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For some reason, I was thinking about Tim Wakefield on the night of Saturday, May 27, 1995.
Earlier in the day, we played the first round of the Memorial Day Tournament at the Highland Vie Golf Course, and we headed to the Scoop Bar for a night of fun.
I must have heard something or saw something out of the corner of my eye to make me think of the knuckleball pitcher who wowed the baseball world during the 1992 playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Pirates rookie former first baseman had his knuckler dancing as he won two games against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series.
I had seen some knuckleball pitchers before, but Wakefield seemed different. The camera showed us clearly how that knuckler was dancing, and it seemed to defy gravity.
It seemed like it would be easier for those juiced up sluggers to catch a fly with chopsticks than it would be to hit Wakefield’s knuckleball.
Wakefield was so good in his Game 6 win that some baseball experts openly pushed for the Pirates to start him again in Game 7. They actually called for Wakefield to make back-to-back starts instead of throwing Doug Drabek, who won the National League Cy Young Award two years earlier.
Had manager Jim Leyland listened, perhaps the Pirates would have gone to the World Series that year.
The next year, Wakefield posted a 6-11 record, and he did not pitch in the Major Leagues in 1994. It was like he fell off the face of the Earth.
“What ever happened to Tim Wakefield?” I asked my group of friends.
This was before we all had cell phones, and the internet was something we only saw on occasion. Apparently, I missed the pitching lineups in that day’s paper, too.
“The Red Sox picked him up,” my Irish friend Liam Maroney said. “He was pitching in Pawtucket.”
That, I thought, sounded promising. I would love for my favorite team to have that knuckleball as a weapon if they ever did make the playoffs again.
A few minutes after that, the Red Sox highlights against the California Angeles came on SportsCenter.
My jaw hit the bar as I saw that brand-new Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield pitched seven solid innings as Boston beat the Angels 12-1. Wakefield had the knuckler dancing as he gave up one earned run in the win.
I couldn’t believe it. In a matter of about 5 minutes, I went from wondering where Wakefield was to finding out that he had regained his knuckleball and was using it for my favorite team.
It almost seemed like a dream.
Wakefield went 16-8 that season. He posted a 2.95 ERA and finished third in Cy Young voting and 13th in MVP voting. He also helped lead the Red Sox to the American League East title.
For the next 17 seasons, Wakefield was a fixture in the Boston Red Sox rotation. He posted a record of 186-168 in Boston. He was 200-180 overall, with a 4.41 ERA.
In 2004, Wakefield helped break the Curse of the Bambino and give the Red Sox their first World Series title since 1918. It is no stretch to say that the Red Sox would not have won the World Series without Wakefield.
They probably would have been swept by the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
Wakefield was slated to start Game 4 of the ALCS in Boston. That is an assignment every pitcher dreams about. It is one that no pitcher in his right mind would turn down.
Wakefield was no ordinary player, though. He was as selfless as they come.
With the Yankees teeing off on the Red Sox to the tune of a 19-8 win in Game 3, Wakefield volunteered to head to the bullpen. Wakefield was always wearing his spikes.
So, Wakefield sacrificed his start the next day and gave the Red Sox 3 and a third innings of relief. He gave up five earned runs after the game was already all but over.
That beating that Wakefield took saved the Boston bullpen, and the Red Sox came all the way back to beat the Yankees in seven games. Sure, we remember David Ortiz’s walk-off hits, Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, Kevin Millar’s bravado and Derek Lowe starting Game 7 on two-days’ rest.
When I think of that great comeback, though, I think of Tim Wakefield’s selflessness.
Then, Wakefield got the start in Game 1 of the World Series in Fenway Park. It was not possible for me to be happier for a player I never met.
In 2007, the Red Sox won the World Series again, and once again Wakefield’s selflessness played a role. The knuckleballer was hurting. He could have tried to pitch in the World Series, but he knew that the team would be better off if he didn’t.
So, Wakefield pulled himself off the roster.
As the team was celebrating the victory in Denver, Don Orsillo, then the Red Sox announcer for the New England Sports Network, interviewed Wakefield.
That’s when reliever Mike Timlin came up to interrupt.
“I just want to say one thing,” Timlin said. “This guy right here, this win is for this man right here. Because he was not on the roster, and he showed so much heart by saying ‘I can’t be on the roster’ and it was good for the team. This is what of person is standing right here. I love this guy. I’m proud of this guy. It’s the hardest thing to do to take yourself out of the game for someone else. But he did it, and I’m proud of him.”
Wakefield’s eyes filled with tears as Timlin spoke. So too did the eyes of every Red Sox fan and every decent fan in the world.
I was lucky enough to sit in the old rooftop seats on the third base side of Fenway Park in 1998 and watch Wakefield’s knuckleball dance. I was lucky enough to see him pitch a couple of more times in Seattle.
One time in Seattle, I stood a matter of feet from Wakefield as he warmed up for his start in the bullpen. I wanted to say so much, but I stood in silence as I marveled at that knuckleball floating to catcher Doug Mirabelli.
As much as I loved watching Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield is without question my favorite pitcher of all time. He is one of my favorite baseball players of all time. He is one of my favorite athletes ever.
Years ago, I remember thinking of the celebrities and sports figures I wanted to talk to. No autographs or fawning. I just want to talk to them.
That list used to include Walter Payton, Mike Royko and George Carlin. With the passing of those legends, the list was down to Jim McMahon and Tim Wakefield.
I would have loved to sit down with Wakefield and tell him how much I loved watching him pitch. I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his selflessness that helped bring my team championships.
But Wakefield died Oct. 1 of brain cancer. He was only 57.
His death came just a couple of days after Schilling, a Hall of Fame knucklehead, ignored Wakefield’s privacy requests and told the world the former pitcher was sick.
Wakefield will be missed, even by the fans who never met him.
In an era where bat flips, touchdown dances and Deion Sanders are celebrated, Wakefield did things the right way. He always put his team above himself, and he should long be remembered as the ultimate teammate.
And Jim Leyland should have used him again in Game 7.
— For more stories and podcasts from Bill Foley, go to ButteCast.com. Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield
always put his team above himself
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