With Tim Wakefield starting tonight just three wins shy of 200 for his career, now is as good a time as any to look back on everything the Knuckleball pitcher has accomplished and the long and unexpected path that has lead him to this point. With Boston Globe Online writer and biographer Tony Massarotti, Wake takes us through his early days as a young player up to his unlikely emergence as an important role player with the some of the greatest Red Sox teams every to grace the Fens of Boston in his autobiography, Knuckler.
Readers seeking out a tell-all, insider’s account of the clubhouse will not find it here. Wakefield is straight-forward and honest about his feelings on his own role and his disputes with management, but he offers little about his relationship to teammates and refrains from casting judgment toward any of the controversial figures he shared the locker room with from Barry Bonds to Carl Everett or Manny Ramirez. Red Sox fans won’t be surprised to find that
Instead, Knuckler is simply a personal narrative. Through Massarotti, Wake describes the anxiety of life as a pro ballplayer with engaging clarity. From his earliest days as a pro, when he failed catch on as a corner infielder in the low minors, to his meteoric rise and subsequent falling out with the Pirates, a pro baseball career was never a given for Tim Wakefield. Wake never shies away from letting the reader see his uncertainty and his fear.
This is most interesting and relevant when considering his contract negotiations. While Tim Wakefield was never in line to be the top free agent pitcher on the market, the fact that he really never even tested that market explains so much about him as player. Fans and the media often take a cynical view of contract talks, seeing it as a battle of millionaires vs. billionaires, full of petty squabbles over more money than most of us will ever see. It is important to remember though that for the players, these battles are about self-worth as much as money. Someone is putting a price on them, on their ability in the single most defining role of their life. As a pitcher throwing 65mph knuckler after 65mph knuckler, Wake lived with more uncertainty than most of us can imagine. He never knew where the pitch would go, he never knew if the batter would be fooled or not and worst of all, he never knew if his catcher would catch the thing. Adding to his uncertainties, he rarely ever knew what role he would be asked to play- starter, closer, mop-up man or long relief. What he wanted from a team more than money was some kind of certainty. Luckily for us, the Red Sox gave him exactly that.
Knuckler is far from an instant baseball classic. Massarotti over-extends the knuckleball metaphor to the extreme and Wake doesn’t bring much in the way of revelations to the table. For Sox fans though, the book is a great tour through the team’s recent history through the eyes of one of the hardest-working and least celebrated players in the game. Wake’s recounting or the 2003 ALCS is not to be missed. It is heartbreaking all over again. Fans will share his frustration with Joe Kerrigan and wonder at just why it took so long for the team to see his true value. Looking back on his career, Tim Wakefield’s versatility seems so obvious to us that we can forget that there was once a time where no one knew what to do with the guy.
In some alternate universe, Wake would have never seen the majors at all, in another he would hold two LCS MVP awards. You just never know what the knuckler will do when you let it go.