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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Farewell to Tim Wakefield

He’ll never get into the Baseball Hall of Fame without a ticket, but in the wake of his recent retirement, Tim Wakefield deserves an endless amount of kudos for what he did for the Boston Red Sox and their fans over the past 17 seasons. In many ways his retirement is surprising because it seemed that the knuckleballer was ageless and would always have a place on the Red Sox pitching staff. But Wakefield, now 45 and having pitched in the major leagues since four months before Bryce Harper was born, has hung up his emery board for good. He will be sorely missed.

Wakefield first came to prominence as a rookie in 1992, winning two complete games in the NLCS for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His achievement was even more sensational because of his back story of having come from a failed stint as a minor league infielder; switching to pitching with a knuckleball in a last ditch effort to save his professional career.

Despite the postseason heroics, he never established himself as a full time starter with the Pirates and they released him in April, 1995. He was quickly signed by the Red Sox, who had a potent offense that year but little in their starting rotation after Erik Hanson and an increasingly aloof Roger Clemens. It began the career of one of the longest tenured and respected players in Red Sox history.

Boston and their fans began their love affair with Wakefield from his first game, which was a start against the California Angels in Anaheim on May 27, 1995. He threw 7 innings of 5-hit ball, while striking out 4 in a 12-1 win. Even with Mo Vaughn on his way to the American League MVP award, Wakefield became the story in Boston that year. In his first 17 starts, he went 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA, helping lead the Red Sox into the playoffs. Fans were intrigued by the pitcher who had a difficult time cracking 70 mph when throwing his fastball as a “change of pace,” but could make the ball look possessed when unleashing his next knuckler.

Wakefield remained a productive starter for Boston for several more years before evolving into the Swiss army knife of their pitching staff. He was selfless to a fault, starting, long relieving, and even closing at times during the remainder of his Red Sox career. He famously filled in at closer for an injured Tom Gordon in 1999, racking up 15 saves while also contributing 17 starts and helping the Red Sox into the playoffs.

During his career with Boston, Wakefield was never the best player on the team, but he was as consistent as they came. He was constantly surrounded by more talented and well known pitchers like Clemens, Pedro Martinez, and Curt Schilling, but he always held his own and outlasted them all. Lacking their pedigree and national renown, it is Wakefield who retires holding the Red Sox team record for games started, innings pitched, and with 186 wins, trailing only Clemens and Cy Young in that category.

Wakefield was a baseball rarity not only because of his knuckleball, but for the 17 years he spent in a Boston uniform. In the age of free agency it is rare for players to spend even half that time with the same team. The relationship between Wakefield and Boston was a perfect one because they knew each other so well and what they did for each other. As long as he could still get the ball to dance, he could count on a job with the Red Sox.

A player’s legacy is not only comprised of their feats on the field. Wakefield established a reputation as one of the most philanthropic players in the game. He was nominated for the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award, annually given to the player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team." Wakefield was nominated for the award an inspiring eight times, winning it in 2010. He was best known for his involvement with Pitching in for Kids, a charity providing grants to children across New England to help improve their lives and teach important life skills.

The end of Wakefield’s career came not because he got old or became dramatically less productive. It came because the departures of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona this past off-season pushed the team into an entirely different direction, stripping off many vestiges from the past. For nearly two decades, Wakefield gave the Red Sox security, akin to the small child dragging a blanky around everywhere. Boston decided that it wanted to move forward without that security, thus ending one of the most successful careers in Boston sports’ history. Wakefield leaves behind a legacy and memories as unique as the pitch that made him such a successful major league pitcher.


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