While the Red Sox claimed their most dramatic victory of the 2011 season, it was natural to feel as if a wrong had been committed at Tim Wakefield’s expense.
Pressed into emergency duty as a spot starter by Clay Buchholz’ illness, the 44-year-old was little short of spectacular. Despite not having made a start since spring training, and not having pitched more than three innings at any point in spring or in the season, the knuckleballer mesmerized the Mariners.
Wakefield was better than even reigning Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez for much of the afternoon, pitching into the sixth inning and leaving with two outs, a runner on first and the Sox in possession of a 2-0 lead. In the words of manager Terry Francona, Wakefield “gave us more than we could have asked for.”
But even though the Sox won, 3-2, on Carl Crawford’s walkoff single in the bottom of the ninth (recap), Wakefield was denied a starter’s ultimate prize: a victory. Instead, because of Bobby Jenks’ disastrous relief efforts, Wakefield took a no-decision, remaining at 193 career victories — and at 179 victories with the Red Sox, still 13 short of the franchise record for wins.
Yet to dwell on the cosmic wrong committed by Wakefield being denied a ‘W’ on a day when he was so effective, in some respects, misses the point. First, there is the fact of Wakefield’s satisfaction with the outcome of his team, something that superseded his concern with individual milestones.
“I knew this year, this is my job, and I’m happy to do it,” Wakefield said. “It’s gratifying to be able to have good results and be able to go deep in the game. That’s one thing you strive on, but other than that, some things are out of your control.”
But perhaps more significantly, there is the matter of the unlikelihood of Wakefield doing this at all. He is more than three years older than any other pitcher in the majors. He is in his 19th big league season, and on Sunday, he became the ninth player in big league history to start at least one game in 17 consecutive years with the same team.
Those are hallmarks of extraordinary, historic longevity for a player whose career once appeared over almost as soon as it was underway.
Wakefield was a record-setting home run hitter at Florida Tech. He was drafted as a first baseman by the Pirates in 1988. He started his professional career convinced that he had a path to the big leagues as a power hitter. But reality set in early.
“Probably about a month into my first season, I felt like I was overmatched,” Wakefield said during spring training this year. “I just couldn’t hit anymore. [The separator was] probably using wooden bats — going from aluminum to wood, and everybody threw a lot harder.”
Wakefield hit .189 with a .636 OPS as a 21-year-old with Pittsburgh’s New York-Penn League affiliate in 1988. At the start of the 1989 season, he remained in extended spring training to start the year. He spent eight games at full-season Augusta, but subsequently ended up playing once again in the New York-Penn League, where the Pirates had a team in Welland, Ontario.
Wakefield was mostly a third baseman for Welland. Though his results at the plate were poor (.216 average, .585 OPS), he showed a resolve that his manager did not want to discourage.
“Wake has always been a determined guy, confident,” said U.L. Washington, Wakefield’s manager in Welland, and now a Red Sox minor league hitting coach. “Even when he was a third baseman he always said he was going to be in the big leagues. As coaches, we stay positive. You echo things, especially if what they’re saying is positive. But in my mind, I was saying, good enough arm, but I just don’t know if that bat is going to get to the big leagues.
“He may not believe it, but he’s not the most athletic person in the world,” Washington added with a laugh. “If you see him walk, you can kind of tell. That’s not age — he’s always walked like that.
“I think it got down to a point where he was probably going to be released. Someone knew he threw a knuckleball and said, ‘Let’s stick him on a mound, see what happens.’”
That someone was Pirates rookie league manager Woody Huyke, who had seen Wakefield throw some knuckleballs during that season-opening spell in extended spring training.
“That summer, when they had the organizational meetings, they go through every player,” Wakefield said. “That’s where Woody spoke up on my behalf and said, ‘Hey, before you release him when the year is over, why don’t we turn him into a pitcher?’ ”
When Wakefield was told that he had to choose between pitching and being cut, the decision was easy. He was happy to prolong his pro baseball career in any way possible.
