Wakefield never knuckled under
Story of unpredictable pitch, baseball career
Since knuckleball specialist Tim Wakefield joined the Red Sox in 1995, he has started more games and thrown more innings than any other pitcher in team history. He has won 179 games for the team, only 13 fewer than Cy Young and Roger Clemens, who are tied for first place with 192 apiece.
Wakefield, at 44 the team’s senior member, has earned over the years not just the respect but the love of Sox fans. This is due, in part, to the fact that he throws a fluttering knuckleball and not a blistering 96 mile-per-hour fastball, which makes him seem more an Everyman than an unapproachable star. It also helps that he comes across as a regular guy, one who gets very involved in local charities such as the Jimmy Fund.
In his memoir, “Knuckler,’’ Wakefield tells the story of how a struggling player from Florida bet the house on a somewhat unpredictable pitch and became a major league ace and a hero in his adopted hometown of Boston. It also deals with the emotional twists and turns of a career dependent on a pitch not entirely in the pitcher’s control.
Wakefield began throwing the knuckler as a teenager in Melbourne, Fla., after his father showed him the basic grip. In high school, Wakefield pitched but also played shortstop and first base; he and his coaches felt his future was as a hitter. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization after his junior season at Florida Tech, but he foundered in the minor leagues, finding it difficult to make the transition to hitting at the professional level. That is until a coach saw Wakefield throw a knuckleball while fooling around with a teammate and a pitching career was born.
But a career built on a knuckleball? Wakefield readily admits he does not ever really know when it’s going to be working for him. There are things that help, though, and confidence is fundamental. Throughout “Knuckler,’’ we are given a window into Wakefield’s ongoing questions of uncertainty and vulnerability and self-doubt. Am I going to make it? What does this new manager think of me? (Wakefield has pitched for five.)
Besides the built-in uncertainty of being a knuckleballer, Wakefield faced other challenges. Having a routine, a set role is a big help. Despite, or perhaps partly because of, his longevity, Wakefield has rarely enjoyed a predictable role. He’s been a starter, a closer, pitched in long relief, in middle relief, as a spot starter, and done mop-up work and set-up work.
He’s never started fewer than 15 games in a season, but after four seasons as a starter, he was mainly a reliever in his second four years. One of the things fans love most about him (and one of the reasons he has been such a valuable asset to the ballclub) has been his willingness to take one for the team, time and again. The best example came in the lopsided Game Three of the 2004 League Championship Series against the Yankees, when he entered as the fifth pitcher in four innings, and threw 3 1/3 innings and 64 pitches in the 19-8 loss. He thereby yielded his chance to start Game Four. Manager Terry Francona expressed his appreciation: “He saved a couple of our pitchers.’’ Wakefield’s selflessness has been an asset, but he’s human, too, and admits to feeling that the Sox have occasionally taken advantage of his versatility to a point approaching abuse.
Though nominally written by Wakefield, much of this enjoyable and even enlightening book was authored by veteran sportswriter Tony Massarotti, a regular contributor to Boston.com. Wake’s contributions are evident enough, though. And for fans of this great and humble player and all-around decent guy, “Knuckler’’ is a must-read.
Bill Nowlin, author of more than 20 books about baseball and the Boston Red Sox, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.