Starting pitcher Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox deserves our support until the bitter end. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
With Tim Wakefield now at the 200-win plateau, there will be no shortage of encomia and analyses that will ask "Is he Hall-of-Fame worthy?" or is he the best or greatest or longest-lived or whatever. This piece is not intended to address those questions; I'll leave that to my fellow bloggers more gifted and clued-in to the world of baseball statistics to judge.
This piece will be about my own (admittedly somewhat selfish) reasons for continuing to root for Tim Wakefield, even as the end is painfully nigh.
I will certainly be dating myself with this statement, but Tim Wakefield's debut with the Red Sox coincides, within a matter of days, with the summer after my freshman year in college. It was also the start of my first "real" summer job, with actual responsibilities and stuff that wasn't "make work." In other words, Wakefield has been pitching at Fenway as long as I've attempted to be a responsible adult. I'll also freely stipulate that I really didn't follow Wakefield all that much until the end of my college days—it was just too hard to follow the Sox living in the midst of Yankees territory in the pre-NESN, pre-Internet days.
However, following Wake's career over the last dozen years, it became clear that he was no ordinary baseball player. As Wakefield's one-time manager Jim Leyland noted, "He's all the things that are right about major league baseball, really." This was a guy that was willing to do whatever was needed. Even from the outset of his tenure with the Sox, he's been the guy who'd be there up on the mound, taking emergency starts on short rest and pitching out of the bullpen between starts. It's fairly obvious, to me at least, that absent Wakefield's decision to enter Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS in relief of Bronson Arroyo, that the bullpen wouldn't have been able to piece together the roughly 20 innings of work they put in during the remainder of the series. And let's not forget those three heart-attack-inducing innings of relief in Game 5.
While that's his most famous effort to save the bullpen, I wouldn't even point to that as the finest example of Wakefield rising to the call of duty. That honor goes to his Jackie Robinson Day heroics back in 2009, when he went the distance after Daisuke Matsuzaka's implosion left the bullpen on the hook for 11 innings of relief the night before a day game. No longer the spry young pitcher who could throw 172 pitches in a single outing, he still was willing to shoulder the load and give the bullpen an urgently needed day off. Of course, all his on-the-field efforts are balanced—or perhaps even outweighed—by his humanity off the field. His charitable efforts are widely known, and have been the subject of many stories, even though he'd rather keep all of that under the radar screen. (If you need proof, look at Amalie Benjamin's story on Wakefield receiving the Roberto Clemente award. Or look up his work with the Space Coast Early Intervention Center.)
But what does it mean to root for Tim Wakefield? It's got to go beyond just cheering for a fluky pitch, right? What possible reason do I have for an entirely selfish desire to see Wakefield get to 200 wins, 250 wins, or even more?
Rooting for Wakefield is about second chances. Wakefield was not brought into the major leagues to be a pitcher; he was first drafted by the Pirates as a first baseman. Had things gone the Pirates' way, he would have been one of their heavy sluggers. However, he utterly failed in the minor leagues, with a sub-Mendoza-line batting average and a complete inability to adjust to the wooden bats. It came down to throwing a knuckleball or giving up on professional baseball. Wake chose to become a pitcher—how could he give up on his dream so soon? So, in a way, it's also about rooting for persistence, and rooting for having the courage to follow your dreams.
It's also about rooting for the Everyman. Wakefield is by no means the most gifted athlete—he's certainly not going to win any foot races, unless his competition is some subset of Mike Lowell, Sean Casey, Adrian Gonzalez, and plate tectonics. He certainly doesn't light up the gun with triple digits, and sometimes fails to light up the radar gun altogether. He won't dazzle you with a million different kind of pitches, although his (essentially two) pitches can look like a million different pitches when you're the one standing in the batting box against them. No, when it comes down to it, Wakefield is as close to an "average Joe" as you'll find in an elite sports league.
It's also about rooting for the tortoise rather than the hare. Of course there have been brighter stars in the constellations of pitchers at Fenway—Cy Young says "greetings," as does Pedro Martinez—but how many of them have shone so steady for so long?
But ultimately what it comes down to is something altogether more primal, and far more selfish, than any of these. To borrow from the opening lines of Dylan Thomas's infamous rant:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It's a simple matter of fighting against the onset and onslaught of time. How can I truly be middle-aged if Tim Wakefield is still out there, making his own valiant effort at holding off the inevitable day when he will have to call it a career? If his knuckleball still flutters, then I can still hold on to at least a sliver of reminiscences of my younger days—when my only concerns were turning in the next problem set and when I'd have to worry about doing laundry. If there are youngsters from around the world citing an active Wakefield as their inspiration to become knuckleballers themselves, why can't I be a role model myself? If Tim Wakefield refuses to give up, why should I? And why should we all give up on Wakefield?