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It’s tough to look at anything with proper perspective, especially in the now-now-now Twitter world.
This is especially true in the case of Tim Wakefield. Looking at his raw numbers, we see this: a 45-year-old man retires after a mediocre 7-8 season with a 5.12 ERA. Good riddance. Next!
Looking a little deeper, we see a pitcher that seems to have stayed in baseball for far too long. Sure, he reached 200 wins, but it took him eight painful starts over parts of three months to get from #199 to #200. He finally was able to celebrate on Sept. 13 in an 18-6 win over the Blue Jays, but as it turned out, it was one of just seven wins for the team in September.
Two weeks later, as the team was collapsing around him, he seemed to lose some perspective himself:
“I’ve definitely made up my mind that I definitely want to come back next year,” Wakefield told FoxSports.com. “I have another goal in front of me that I’d like to accomplish, and that’s the all-time record for the Red Sox in wins (192 each by Cy Young and Roger Clemens). I’m only seven away. I think the fans deserve an opportunity to watch me chase that record. We’ll see what happens.”
By saying we “deserve” to watch him pitch in 2012, Wakefield showed a surprising lack of humility. It wasn’t about winning World Series titles anymore (I mean, another ring was already assumed for the “Best team EVER!” after all, right?), it was about him. I’ll bet those are words he wants back.
But remember, we have to have perspective here. When looking at a pitcher who spent 17 seasons in Boston, we can’t let the bad taste left by the whole team (and not just Wakefield) in September overshadow a mostly selfless career in Boston.
Drafted as a first baseman by the Pirates in 1988, Wakefield was never able to crack the major league club as a position player, so he became a knuckleballer and went on to go 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA for the first-place Pirates in 1992, his rookie year.
He had a rough go of it in 1993 (6-11, 5.61 ERA), and then from 1994 through the strike and into 1995, Wakefield floated around the Pittsburgh minor league system until Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette took a flyer on him.
Wakefield then broke out again, starting 14-1 and finishing 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA for the first-place Red Sox in 1995. This set the stage for Wakefield to remain a Red Sox starter for years.
But, in 1999, Wakefield faced tremendous adversity. Jimy Williams did not appear to trust the knuckleballer, shuttling him back and forth from the starting rotation to middle and long relief, and even to closer. In the end, the versatile Wakefield started 17 games (and pitched in 49 games overall), finishing 6-11 with a 5.08 ERA and even had 15 saves after Tom Gordon was lost for the season. After a rough division series for Wakefield (2 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 4 BB), Williams chose to leave the pitcher off the ALCS roster.
He then bounced between the bullpen and rotation for the rest of the Williams regime, despite some pretty crappy rotations along the way featuring the likes of Mark Portugal, Patt Rapp, Brian Rose, Jin Ho Cho, Kent Mercker, Ramon Martinez, Jeff Fassero and on and on and on…
In 2002, Grady Little’s first year with the Red Sox, Wakefield again bounced between the bullpen and rotation, but had the one of the best seasons of his career, finishing 11-5 with a 2.81 ERA over 163.1 innings (fourth lowest ERA in the AL). His efforts finally earned him a spot back in the Red Sox rotation for the next season.
Back in the rotation, Wakefield played a big role in two of the most exciting seasons in Red Sox history. The 2003 version of the club won 95 games, and set several major league offensive records (8 players had at least 85 RBIs each), and after a dramatic defeat of the A’s in the division series, the Sox and Yankees were set to clash in the ALCS.
Wakefield was outstanding in his first two ALCS starts, winning Game 1 and Game 4. It’s kind of ironic considering he was left off the team’s ALCS roster just four years earlier.
This time around, he was probably in line to win ALCS MVP with the Red Sox up 5-2 in the eighth inning of Game 7 in New York. But, Little left “his ace” Pedro Martinez in the game for far too long, and the Yankees, of course, tied the game 5-5.
