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Tim Wakefield Was Once The Best Pitcher On The Planet

And don’t you forget it.

Oakland Athletics Vs. Boston Red Sox At Fenway Park Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

I came of age as a baseball fan knowing with absolute certainty that the Red Sox would never win the World Series. While I was too young to actually have witnessed the atrocity of Game Six in 1986 myself, the toxic miasma of the game still hung over the fanbase as I awakened to baseball consciousness a few years later. We still loved the Sox — we watched them all summer, talked about them all winter, and counted on them to create community in lower middle class exurban New England — but we didn’t believe in them. They were bums, every last one of them, up to and including (especially including, actually) the Texas fireballer who would one day retire as the most accomplished pitcher of all-time.

The early 90s Red Sox were paragons of mediocrity. Lineups filled with one-dimensional hitters whose one dimension wasn’t all that impressive: Phil Plantier, Jack Clark, Carlos Quintana. Pitching rotations that relied on 37-year-old Danny Darwin. For two straight summers, Scott Cooper and his 98 OPS+ was the team’s only representative at the All-Star Game. The Red Sox would always disappoint; we knew this and accepted it. And while we griped about the team and hoped for more, we never actually expected more — not in the way we would later, when Nomar and Pedro burst onto the scene and turned World Series hopes into something more than mere delusion.

For all these reasons, the 1995 season exists as a weird and singular moment in Red Sox history, an improbable glittering jewel of a season scattered amongst faded trash, disconnected from what came both before and after. And the magic of that season was supplied by one man above all others: Timothy Stephen Wakefield.

Like much of the rest of that team, he seemingly came out of nowhere. This might surprise you if you look at his Baseball Reference page today and see that he put up a 165 ERA+ as an outstanding rookie on an outstanding Pirates team just three years before. But back then — when neither the internet nor interleague play existed and ESPN was just something you came across in sports bars and hotels — the National League was little more than an urban legend to us. Wakefield was just one of a number of scrapheap pickups we’d never heard of, guys like Troy O’Leary, Erik Hanson, and Luis Alicea, names we wouldn’t be able to pair with faces until we finally tuned into Channel 38 on Opening Day and saw them trot out to the first baseline.

Of course, in Wakefield’s case, we didn’t even get to see that. He didn’t make the Opening Day roster, having started the year in Pawtucket following an ugly 1994 season in which he put up a 5.84 ERA for Pittsburgh’s AAA team in Buffalo. So we really had no idea who he even was when, at the end of May, following injuries to Roger Clemens, Aaron Sele, and Frankie Rodriguez, Wakefield made his first start for a team that surprisingly found itself in first place despite employing an utterly shattered rotation.

What would occur over the next four months was nothing less than the Red Sox version of Fernandomania. Wakefield pitched seven innings and allowed just a single run in his first start against the Angels. His next time out he would go into the eighth while shuting out the A’s. But those games were on the West Coast; we still hadn’t been properly introduced to him. So just try to imagine what it was like the next week when, making his Fenway Park debut, a pitcher whose name we barely knew and whose face we’d never seen pitched a 10-inning complete game as Troy O’Leary walked-off the Seattle Mariners. And then try to imagine what it was like when he threw another complete game just a few days later, this time taking a no-hitter all the way into the eighth.

As he pitched his way to an unfathomable 14-1 record in his first 17 starts, Tim Wakefield became the most famous person in New England. The Boston Globe published two-page spreads explaining the physics of the knuckleball. His starts became must-see events and near-automatic sellouts. It was the heat of summer, the Red Sox were improbably in first place following a year without a World Series, and the best pitcher in baseball was a knuckleballer we’d never even heard of a few weeks before.

It wouldn’t last of course — it never does for any pitcher who relies on something as mysterious and mercurial as the knuckleball. In mid-August he got lit up by those same Mariners he’d dominated in early June. We assumed it was just a minor hiccup, but it was followed by a string of rough starts as he limped down the stretch. In the ALDS against a loaded Cleveland team, he wouldn’t even get a start until Game Three. He gave up three runs in the first three innings and was knocked around for five runs in the sixth. The over-performing Red Sox were easily shoved aside and swept by one of the best teams of the decade, as we all kind of knew they would be before the series even began.

Nowadays, I sometimes get the sense that Wakefield’s 1995 season plays only a minor part in his greater Red Sox legacy. This is understandable to some extent. For one thing, that 1995 team seems so disconnected from the franchise as it exists now; in terms of personnel, it was radically different from the Nomar-Pedro-Manny teams that came to dominate the sport just a few short years later (I mean: Jose Canseco was that team’s cleanup hitter! How many people even remember that Jose Canseco once played for the Red Sox?) But moreover, over the next sixteen years Wakefield would be elevated into something arguably bigger than just a player. He became a symbol of an entire era, a kind of pitcher emeritus, forever a part of the team, even when it wasn’t clear what his role would be or whether he could still be effective.

There is much to be said for this elder statesman role in baseball. But there’s also something of a backhanded compliment attached to it: the players who tend to take on this role are often the players who have been good, but not necessarily great. In fact, it’s often because they are flawed that they become so endearing. And Tim Wakefield was flawed on the baseball field; at no point over the rest of his career would he ever again anchor a rotation. But it would be a shame if his Red Sox legacy was limited to beloved mainstay and rubber-armed fan-favorite, as wonderful of a legacy as that is. Because for a few magical months in 1995, Tim Wakefield wasn’t just good, he was better than anyone.