Read an Excerpt
The knuckleball, I know, is a big part of the story. It’s a big part of who I am. But I’ve never really thought of myself as being different, not really, not in comparison to other pitchers and certainly not in comparison to the people who come watch us play.
What I am, I believe, is someone who got a bunch of second chances and took advantage of them, who persevered through adversity. I hope that comes through as much as anything else in this book. I think there are lessons in that for all of us. I know there were for me.
People look at the knuckleball differently than they do other pitches — they’re fascinated by it. I understand why. People have asked me all kinds of questions about the knuckleball over the years — how
I grip it, why it does what it does, whether I ever get frustrated by it.
That last question is one I’ve always found interesting, because people sometimes talk about it as if it were a person, as if I had a relationship with it. No one would ever ask Pedro Martinez about his changeup or
Josh Beckett about his curveball the same way they ask me about my knuckleball, but I also understand there are differences. If one pitch isn’t working for those guys, they can try something else. I really can’t.
For roughly 20 years as a professional pitcher, I’ve thrown the knuckleball on almost every pitch. It’s worked for me most of the time. When it hasn’t, I’ve simply chalked it up to the balancing forces of baseball,
the way any pitcher would.
I don’t resent the knuckleball. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I love the knuckleball. It has given me a long career to be proud of and provided for my wife, Stacy, and two children, Trevor and Brianna. It’s allowed me to meet people I might never have met, experience things
I might never have been able to experience, and help people in ways I
might never have been able to help.
Before I joined the Red Sox in 1995, I thought my career might be over. I was still learning about the knuckleball, and I knew almost nothing about Boston or about the Red Sox other than what I had learned from one of my college roommates, Tom Krystock, who was a
Red Sox fan. Tom was from Connecticut and convinced me to go with him to Fenway Park, where we took in a handful of games. I never imagined then that Boston and Fenway would become my home,
that I would pitch in nearly 300 games there and be part of two world championship teams. And I never imagined that Boston would accept me the way it has, that the people there would welcome me as part of their community, that Boston would be as much a home to me as
Melbourne, Florida, where I grew up and played college baseball.
Sometime during my career in Boston — I can’t remember exactly when — someone asked one of my teammates, Derek Lowe, about what it was like to pitch at Fenway Park. What made Fenway different?
Derek told them that when he pitched in other, bigger stadiums,
he would look into the stands and see colors. But at Fenway, when he stood on the mound, he would look into the crowd and see faces. I always thought that was a great way to describe how special it is to pitch at Fenway Park, for the Red Sox and for their fans. The experience is just more intimate. To me, Boston always has felt like a neighborhood more than a city, the kind of place, like Cheers, where everybody knows your name and you know theirs. It’s one of the things I love most about playing there. People talk about “Red Sox Nation” all the time now, but it really is true. To me, the Red Sox and their fans are a community unlike any other in sports, and I’ve been blessed to be a part of it. I’ve invested in Boston during my time there, and I feel like
Boston has invested in me.
In that way, especially, I’ve been very fortunate. Over the course of baseball history, other knuckleballers have had their own communities too. Hoyt Wilhelm. Phil and Joe Niekro. Wilbur Wood. Charlie
Hough and Tom Candiotti. The list goes on. I’ve had the chance to meet most of those guys and to talk to them about the knuckler, to share an experience that has made us some of the most unique pitchers in baseball history. The knuckleball has taken us all through some unpredictable dips and turns, but we all owe everything we’ve accomplished to a pitch that, to me, is unlike any other in baseball.
I hope this book gives you some idea as to what it has been like to live with the knuckleball for the last 20 years or so.
And I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I have.
He’s so consistent with a pitch that’s not consistent. You look up in the sixth or seventh inning and he’s got a chance to win.
—Red Sox manager Terry Francona speaking about Tim Wakefield, March 2010
On June 8, 2010, with one out in the seventh inning of his 538th career appearance with the Boston Red Sox, Tim
Wakefield familiarly stood on the pitcher’s mound, glove resting near his lefthip, right arm comfortably hanging at his side, as he peered in toward home plate. He was already behind in the count,
two balls and no strikes. As Indians slugger Russell Branyan settled into the batter’s box at Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland, Wakefield eased back and spun on his right foot, reaching into his glove for the pitch that would soon make him the all-time innings leader in Red
Sox history, an achievement far more commendable than most anyone would care to acknowledge.
