The Legend of Tim Wakefield. The Knuckleballer. The Knuckler. It almost sounds as if you’re referring to an outlaw. The Rifleman. The Gunslinger. A meatball-throwing pitcher sent in from baseball’s wild plains of unconventionality to tame the best hitters in the world.
After an impressive 19-year career (the last 17 of which were with the Sox), Tim Wakefield has announced his retirement. Batters, catchers, managers and fans alike may all breathe easier for not having to endure the roller-coaster-ride that one inning of knuckleball pitching may be. But few players, pitchers or otherwise, were as enjoyable to watch as Wakefield, who, if nothing else, offered a unique chapter in Red Sox, and baseball history.
There is simply no way Wakefield should have lasted this long in the majors. Picked up by the Sox after his brief rise and fall with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wake cemented his place as a knuckleball pitcher at the height of the steroids era. In the years following the strike, Major League Baseball seemed desperate to get the interest of fans, and commercial sponsors back. Home runs became their meal ticket. At best, they looked the other way with regards to rampant steroid use. At worse, they encouraged it. (Remember “Chicks Dig the Long Ball?”) These were the bloated years of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. Of suddenly pedestrian-looking hallowed home run numbers.
And into this fray of muscle, and power, and over-exuberance, Tim Wakefield took the mound to challenge these bulging biceps of hitters with a pitch that rarely sees 70 miles an hour, let alone 90, or 100. And he did it effectively for almost 20 years.
To be fair, he gave up his fair share of home runs (including one particularly painful one). And he also gave up his fair share of walks. And hit batsmen. And passed balls. But he ate up a tremendous amount of innings. And struck out his fair share of batters (more than 2,000 in all). And to see a hitter whiff on a knuckler when swinging for the fences is to really appreciate the skill and artistry that a knuckleballer must possess.
The knuckleball pitcher. It’s a legacy that Wakefield didn’t take likely. And neither should we.