So Long, and Thanks for all the Knuckleballs
Tim Wakefield retired on Friday, as the third winningest pitcher in Red Sox history after 17 years with the team. Wakefield won’t be remembered as the greatest pitcher in team history (that honor belongs to Pedro Martinez), but for nearly two decades he’s been the greatest point of continuity for the team as it emerged from the dark days of the late 90’s and early aughts to become a perennial championship contender. For the average fan he will perhaps be best remembered for giving up a series-ending home run to Aaron Boone in the 2003 ALCS. Red Sox die-hards, however, will recall Wakefield forgoing a Game 4 start by volunteering for mop-up duty in a Game 3 blowout loss to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. That effort, along with Wake’s 3 inning appearance in Game 5, were critical to the Red Sox preserving their pitching staff to complete the greatest comeback in sports history. For that we’ll always be thankful.
The truth is that I’ve always had mixed feelings about Wakefield. He certainly brought a lot to the table, he was an effective innings eater, a respected teammate, and no one ever questioned his guts. However, he also took a lot off; Wakefield retires with a career ERA of 4.41 and a career FIP of 4.71, and Jason Varitek’s inability to catch his knuckleball required the Red Sox to carry deadweight Doug Mirabelli for years as Wake’s personal catcher.
Perhaps what was most unique about Wakefield was that his both his best and worst qualities as a pitcher seemed to be on display in every start. Wakefield could go from striking out two batters in a row to giving up back to back home runs in a span of 10 minutes. Although Red Sox fans have long adored him, we’d be lying if we didn’t admit that his starts have always been heartburn inducing.
This is perhaps the point in this retrospective where I should make a hackneyed metaphor comparing Wakefield to the pitch that made him famous, the knuckleball. The truth is that Wake often belied the long-held baseball stereotype of knuckleballers as odd-ball, flighty, personalities. In fact, what made Wakefield so easy to root for was how normal he seemed. Not only did he rely on a throwback pitch, he was a throwback to a time when baseball players weren’t freaks of nature. There’s no doubt that Wakefield was an exceptional athlete, but when compared to preternaturally gifted individuals like Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, Wakefield’s whole existence seemed proof that perhaps Major League Baseball wasn’t so hard to play. In a clubhouse often populated by crazy people (Ramirez, Carl Everett), outsized personalities (Martinez, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia) and a town populated by the most neurotic fan base in the nation and a media best described as something just short of despicable — Boston’s two most likable print columnists are Bob Ryan and Tony Massarotti, one of whom (Ryan) once argued that Jason Kidd’s wife deserved to be verbally assaulted for sitting in the Garden stands with her kid and the other (Massarotti) of whom is just slightly less of a bridge troll than Dan Shaughnessy — Wakefield always felt like a breath of fresh air.
Like so much else in his career, Wakefield’s retirement seems somewhat understated for someone who was so much a part of the Red Sox culture for the past 17 years. In many ways, it comes as a surprise, I always thought that Wake could pitch well into his 50s if he wanted. At the same time, like so much else he did, it just seems like the right time, the normal time for him to hang it up.