A knuckleball? No, no, no — not in this case — and perhaps there is a good measure of irony in that. In recording the 8,329th out of his 16-
year Red Sox career — more outs than any other pitcher in the history of a storied franchise — Wakefield threw a fastball clocked at 73 miles per hour, inducing a pop-up that safely landed in the glove of teammate and shortstop Marco Scutaro. That was it. That was the instant when
Wakefield reached precisely 2,776⅓ innings, literally a fraction more than the 2,776 recorded by longtime Red Sox ace Roger Clemens, adding further accomplishment to a workmanlike career during which his most significant contributions had often been disguised and one in which he had negotiated and endured the whims, eccentricities, and unpredictable dips and turns of baseball’s most maddening, mystifying,
and unpredictable pitch.
Even against Branyan, after all, Wakefield had to work around the knuckleball as much as he relied on it, resorting to his oxymoronic fastball, which barely qualified for a speeding ticket, to record the out that distinguished him from every other pitcher who had worn the
Boston uniform — from Clemens to Cy Young to Curt Schilling, Pedro
Martinez, Babe Ruth, and beyond.
“He’s a very unassuming guy, but he’s been the glue that’s held that pitching stafftogether for a long time. That’s a fact,” said former Red
Sox general manager Dan Duquette, who brought Wakefield to Boston in 1995, when the pitcher’s career seemed to be in ruins. “He’s the consummate organization man. He was always available to the team. He made a huge contribution to the team and to the community.”
For Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who inherited Wakefield upon taking over the Red Sox GM position in November 2003 and would re-sign him to a succession of contracts, it was Wakefield’s connection with fans that was most striking.
“There’s something about a knuckleballer that generates empathy in fans,” Epstein said. “Even though it couldn’t be further from the truth, it’s just hard to shake the thought that, ‘Hey, he’s only throwing
68 [miles per hour] — that could be me out there!’ Fans don’t feel that way about guys who throw 95 [mph]. Between the knuckler, his ‘everyman’
demeanor, and his incredible contributions to the community, it’s no surprise that Wake is a favorite of so many fans. Unfortunately, for many of the same reasons, the quality of his on-field contribution often gets overlooked. He’s had a great career — one that anybody would be proud of — and has been an essential ingredient on some really good teams. Aside from all the records and being part of two world championship clubs, that paradox is what stands out about Wake’s legacy to me. For a guy who was often underrated and sometimes overlooked,
he was completely loved and embraced by Red Sox fans. That means a lot.”
Indeed, for an array of reasons, Wakefield grew to be loved in Boston,
a very traditional, guarded, and skeptical city where self-promotion is frowned upon, social responsibility is stressed, and group thinking is encouraged. As surely as Wakefield became part of the Red Sox in
1995, he also became part of the city. He routinely participated in charitable endeavors for the Jimmy Fund and Boston Children’s Hospital as surely as he did for the Space Coast Early Intervention Center in his native Melbourne, Florida. At the end of the 2010 major league baseball season, Wakefield had finally won the award for which he had been nominated seven times: the prestigious and comprehensive
Roberto Clemente Award. Named for the philanthropic Hall of Famer who began his career in Pittsburgh, like Wakefield, this annual award goes to the major leaguer who “best exemplifies the game of baseball,
sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
The Red Sox, too, recognized this quality in Wakefield as surely as anyone. When the team mailed out a brochure highlighting its community contributions in 2010, Wakefield was the first player featured in it; on a similar billboard overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike,
Wakefield was the only player pictured.
“He has a wonderful reputation in baseball,” said commissioner
Allan “Bud” Selig. “We take for granted all the really decent human beings we have in the major leagues. Tim Wakefield ranks at the top of the list.”
Amid all of that, of course, Wakefield also distinguished himself as a pitcher, no small feat given his reliance on the schizophrenic knuckler,
which can destroy careers as easily — or perhaps more easily — as it can build them. By definition, the knuckleball is fickle. The knuckleball is wild. The idea is to relinquish almost all control and unleash the knuckleball in such a manner that its natural tendencies take hold, allowing the pitch to crazily float, flutter, and, ultimately, flummox.
