Knuckler: My Life with Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch
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Knuckler: My Life with Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch

3.5 15
by Tim Wakefield

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At forty-four years old, Tim Wakefield is the longest-serving member of one of baseball’s most popular franchises. He is close to eclipsing the winning records of two of the greatest pitchers to have played the game, yet few realize the full measure of his success. That his career can be characterized by such words as dependability and

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At forty-four years old, Tim Wakefield is the longest-serving member of one of baseball’s most popular franchises. He is close to eclipsing the winning records of two of the greatest pitchers to have played the game, yet few realize the full measure of his success. That his career can be characterized by such words as dependability and consistency defies all odds because he has achieved this with baseball’s most mercurial weapon—the knuckleball.

Knuckler is the story of how a struggling position player bet his future on a fickle pitch that would define his career. The pitch may drive hitters crazy, but how does the pitcher stay sane? The moment Wakefield adopted the knuckleball, his career sought to answer that question. With the Red Sox, Wakefield began to master his pitch only to find himself on the mound in 2003 for one of the worst post-season losses in history, followed the next year by one of the most vindicating of championships. Even now, as Wakefield battles, we see the twists and turns of a major league career pushed to its ultimate extreme.

A remarkable story of one player’s success despite being the exception to every rule, Knuckler is also a lively meditation on the dancing pitch, its history, its mystique, and all the ironies it brings to bear.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The unpredictable knuckleball pitch shares the spotlight with the Boston Red Sox pitcher Wakefield in this book on one of the most enduring, determined hurlers in pro ball. Following a smart foreword by Phil Niekro, one of the master knucklers, Wakefield, a Red Sox pitcher since 1995 and winner of two World Series, explains how an immature Florida boy who struggled to make any team developed into an ace with a knuckleball that "floats in slow motion," giving batters fits. He credits those who went before him, such as Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil and Joe Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Wilbur Wood, with setting the standard that enabled him to record more outs than any previous Red Sox pitcher. The book, with able support by sports columnist Massarotti, depicts Wakefield as a "really decent person" on and off the field, but it reveals occasional blowups in the dugout with coaches and players, and the difficult times with a madcap prima donna like Manny Ramirez. Competent and entertaining, Wakefield's book is one to savor, especially for the stat-obsessed baseball fan and the novice pitcher in search of a knuckleball to call his own. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

"An incredibly intelligent, self-aware glimpse inside an admirable career. The preseason pick for best baseball book of the season." –Booklist (starred review)

"A must-read." -- Boston Globe

Knuckler is a terrific book about one of baseball's most underrated pitchers, not to mention baseball's most misunderstood pitch. There are wonderful stories and anecdotes here, but it's also a portrait of a humble, caring man who has carved out a special niche for himself. If you love baseball (not just Red Sox baseball), Knuckler is for you. If you don't care a hang about baseball, but like stories about exceptionally talented people behaving decently, Knuckler is also for you. And if you're sick to death of sports stories about athletes behaving badly, Tim Wakefield's book is the perfect antidote.” –Stephen King

“To read Knuckler is to appreciate that there is no gimmick, no fluke, no chance to Tim Wakefield approaching 200 wins and 20 major league seasons. This book is about resiliency, diligence and the tunnel vision required to live by what appears to be the most fanciful pitch thrown by man." –Peter Gammons, MLB baseball analyst and member of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame

"Tim Wakefield’s Knuckler is a fastball right down the middle of the plate. It is an honest, straightforward and very enjoyable account of the national pastime.”  –Allan H. (Bud) Selig, Commissioner of Baseball

"I have always admired Tim Wakefield, as he plays baseball with a great deal of integrity, the way the game should be played.  Knuckler gives readers a rare glimpse at the man behind the baseball and his remarkable work on and off the field."  –Carlton Fisk, Hall of Fame catcher

"Competent and entertaining, Wakefield's book is one to savor, especially for the stat-obsessed baseball fan and the novice pitcher in search of a knuckleball to call his own." –Publishers Weekly

"Provides valuable insights on perseverance, professionalism, and the ability to forget the last pitch." –Library Journal

Library Journal
One of the oldest active MLB players, Boston pitcher Wakefield tells his life story (with sportswriter Massarotti, whose A Tale of Two Cities: The 2004 Yankee-Red Sox Rivalry and the War for the Pennant, with John Harper, is the best book on the Sox-Yanks rivalry). The ups and downs of Wakefield's career mirror the movements of his unfathomable pitch that he has harnessed into MLB wins dating back to 1992. Facing his last season, Wakefield seeks to surpass the win records of Cy Young and Roger Clemens, and his memoir provides valuable insights on perseverance, professionalism, and the ability to forget the last pitch. A typical sports autobiography in some ways but from an un-typical athlete whose charitable work and two series rings mark him as a contributor on the field and beyond. Recommended especially for Red Sox fans.—G.R.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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
 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.

Tim Wakefield
Autumn 2010



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
 “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.

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Meet the Author

TIM WAKEFIELD has pitched for the Red Sox since 1995 and has won two World Series. Noted for his charitable contributions off the field, he has been nominated seven times for the Roberto Clemente Award.

TONY MASSAROTTI is a nationally recognized sports columnist and the author of the New York Times Bestseller Big Papi (with David Ortiz).

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