Even so, he did not appear to suffer illusions about his prospects. Certainly, the thought had gone through his head that he might have to figure out something to do with his life if baseball didn’t work out.
At Florida Tech, he had studied marketing. He was drawn to the field of creative advertising, and thought that it could be interesting to create commercial campaigns for products.
“It intrigued me that I could take a product and come up with a creative play on words or a way to sell it,” he said.
There was little salesmanship involved when Wakefield took his first stab at pitching for Washington in Welland (even if the two did golf together on occasion). He appeared in 18 games, and though he had a respectable 3.40 ERA with more than a strikeout an inning, his manager had some reservations.
Ultimately, Washington — who was trying to handle the challenge of his first year as a manager, and who related more to position players than pitchers following an 11-year career as a big league infielder — wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the young, newly converted pitcher.
“Not being a pitching guy, I really didn’t see it, and as a manager, I had too many things to think about in my first year,” Washington said. “I knew pitchers were doing well when they were getting outs. He tended to get outs, but he didn’t control it that well. It wasn’t like everybody was making outs, but when he threw it close to the plate, he got a lot of funny swings on it.
“When we tried him in relief, the catchers couldn’t catch the knuckleball,” he added, alluding to the fact that in fewer than 40 innings, Wakefield tied for the team lead with nine wild pitches. “We found out that wasn’t going to work simply because we didn’t have anyone who could handle the knuckleball.”
In some respects, however, that was a good sign, since it meant that the pitch on which Wakefield had to rely was good enough to dance away from both bats and catcher’s mitts. He went to instructional league that fall as a pitcher, and performed well enough to convince the Pirates to give him a shot.
Wakefield would go 10-14 for the Pirates’ High-A club in Salem (now the Red Sox’ High-A affiliate) in 1990, a performance that the pitcher thought would likely earn him another shot in the minors, nothing more. It wasn’t until 1991, when Wakefield went a combined 15-9 with a 3.12 ERA for Pittsburgh’s Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, that he started to think that the signature pitch represented a ticket to the majors.
“That’s when I really realized that this is something special,” he recalled.
He just didn’t realize quite how special. No one did.
By 1992, Wakefield was a rookie sensation, almost single-handedly pitching the Pirates into the World Series against the Braves. Though his Pirates career went off the rails within two years, when he spent all of 1994 in the minors and was released the following spring, he signed with the Sox in 1995 and quickly re-established his big league credentials, going 16-8 while finishing third in AL Cy Young voting.
That was the first of what is now 17 years with the Sox. Back in his days of the uncertain transition to the mound, could Wakefield have fathomed such a scenario in his wildest dreams?
“Heck, no — not even close,” Wakefield said in the spring. “Thought I’d be lucky to get a couple years in, you know? Next thing you know, I’m going on 18, 20 years, throughout the span of time. It’s a good story, going from a player who was drafted pretty high and didn’t make it. I made it with the hardest pitch to throw in baseball.”
That is the sort of perspective that Wakefield can apply to his unlikely career in the laidback setting of spring training or the offseason. And during the regular season, it is the outlook that informs his ability to shrug about a no-decision on a day when he deserved a win.
On Sunday, Wakefield said he was not thinking about his career victories total, nor about what every start means for his place in Red Sox and even major league history. He was simply content to relish a win for his club in which he played a part.
“You’re just trying to win today and worry about tomorrow when it comes,” Wakefield said on Sunday. “When it’s all said and done, I’ll look back and reflect on the things I’ve done and accomplished.
“You’re battling for that day and you’ve still got a long grind of a season to go. You drive looking out the windshield, not the rearview mirror. That’s why they make the rearview so small, because you don’t want to drive looking at that the whole time.”
For a pitching career that now, improbably, spans 22 years, it would be difficult to suggest that he should do otherwise.