The risks are enormous, and the rewards potentially great.
In his 16 seasons as a member of the Red Sox, Wakefield did not merely pitch more innings than any pitcher in franchise history; he also made more starts. He frequently sacrificed himself for the greater good while simultaneously winning more games than all but two pitchers in Red Sox history, Cy Young and Roger Clemens — the former the namesake of baseball’s greatest pitching honor, the latter a pitcher who won that award a record seven times — proving that you could be a team player and be celebrated individually, the sports world’s equivalent of think globally, act locally. Tim Wakefield was proof that you could be true to yourself by being true to your team, that success with something perceived as warily as the knuckleball was really just a matter of perspective.
“It just means that I’ve persevered,” Wakefield said when asked to reflect on his career and accomplishments. “I’ve started, relieved,
closed. I’m kind of proud that I’ve been able to do a lot and pitch in a lot of games. It means a lot, but I really don’t think it has sunk in yet.…
I think things can get overlooked when somebody stays in one place for a long time. You get young guys who come in, and they’re like, ‘He’s old,’ but let’s look at why he’s been here so long. I think that gets overlooked sometimes, to be honest with you.”
In fact, as Wakefield climbed to the top of the Red Sox record book during his final seasons, his career achievements became more like items on a checklist and less like mileposts worthy of recognition. In
2009, for instance, after making the 380th start of his Red Sox career,
Wakefield stood with his uniform top unbuttoned in a corner doorway of an emptying conference room at historic Fenway Park following a relatively methodical 8–2 dispatching of the Florida Marlins that had improved his record to a sparkling 9–3. As he approached his 43rd birthday, he was having another good year and was on the way to his first career appearance at the All-Star Game. Wakefield had enjoyed other, similar runs during his Red Sox career — some better,
some worse — but the end result was almost always a remarkable consistency that Red Sox fans, above all others, seemed to appreciate.
And yet, in this case and many others, almost nobody was aware that
Wakefield had just made the 380th start of his Red Sox career, two shy of Clemens’s club record of 382. It was an achievement far more worthy of recognition than anyone had taken the time to acknowledge.
In the end, after all, what real difference did two starts make? In a career marked by 380 starts, two games signified a difference of roughly 0.5 percent. Whether Wakefield finished at 380 or 382 games started, the conclusion was the same. His legacy had been forged. He had become, against all odds, part of the background, one of the most reliable and dependable pitchers in baseball history, particularly given that he pitched in a city and for a franchise that frequently devoured its own.
The Red Sox have been part of the culture in Boston for well over a century, their history defined by everything from pure heartbreak
(most frequently) to unfiltered glory (more recently). Consequently,
loyal followers of the team have prided themselves a great deal on perseverance,
grit, determination. Red Sox fans have long since learned to show up for work the next day, no matter what, and they have memorized all of the cliches that celebrate the most noteworthy achievements.
Slow and steady wins the race. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Focus on the journey, not on the destination. In retrospect,
no one more perfectly reflected those qualities than Wakefield,
who had resurrected his career on more than one occasion and who continued to push forward — methodically, deliberately, undeterred.
And yet, when it came to instances like this and many others,
Wakefield’s achievements seemed to materialize out of thin air. Red
Sox fans, too, sometimes could be distracted by the flash and glitz of the stars who came and went — men like Clemens, Mo Vaughn, Nomar
Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz. The list went on and on.
Even Boston seemed to take Wakefield for granted sometimes, to overlook him entirely, to forget that the most commendable achievements can take place over years and years and years, like a steady, continuous construction project.
And then, one day, there it was.
Baseball was something of a religion in Boston, where the Red
Sox, especially, were a passion, obsession, addiction, and psychosis all wrapped into one. (“Sometimes I almost wonder if it’s a sickness,”
Wakefield chuckled.) The game was seen as a true test of endurance,
where consistency and longevity reflected an ability both to perform and to survive. The Red Sox were dissected and analyzed over and over again, especially by those who deemed themselves to be card-carrying members of Red Sox Nation, a fan base that sometimes seemed as widespread as Islam. All of that should have made Wakefield an obvious focus as he moved toward the end of an accomplished, hardworking career defined by resourcefulness and resiliency, if for no other reason than the fact that Boston was the kind of place where even the smallest sacrifices were recognized by a Red Sox following that typically paid great care to detail.
