icons to their graves. Major League Baseball has been widely flawed with steroid users and cheats, but Tim Wakefield isn’t just a baseball example. He is a societal example.
Every industry in the world, whether it’s entertainment or not, is weaved together with handfuls of perplexing souls, but we oftentimes turn our back on the human in order to idolize the corporate product. Why? The recent deaths of Michael Jackson and Steve McNair are perfect examples of amazing talents who had their lives cut short due to destructive habits. Both events are tragic losses for the respective families, families in much need of prayer.
For a change, let's pick some heroes who have done it right with the cameras on, but even better with the cameras off. My bet is that there are many, many more people who do great things for their organizations, companies, fans, and friends than not. That’s the beauty of Tim Wakefield—a career I have spent most the time watching half-asleep.
He has been persistent in the pursuit of his dreams and responsible in the handling of his life as a public figure. When Wakefield heads to St. Louis next week for the first All-Star Game of his career, I won’t be flipping through the magazines like I used to. My eyes will be open and glued to the screen, paying a true difference maker the respect he deserves.