Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is expected to announce his retirement from Major League Baseball later this afternoon. Wakefield pitched for 19 seasons, 17 of them with the Boston Red Sox. He finished his big league career with exactly 200 wins.
Wakefield was drafted as an infielder by the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 1988. However, it quickly became apparent that Wakefield couldn’t hit a lick. Fortunately for Wakefield, he knew how to throw a knuckleball and his career was saved. The Pirates called up Wakefield to the bigs late in the 1992 season and he was an immediate sensation. Wakefield threw a complete game against the St. Louis Cardinals striking out ten batters in his MLB debut. He went on to post a 8-1 record with a 2.15 ERA. Despite making only 13 starts, he finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting behind Eric Karros of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Moises Alou of the Montreal Expos. Wakefield then won two games in the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves but it wasn’t enough to overcome Sid Bream’s mad dash to home and the Pirates have not had a winning season since.
The following season, Wakefield struggled with a 6-11 record and a staggering ERA of 5.61 ERA and would spend all of 1994 in the minor leagues before being released by the Bucs early in 1995. A short time later, the Red Sox took a chance on Wakefield and the magic returned. With Roger Clemens injured much of the season, Wakefield became the ace of the staff winning 16 games including a 14-1 start en route to the Red Sox first AL East pennant in five years.
Wakefield would remain in a Red Sox uniform through 16 more seasons which given the volatility of the knuckleball had more than their share of ups and downs. Between 1999 and 2002, Wakefield worked predominantly out of the bullpen due to injuries to other pitchers and the lack of available arms. Sometimes this kept him in games in which another pitcher might have been ordinarily removed. But because of his durability, he often took one for the team and his stats suffered because of it. Had Wakefield been used exclusively as a starter he probably would finisher with close to 250 wins.
In 2003, Red Sox manager Grady Little returned Wakefield to the starting rotation and was the team’s most effective pitcher during that post-season against the New York Yankees. Unfortunately, Wakefield gave up a walk off homerun to Aaron “Freakin'” Boone in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7 of the ALCS. If not for that pitch, Wakefield might very well have been the ALCS MVP.
But Wakefield stayed around to earn World Series rings with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007 and made his only AL All-Star Team in 2009. He also became known for his charitable endeavors and in 2010 was bestowed with the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award. In 2011, Wakefield won his 200th big league game. It took him eight attempts to do so however and as it turned out his 200th win would be his last. Wakefield had hoped to pitch in 2012 because he needed only seven more wins to pass Cy Young and Roger Clemens to become the winningest pitcher in Red Sox history. Cy Young and The Rocket each tallied 192 wins for the Bosox.
Unfortunately, in the midst of the Red Sox collapse last September, Wakefield took some heat for saying the fans deserved to watch him try to break the record. Under any other circumstances those comments probably wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows and had the Red Sox made the post-season he probably would have been brought back for 2012. But the Sox didn’t make the post-season and when the finger pointing began Sox fans criticized Wakefield (unfairly) for putting himself ahead of the team. Given all the changes that have taken place in the off season, it was clear that the Red Sox were not going to offer Wakefield a contract and Wakefield did not want to pitch in any other big league uniform.
It’s too bad that Wakefield could not have retired under happier circumstances but when you consider that his baseball career nearly ended almost as soon as it started he got to spend nearly 20 years playing Major League Baseball. As Ronald Reagan put it, “All in all, not bad. Not bad at all.”
I recommend Tony Massarotti’s biography of Wakefield, Knuckler which was released in 2011.