Five years ago, on October 17, 2003, Tim Wakefield gave up an 11th-inning home run to Aaron Boone, a career .264 hitter best known for being someone’s brother.
If there is one memorable moment, one play that Boston fans most associate with Tim Wakefield, that is it. And I don’t think there are any hard feelings (Grady Little got most of those and rightfully so), but the fact remains that Tim Wakefield, for all he has contributed to the Red Sox in his thirteen-plus years of service, simply does not receive the credit that I figure he somehow has to deserve by this point.
If I watched more television sitcoms, I could probably draw an apt analogy here. Feel free to comment with suggestions.
But to say that the tragedy of Tim Wakeifled is simply a lack of attention or fan loyalty is wrong. To understand what is so deeply disturbing about Wakefield’s predicament, we have to look at his identity as a professional pitcher.
To Don Orsillo, Jerry Remy, the screaming afternoon guys on WEEI, and the rest of the local media, Wakefield’s simply the guy who pitches between the shaky number 5 guy in the rotation, and the young rising arm that has been slotted number 3. There’s never much to say about Wakefield. The most you’ll hear is that the knuckleball is unpredictable. A Wakefield start rests on the fate of the knuckleball.
The national media treats a Wakefield outing a bit like a trip to the circus. This is the knuckleballer we’ve been telling you about! Watch him barely wind up! He could throw forever if he had to! Look at him go! Hands away from the cage! Hands away from the cage!
Wakefield the pitcher is eclipsed by the pitch of his own labor. His knuckleball will forever overshadow his consistent career statistics, his generally good demeanor, his selfless willingness to take the mound whenever called upon. His cumulative contributions to the Red Sox since 1995 could stack up against any other player in the last two decades. Amongst the team’s all-time leaders, he is 3rd in wins, 2nd in games played, 3rd in innings pitched, and 2nd in strikeouts.
But he’s known first and foremost for a pitch he throws.
The ball, once it leaves his fingernails, does not spin. A good knuckleball moves independent of its host’s release. Wakefield cannot control it. It is, by design, chaotic and erratic. The better Wakefield throws the ball, the less spin it has, the less control he has over it.
The plight of Tim Wakefield is that no matter how well he pitches, the results are more independent of his actions than those of any other player in baseball.
In tonight’s game, Wakefield went 2.2 innings. He may have completely mis-delivered all game, or the game time temperature could have been a few degrees cooler than needed for an effective knuckleball. He could have pitched the worst game of his career, or pitched exactly as he did on the 28th of September when he gave up 0 runs against the Yankees. Walking off the mound, staring at the ground, it was difficult to tell what happened to Wakefield tonight. I couldn’t bring myself to completely blame him for the abysmal innings, and I don’t know if Wakefield himself could take full accountability for it either.
If this accountability conundrum plagues Wakefield when he’s losing, what can we say of when he’s winning? It is as if Wakefield is not as good or as bad as the pitch he throws. There is Tim Wakefield, and then there is the knuckleball.
Who is Tim Wakefield and what does he deserve?
This is the tragedy of Tim Wakefield.