FORT MYERS – The story of Tim Wakefield’s career is one that has relevant echoes for the 2012 Red Sox. Indeed, it served as part of the baseball education of the man who is now in charge of putting together the Red Sox roster.
In 1995, as a junior at Amherst College, 21-year-old Ben Cherington received something of a lesson in building a roster. Amherst alum Dan Duquette was in his second season as Red Sox general manager. As both a lifelong Sox fan and as someone considering following Duquette’s path into a major league front office, Cherington was interested in seeing how the Red Sox were being formed coming off of the strike of 1994-95.
Wakefield was amidst a turbulent stretch of his career. As a power-hitting corner infielder in 1988, it soon became evident he would not have much of a future as a position player. The Pirates had seen him messing with a knuckleball in the outfield, and so late in the 1989 season, they gave him a shot as a pitcher rather than releasing him.
He jumped on a fast track, got to the majors as a 25-year-old sensation who went 8-1 in the regular season and won a pair of starts in the postseason. Yet the clock seemingly struck midnight in 1993. Wakefield endured a brutal year that included a trip down to Double-A in the middle of the season en route to a 6-11 record and 5.61 ERA.
He spent all of 1994 in the minors, where he was even worse, going 5-15 with a 5.84 ERA in Triple-A. By the next spring, when baseball resumed, the Pirates figured they had seen enough and so they released him in camp. Wakefield, then just 28 years old, was confronted with the possibility that his days as a big leaguer were over.
“The year I got released by Pittsburgh and was driving home, I thought my career was over at that point,” Wakefield recalled at the press conference to announce his retirement on Friday.
Duquette didn’t necessarily agree. He had been the Expos GM in 1992, when Wakefield had helped the Pirates to pull away from a Montreal team that finished the year in a distant second place. Thus, two coincidences led to one of the most serendipitous signings in franchise history.
The Sox were still scrambling to find pitching (because of the strike that ended the 1994 season and rolled into March 1995, many teams were scrambling to address needs on the fly). Meanwhile, the Colorado Silver Bullets -- a women’s baseball league team being managed by Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro and also coached by his brother and fellow knuckleballing maestro, Joe Niekro -- were working out in the Sox’ spring training home in Fort Myers.
Duquette asked trusted front office advisor Eddie Haas to talk to Phil Niekro (both Haas and Niekro had been together in the Braves organization for many years) about working with Wakefield. Both Niekros agreed to do so, and that, in turn, set the stage for Wakefield’s agreement to a minor league deal with the Sox and the subsequent resurrection of Wakefield’s career.
“We were looking for pitching. He was available. … I knew he could pitch. I wasn’t sure why he had stumbled,” Duquette said by phone on Friday. “Tim had a good knuckleball, but it was the story of player development.
“Phil Niekro helped him change speeds on the knuckleball and understand that the knuckleball could be an out pitch every time he threw it, and not worry about losing confidence because there were so many variables that could affect it. Phil taught him that the knuckleball is an out pitch every time you throw it. Very few pitchers can say that about the pitches they throw.”
Wakefield emerged from his time with the Niekros reinvigorated, believing that his playing career was not behind him.
“When Dan Duquette called and said we have Joe and Phil Niekro in Fort Myers and we want you to go down there and work with those guys for 10 days, I think that boosted my confidence and got me back on track where I needed to go,” said Wakefield.
Indeed, it took him to heights that no one could have foreseen given the proximity of his bottom point with Pittsburgh. After four strong starts in Pawtucket, Wakefield got the call up to the Sox in late May, allowing just one run in seven innings in his first start back in the majors on May 27. That was merely the start of a fairytale run that saw the knuckleballer in position of a 14-1 record and 1.65 ERA by Aug. 13.
His run -- which, as it turned out, was merely the start of an improbable and immensely successful 17-year tenure in Boston that netted him 186 wins -- was compelling for any number of reasons for those who followed the Red Sox at that time, a group that included Cherington.
“I remembered when Dan signed Wake to the minor league deal after he was released. That was the year they were coming off the strike, sort of cobbling this roster together late,” said Cherington. “When he goes 14-1, I was like, ‘Wow, [Duquette] really know what he’s doing.’ Proud alum. I remember that vividly.
“That was sort of, they didn’t make it as far in the playoffs as they wanted to (in 1995, the Red Sox were swept in the ALDS by the Indians), but that was sort of a magical year, all these guys from different places coming together and going on a run where the team wasn’t really expected to do much going into the year.”
The resonance for this year’s Red Sox team that was assembled by Cherington is obvious. The Sox eschewed the big-ticket route this winter, particularly in the rotation, where the team is hoping that quantity begets quality from the long list of minor league free agents whom they have signed.
In a best case scenario, the team catches lightning in a bottle and gets someone like Aaron Cook or Ross Ohlendorf or Vicente Padilla or Carlos Silva to rediscover the success that they experienced in the not-too-distant past. Perhaps as was the case for Wakefield and the Niekros, there will be a small piece of wisdom imparted by Sox pitching coach Bob McClure that will help to take pitchers whose careers have hit bumps and put them back on the proverbial right track.
If it works, then the payoff can be huge. Wakefield’s signing with the Sox is certainly a momentous reminder of that notion, but every year offers numerous impact players who underscore the ability of minor league free agents to transform a team.
In 2011, Bartolo Colon (Yankees), Freddy Garcia (Yankees) and Ryan Vogelsong (Giants) all became key rotation contributors, with Vogelsong emerging as an All-Star. In 2010, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey began a solid run in the Mets rotation, while Joaquin Benoit emerged for the Rays as one of the best relievers in the game.
In all likelihood, some pitcher this year who signs a minor league deal will end up becoming the proverbial diamond in the rough. The Red Sox have amassed such candidates in volume in hopes that they’ll be poised to capitalize on at least one such player.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that none of the Sox’ minor league free agents pans out. If that is the case -- if those pitchers suffer the disappointing fates of other “buy-low” options of recent years (who were actually “buy-higher” options than the current group) such as John Smoltz or Brady Penny -- then there’s virtually no risk, since the Sox can cut such a player with no real financial impact.
Certainly, it would be impossible to look at the current group of Red Sox minor league free agents and suggest that one is poised to become the next Wakefield. Nonetheless, as a 21-year-old Cherington learned, Wakefield does offer a reminder that a player who is acquired without fanfare can be just as significant an addition as a higher-profile signing.
“Wakefield’s a very special case. I mean, he ended up getting more outs than anyone else in Red Sox history,” noted Duquette. “There’s got to be some luck involved in that. [But] Tim was a consistent, dependable pitcher for the Red Sox for a long time, and did some great things in the community, too. Good for him, good for the Red Sox and good for Boston.”