With Wakefield, however, his career was greater than any individual year. By the end, a man who rarely received top billing had compiled a resume that was, in many ways, like no other in team history.
“I think I’ve stayed under the radar my whole career. I’ve never gotten too high or too low — that has helped me [survive],” Wakefield said.
“I think there are a couple of reasons I have a connection with people here. I think I bust my buttand never make excuses, and I think they appreciate that. I think I care about the team more than I care about myself. I think I put the team first, and I think that’s very much appreciated by the fans because they get that side of it. And I just think,
from a philosophy standpoint, outside of baseball, I think they get that side of me, too. I care about the community, like everybody else. I care about the neighborhood. I give my time. I care about the community that I live in and the community that supports us on a daily basis.
“I’ve tried to stay humble for as long as I can,” he said.
Indeed, while maintaining a healthy dose of humility — the knuckler,
too, will do that to a man — Wakefield had long since decided that he wanted to pitch in no other place than Boston, where he felt the aforementioned connection from the moment he arrived. He saw Boston as far more intimate than many of the bigger America cities — “It’s more of a blue-collar, deep-rooted neighborhood that cares about its own,”
he said — and that was, of course, how he saw himself. The glitz of New
York or Los Angeles never really lured him. The idea of a nomadic existence never really appealed. In an age when professional athletes frequently were urged to market their services, to take the best deal available, Wakefield was an absolute anachronism, a man whose values lefthim terribly out of place. In those instances when free agency beckoned, Wakefield flirted with homier, more comfortable places like Minneapolis — the Minnesota Twins, too, had a family-type environment
— than he did with bigger, louder metropolitan areas. He grew up in Melbourne, Florida. He began his career in Pittsburgh. For
Wakefield, Boston was the perfect landing spot, a place where the fans took their baseball seriously, but where citizenship mattered. More than anything else in his career, Wakefield had always wanted to belong.
As such, he had never really tried to leave Boston, and the Red
Sox had never really looked to dispose of him. They had built the kind of gold-watch relationship that had generally ceased to exist elsewhere in baseball.
“I just don’t understand how some people can separate the personal side of it,” he said.
As much as anyone else, Tim Wakefield saw himself as the last of a dying breed.
By the time Wakefield concluded 2009 and signed what looked to be a final, two-year contract that would keep him with the Red Sox through the 2011 baseball season, he was one of a unique group of major league players — and not solely because he was one of the few in history to have mastered the knuckleball. Wakefield was one of only
19 pitchers in baseball history to have spent at least 15 seasons with a single franchise; along with the incomparable New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, he was one of only two active pitchers in the game (and the only starter) to have remained with the same team since the start of the 1995 season. And somewhat incredibly, Wakefield had spent more time with the Red Sox than any pitcher in the history of the organization, an accomplishment that only grew in magnitude when one considered that Wakefield did so while making the journey with his impulsive knuckler, a pitch that frequently operates as if it has a mind of its own and one that had caused him as much angst and anxiety as it gave him dignity and delight.
By that point, Wakefield had long since accepted the fact that the knuckleball was as much a part of him as the wins and the innings, the number 49 he wore on his back, and the mustache and goatee he had sported throughout his stint with the Red Sox. The knuckler could inspire both wonder and fear. The knuckleball had produced some of
Wakefield’s most glorious successes and some of his most gut-wrenching failures, and he had long since learned to make peace with the pitch and accept its flaws.
Along the way, the Red Sox and their fans learned to do the same with the knuckleball as well as with the man who had brought it to them.
“I think a lot of it is the pitch. I really do. It is me,” Wakefield said when asked about the identity and legacy he built in Boston. “It’s what’s gotten me to where I am. It’s hard to separate that. My biggest thing is — and you hear me say this every spring training when people say, ‘What are your goals?’ — I want to give the team innings. I mean,
results — yeah, I’d love to win 20 games. I’d love to do that. But my job is to go out there and keep us in the game as long as possible. And I
think I’ve proven that over time, if you go back historically and look at my career.”
To do that, with Tim Wakefield as with anyone else, we have to go back to the beginning, to things that happened long before he came along, things he had absolutely nothing to do with.