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Tim Wakefield and the value of the slow life

There will be other Red Sox greats, but there will not be another Timmy.

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I was in the house for the worst moment of Tim Wakefield’s professional life. It was October 16, 2003 and Wakefield let loose his first pitch of the bottom of the 11th inning of the Game 7 of the ALCS, it was quickly revealed as the last pitch of the series. Aaron Boone put the ball in the left-field bleachers, and I fought through a delirious crowd in right field to get to the train before any of the Yankees fans left and were able to taunt me on the ride home, feeling like the second-biggest schmo in the world, behind Wakefield.

The next year I stayed home for Game 7, and it made all the difference. (You’re welcome!) The following day I saw the entirety of the celebration, which featured Mike Timlin and Wakefield returning to same mound on which the latter had seen the previous year’s dream end and on which Mariano Rivera had justifiably prostrated himself. The script had finally been flipped.

That’s the moment I’ll remember best about Tim Wakefield, but as someone who will turn 38 at the end of this week, it’s hard to write about Wakefield without thinking back to my freaking high school years and the summer I spent slinging hot dogs and shakes at a beach club, consumed by the new guy on the Sox who threw one ridiculous pitch and -- oh yeah -- never lost.

The year was 1995. It was the first season after the dumb idiot strike deprived us of a World Series, a lockout which didn’t end until March 28, when then-U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York Judge Sotomayor, now a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, issued a preliminary injunction against the dumb idiot owners, and a 144-game schedule was put into place.

The abbreviated 1994 season hadn’t been a good one for the Sox, as they "finished" 17 games behind the "first-place" (dumb idiot) Yankees in an AL East that included the Tigers instead of the as-yet-hatched (Devil) Rays. The offense was fine, with Mo Vaughn and John Valentin coming off short-season .300/.400/.500 lines, but the pitching, "led" by Roger Clemens, was a mess. Clemens was still good, but 1995 would be the worst season of his career, and the previous two years were far below his standard as basically the best pitcher in baseball.

Clemens would actually finish third in WAR in 1995, behind Wakefield and Erik Hanson, who was Boston’s best pitcher that year, albeit not the one that captured the local imagination. In a year that the Red Sox would finish in first place and Vaughn would "win" the MVP (against the far, far superior Albert Belle), Wakefield would be the -- my -- breakout star.

Previous to Wake’s 1995 season, the knuckleball had felt like a relic of Major League Baseball’s past. I had baseball cards for Charlie Hough and the Niekro brothers: they had grey hair and stats going back to the sixties. The knuckleball seemed likely history, not the present. Then Wakefield showed up, and he was a gift. He was fresh off a 1994 in which he didn’t pitch at all, and put up a 16-8 record with a 2.95 ERA, and this was before advanced stats and my advanced age, I felt a pull toward winning records and younger, exciting players. As a precocious, outsider, know-it-all baseball fan, there was nothing I loved more than the kid who threw like a senior citizen because it was his only way to stay in the game he loved.

At the time I was a rising senior on an average, lowest-state-division high school baseball team… and I had been passed over for a regular starting role the moment I started playing, first by upperclassmen, then by underclassmen. While the real pitchers boasted of throwing "Aaron Sele curve" on their best days, all I could hope were that my knuckled warmup tosses would squirm enough to hit my throwing partner in the nuts or skitter past him. We all threw knucklers in warmups, and as Jason Varitek would learn in Wakefield’s redemptive 2004 ALCS, a good one will send you scrambling.

I actually threw with my knuckles instead of my fingertips, as Wakefield does, and I can still do it if I manage to get ahold of a baseball. That’s not true, actually: I will do it if I try to get a baseball. It is probably the first thing I’ll do. I will want to confuse and impress you with my skill, and maybe tag you in the junk while I’m at it. I’m don’t think I can say with certainty that I do this because of Wakefield, because the knuckleball is a universal conduit of joy not limited to Red Sox fans, but let’s be serious: I did it because of Wakefield.

Fast forward to 2001, and I’m in the first row of the Comiskey Park bleachers watching the Red Sox play the White Sox. I’m right above the Sox’ bullpen, which is not an accident. I am also -- and this is an understatement -- fahkin’ hammid. I am next-level drunk and I am trying to talk to the players I can see, i.e., the ones not sitting directly below me on the dugout bench. A few are sitting in folding chairs. Most are ignoring or not understanding me me. The only one taking the bait is Bryce Florie, who is simply too polite not to respond to everything I ask.

Eventually I think back to my baseball days, such as they were, and ask who has the best knuckleball on the team, figuring he’ll know what I mean.

Instead, he looks at me like I’m stupid. "Wakefield," he says.

Yeah. Right. Him. These were the days that Wakefield had been shuffled to and from the rotation and temporarily into the closer’s role, moves that he’d deal with until he hit the rotation more or less for good in 2002. That season would be his second of his truly great years on the mound (1995 was the first, 2005 would be the last), but as the years piled up he put up some amazing performances here and there -- to many remember any single good one that wasn’t part of the yin-and-yang playoff series of 2003 and 2004, which have been, and will be, covered extensively in other articles both on this site and the Internet.

By 2006, Wake’s career had flattened out, so to speak, and he had settled into his "pitcher in residency" mode for the Sox, going far enough to sign a contract with a perpetual team option for $4 million at the age of 39 -- options the team would pick up three times before lowering the stakes to $3.5 million and $2 million over Wakefield’s final two years. He made almost $56 million in his career, nearly all of it from the Sox, who have to consider it money well-spent, given the money they are blowing or have blown on Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Pablo Sandoval, and Hanley Ramirez, some of whom I like quite a bit, albeit none of whom have a chance of matching Wakefield’s place in Red Sox history.

That might not be fair, though: no one will. His longevity, durability and success would have guaranteed him a singular spot in the Red Sox Hall of Fame even if hadn’t effectively thrown a circus pitch, but he did.

Wake finished his career with exactly 200 wins after a protracted, painstaking quest to get him the last one. That’s baseball: sometimes it’ll hand you a win, and sometimes you can’t buy one for $59 million. Then it was all over for our boy except for the plaudits and movies dedicated to his craft; along with R.A. Dickey, he is the star of the documentary "Knuckleball," which, I learned too late to attend, he screened in person on my high school baseball field shortly after it was released, as if to poke me straight in the gooey parts of my brain.

All of this led me to explain Wakefield, and the knuckler, to my wife. She could give a crap about baseball, but the pitch captured her imagination just as it captured mine. We came back home and watched the movie on Netflix and it was wonderful. She still talks about it, which is a nice bowtie for me on his career. Tim Wakefield was on the Red Sox before I had my first kiss and damn near until my wedding, and he made it happen by throwing beach balls at professional hitters and making them miss. The dude didn’t just have skill, he had balls, and as someone who got married late and happy even later, I can’t separate him from the idea that life might just be best when it comes at you slowly.