On the night of May 22, 1996, I went to my first baseball game in Fenway Park.
Despite coming off a division win in 1995, the Red Sox had been entirely unimpressive to that point, and I was not particularly invested in the team either way. In fact, I am deeply ashamed to admit that, for about a year or so, I often wore a jacket bearing the emblem of the New York Yankees.
Forgive me, I was ignorant of the implications.
Anyways, I went to that game largely hoping to see the star player of the other team: Ken Griffey Jr. I also happened to be watching the 29th game in Alex Rodriguez' first full season with the Mariners. Other notables on the field included Jose Canseco, Mo Vaughn, and Edgar Martinez. Aside from Rodriguez, it was clear at the time that all of these men were the sorts whose names would be remembered be it in the Hall of Fame, or just by the fans who saw them establish themselves as fixtures of whatever club for however many years. They would not be forgotten for a good, long while.
And then there was the man on the mound for the Red Sox that day: Tim Wakefield. Going through a difficult game and a difficult season, Wakefield didn't really promise anything of the sort. He would give up six earned runs in six innings, and take the loss that night. Nothing terribly unusual, really, for the man whose knuckleball has been the veritable coin flip of the baseball world over the past 15 years.
As those 15 yeas progressed, Tim Wakefield was the one constant on a team that has seen a great many changes. From the days of Vaughn and Clemens, to Pedro and Nomar, Manny and Ortiz, and now into what is increasingly becoming a period dominated by Dustin Pedroia, Wakefield has been there throughout.
He never shone the brightest on those teams--never even came close, really, after '95 and his third place Cy Young finish. But for most of his career he's been a solid rotation option, able to overcome his frustrating implosions with those days where the knuckleball dances as if unrestrained by the rules of physics, becoming for one game only the least hittable pitch this side of Mariano's cutter.
A look at the stats, however, fails to truly capture what it is that Wakefield has been for the Sox. He has been not just a starter and reliever (be it long relief or closing), but also the pack horse. Perhaps the clearest example of this comes from one of the Red Sox' darkest moments: Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS. With Bronson Arroyo being knocked out of the game after just two terrible innings, the Sox faced a disaster situation. Down 0-2, going on 0-3, and with Derek Lowe pitching Game 4, likely a great need for bullpen help.
What did Terry Francona do? He called on Tim Wakefield to take the beating for them. With ten Yankee runs already on the board, Wakefield recorded ten outs, allowing five more men to come around to score in the process. It was ugly, slow, and really a tortorous process. It was also, in its own way, heroic. The very next day, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, and Keith Foulke combined for five innings of 1-run ball to keep the game alive going into extra innings. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, Tim Wakefield has had his terrific outings as well. The near no-no in Oakland comes to mind, of course. But it's in adversity that Wakefield shows his true value, not as an ace, or a closer, but as a Red Sox; as the consummate team player who, even at 45-years-old, is called in to clean up whatever mess the Sox are currently in. If not to win, then to at least spare the bullpen, or give the Sox a better chance, even if the odds are now worse than a coin flip, than they would have with sure-thing disasters.
Over the last couple months it's been said at times that Wakefield's too-long search for win #200 was such a disaster that it was perhaps even tarnishing the lasting memory of the longest tenured Red Sox. I myself am guilty of being disappointed that Wakefield must now inevitably go out on bottom. But that's entirely the wrong way of thinking, because this is just another example of Tim Wakefield being not perhaps the ideal answer for the Red Sox, but one they needed. A warm body to go out there and make start after start after start when there's nobody else to do it. Perhaps not a comforting thought to a fan who, on any given day, realizes that he'll be starting. But certainly a comfort to any manager who needs to deal with the inevitable injuries and roster shifts of a major league season.
It's that comfort that will be gone soon, and one which we might never truly appreciate. It will be strange, however, to see a 25-man roster without Tim Wakefield for the first time since I started following the Red Sox. It won't be a truly monumental roster change, but it will be the end of an era--one which is all-too-hard to recognize for those of us who have known nothing else.