Tim Wakefield wasn’t the best pitcher in Red Sox history (that’s Pedro Martinez), nor was he the most entertaining (guys like Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Luis Tiant and yes, Pedro, have that territory marked), but what he was one of the Nation’s favorites. For 17 years, he pitched, and acted, with the same stoicism. He never put himself above the game, and was always, always ready to take the ball, be it the top of the first, the bottom of the fourth, or the top of the 12th. He is set to announce his retirement today, but his legend will live forever.
Lest we forget though, his legend didn’t originate in Boston, but rather in Pittsburgh. Or, to put a finer point on it, Welland, Ontario. It was there that Wakefield began his transformation from banjo-hitting infielder to knuckleballer extraordinaire. The early results were promising — a 3.40 ERA in 18 appearances for the Bucs’ Low-A affiliate. Two and a half years later, he was in the Majors. He would finish third in the 1992 National League Rookie of the Year voting, despite not making his Major League debut until July 31. He built on his impressive two months in the postseason, winning two of the Pirates’ three games in the National League Championship Series against Atlanta, with both victories coming against Tom Glavine.
Over the course of the next two seasons, Wakefield would lose his foothold in the Pirates rotation. In fact, after July 7, 1993, he only made five more starts for Pittsburgh. When the Pirates released him in ’95, the Red Sox wasted little time in snapping him up, and after a short stint in Pawtucket he was back in the Majors, this time for good. If you thought you have experienced Linsanity this past week or so, you would do well to remember the summer of ’95, as Wakefield-mania gripped Red Sox Nation with a feverish intensity. But Wakefield would have nothing of it. After he ran his record to 10-1, with a 1.63 ERA on July 24 by holding Minnesota to one run over 7 1/3 innings, Wakefield pleaded with reporters that he was nobody special. “I don’t think you can call a knuckleballer an ace,” he said. “Put me as a third, fourth or fifth starter.” While Wakefield was certainly correct, it was refreshing to hear even amidst his great run, and endeared him to fans even more.
Of course, if you’re not from New England or western Pennsylvania, the moment you probably remember Wakefield for is serving up the walk-off homer to Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. That has always been unfair. A quick glance at Boston’s pitching stats shows that Wakefield was easily the team’s best pitcher that series. He started Games 1 and 4 against Mike Mussina, and the Red Sox walked away winners in each contest. ESPN noted that he was a shoo-in to win series MVP had the Sox hung on to win. That he was even entered Game 7 was a testament to his flexibility. Yet he felt so bad afterwards that he apologized to Red Sox fans for letting them down.
The next season, the Red Sox would get a modicum of revenge, and they never would have achieved it without Wakefield. In the top of the fourth in Game 3, he entered with the Sox trailing 9-6. And while he couldn’t stem the tide, he was able to soak up 3 1/3 crucial innings for the bullpen, a bullpen that would end up being taxed for all it was worth in that series. I’m fairly certain that chunks of Keith Foulke’s elbow were used to fertilize Fenway Park’s grass the following spring.
Wakefield’s star turn in that ALCS was still yet to come, however. Wakefield’s efforts in Game 3 became crucial in Game 4, when the game turned into a five-hour marathon, and it was the same story the next night as well. So when Game 5 went deep into extras, Wakefield was tabbed once again. Though this was the same season-on-the-line situation that Wakefield had failed in the previous season, he was unflappable, even when Jason Varitek boxed three knucklers to the backstop in the 13th inning, the final PB setting up runners at second and third with two outs. Wakefield simply reached back and struck out Ruben Sierra, who had very nearly won the game for the Yankees in the ninth. He set down the Yankees in order the following inning, and David Ortiz won it in the bottom of the 14th. Wakefield pitched three innings in total, and earned the win. The Red Sox would not trail again that October.
There are plenty of other classic Wakefield moments in his 17 years with the Sox, far too many to fit into one post. There was June 19, 2001, when Wakefield carried a no-hitter into the ninth in Tampa, before losing the no-no and very nearly the game. There was the time in 1999, when manager Jimy Williams asked him to be the closer after Tom Gordon went down, and Wakefield filled in with aplomb, saving 15 games before returning to the rotation. There was April 15, 2009, the night before which, Red Sox relievers had combined to throw 186 pitches, and even though it was early in the season, Wakefield knew the score. He told manager Terry Francona, “No matter what, don’t take me out,” and then made the point academic by carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Even when the going got tough, like it did on August 8, 2004, when he tied a Major-League record by allowing six homers to the Tigers, he still found a way to come away with the win. And that really was the beauty of Wakefield. On any given night, his WPA might have been -.670 or .577 (both are figures he posted this past decade) — anything was literally in play. And that always made him fun to watch.
Wins are an imperfect statistic, of course, and that took a little bit of the shine away from Wakefield’s march towards 200 W’s this past summer. And while it would have been nice to see Wakefield pass Roger Clemens on Boston’s all-time wins leaderboard this season, Red Sox management is more concerned with winning ballgames, as they should be. They chose not to bring Wakefield back, and he chose to hang up his spikes. He finishes his career with the third-best WAR among Sox pitchers, but that is a misleading statistic. For one, pitching WAR only goes back to 1974, and many of Boston’s greatest pitchers — from Jim Lonborg, to Lefty Grove, Cy Young to Mel Parnell, “Smoky” Joe Wood to Dutch Leonard and Babe Ruth — pitched before then. Heck, even the first three years of Tiant’s career were before ’74. Looking at Boston’s single-season leaderboard, Wakefield’s best season only ties for 53rd-best in terms of WAR. In fact, if you look at FIP, you’ll notice that of the 40 pitchers to toss 1,000 or more innings in a Red Sox uniform, Wakefield’s 4.74 mark is easily the worst.
But whether good or bad, Wakefield’s career is one that can’t be captured in statistics alone, unless it’s statistics like eight — which was the number of times he was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award. Or two — that is the number of people, Wakefield and Walter Johnson being the two — who won at least four games and threw at least 125 innings in 17 straight seasons. And while he was only worth more than three wins in three of those 17 seasons, it always seemed like he was a lot more valuable than that. He was Boston’s Mr. Anything and Everything, and for stretches of time, he was also the game’s only knuckleballer. He wasn’t always great, but he was always there, whether his knuckler was dancing or floating, and while the 2012 Red Sox are better off without him, Fenway Park won’t be the same with him gone.