Wakefield came on in the 10th inning to try and keep the Red Sox alive. He yielded a LONG foul ball to Jason Giambi, but managed to escape the inning unscathed. Giambi’s blast was a precursor for the events that followed.
With the Sox bullpen totally taxed, Wakefield came back out for the 11th. His first pitch was launched deep into the left field bleachers off the bat of Aaron Boone, sending the Red Sox home.
After what must have seemed like the longest offseason of his career, Wakefield returned with a new manager (Terry Francona) and new teammates (Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke). After a mediocre start, the 2004 squad was even better, finishing with 98 wins. A first-round sweep of the Angels set up a rematch with the mighty Yankees in the ALCS.
Wakefield’s role was a bit different this time around. Schilling had a disastrous Game 1 start on his bad ankle, so Wakefield was required to pitch out of the bullpen to help keep the game from getting out of hand.
In Game 3, a game the Sox lost 19-8, Wakefield pitched some of the most important innings of his career. Forfeiting his start for Game 4, he pitched 3.1 innings in relief and got hammered for five runs on five hits and two walks. Sure, he was left out there like a test dummy, but his relief work, although bad on paper, was pivotal for the Red Sox for the rest of the series.
After a dramatic Game 4 win, the Red Sox were still in a 3-1 series hole and needed to win out to move on. Game 5 featured another extra-inning affair, with both teams tied 4-4. Wakefield was called upon to face the same lineup that battered him just two nights earlier. In what has to be the most important appearance of his career, Wakefield held the Yankees to just one hit, one walk and no runs over the 12th, 13th and 14th innings.
His three shutout innings set up the heroics for David Ortiz, who slapped a game-winning single to center field to extend the series. The rest is history: the Red Sox completed an improbable series comeback and went on to win it all against the Cardinals.
With that elusive World Series ring out of the way, Wakefield continued to rack up wins, strikeouts and innings over the next several years. He notched 16 wins in 2005, 17 wins in 2007, and 21 more wins between 2008 and 2009.
Along the way, he picked up a second World Series ring (2007), earned his first All-Star nod (2009), and won his 200th career game in September of last year.
In the Red Sox record books, Wakefield is third (behind Clemens and Young) with 186 wins, second (behind Clemens) with 2,046 strikeouts, and first in innings (3,006) and starts (430).
“Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior.” – Karl Von Clausewitz
It couldn’t have been easy taking the mound for the first time in the big leagues after beginning his career as a position player. It couldn’t have been easy to return to the Red Sox in 2000 after being left off the ALCS roster the year before. It definitely wasn’t easy for Wakefield to return to Boston after allowing that soul-crushing home run to Aaron Boone to end the 2003 ALCS.
I mean, look at it this way: Wakefield took the mound each time armed with a 65-mph knuckleball that didn’t always “knuckle,” an average curveball he seldom used, and a fastball that topped out around 75 mph. He faced freakishly powerful hitters during the Steroid Era and spent 17 years pitching to the murderous offenses of the AL East. Simply put, Wakefield exhibited an incredible amount of courage throughout his career.
If courage is the first quality of a warrior, selflessness has to be second. Wakefield always did what he was asked, and by all accounts, he really didn’t make a huge stink about it. Spot start? Sure. Close the game? Sure. Eat innings in relief? Sure. Save our bullpen? Sure. Toss eight shutout innings? OK.
“For the past 17 years all I’ve ever wanted to do is what was best for our team and the organization,” Wakefield said at his retirement press conference. “Whether it was starting, closing or whatever I was asked to do, I always had my spikes on and was ready to go.”
When I think of the best pitchers I ever saw, Wakefield isn’t even on the radar. He was never the best at anything, but he was always consistent. You knew you would get around 180 innings with a sub-5.00 ERA every year. That doesn’t sound great, but did you see John Lackey last year?
So, if you put it into perspective, Wakefield was a pretty damn good pitcher for a pretty long time.
“I have to thank the Red Sox fans,” Wakefield said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of every game I’ve played for you.”
No, Tim. Thank you.