Tim Wakefield, my favorite Red Sox player, passed away this past Sunday from brain cancer. He was 57.
(Yes, it’s a bit unnerving to realize he was only 3 years older than me.)
I became a fan of his when he came to the Red Sox in 1995 and had two-third of a Cy Young caliber campaign. (Having him on my fantasy baseball team that year didn’t hurt.) He’d come up with the Pittsburgh Pirates and thrown almost 100 brilliant innings in 1992, but couldn’t repeat it in 1993, and got sent down and then released. A knuckleball pitcher, he relied on a pitch which was notoriously hard to control. Go read up on how baseball pitches work, and then read how knuckleball pitches work, and frankly it’s almost hard to believe any pitcher manages to throw strikes with them with any regularity.
It’s easy to love the great sluggers like Albert Pujols (and I do love Albert Pujols), but I also love the quirky players who bring something unusual to the game. Ichiro Suzuki’s unbelievable ability to make contact. Mike Boddicker’s ridiculous curveball. And Tim Wakefield having an almost 20-year career in the Majors throwing a knuckleball.
One of my enduring baseball memories was attending the Red Sox/Twins game on July 24, 1995. This is the only time I recall attending a game at Fenway where I sat in the bleachers. Wakefield started the game and gave up a triple to Chuck Knoblauch. He then struck out the next two batters, while Knoblauch danced around third base. Finally, while facing the next batter, he looked over at Knoblauch and cocked his head towards home plate, saying “If you’re going to go, then go.” Knoblauch went, and Wakefield threw him out on the steal attempt. Presumably on the knuckleball, since he rarely threw anything else, although he did occasionally throw a “fast” ball which was probably slower than most pitchers’ breaking balls.
The other memorable moment was in a game I didn’t watch, since I refuse to watch Yankees playoff games, and none more so than the 2004 ALCS. In game 3, the Yankees were tee’ing off of Red Sox pitching, to the tune of 10 runs in 3-1/3 innings. While the Sox were not completely out of it, Wakefield came in and threw 3-1/3 innings himself, giving up another 5 runs but likely helping save the rest of the pitching staff for the team’s historic comeback over the next 4 games.
Wakefield supposedly had a team-friendly contract which got renewed every year until the end of his career. I haven’t been able to find details of this deal, so maybe I imagined it, but as a very durable mid-rotation starter and long reliever, he probably appreciated the job security and he objectively made plenty of money while being able to stay with the Red Sox for the rest of his career. Sometimes it’s not all about the money. And he did win 2 championships with them.
Although he never got the attention of David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, or other star players, Tim Wakefield was an ever-present part of the Red Sox for a really, really long time, baffling pitchers (and catchers) with his ridiculous stuff.
Thanks for everything, Tim.