A Eulogy for Tim Wakefield

Like many Red Sox fans last week, I was stunned to hear the news that Tim Wakefield was facing a serious illness. I was brokenhearted to hear the news of his death only a few days later.

Baseball signed "Tim Wakefield #49"

Tim Wakefield was my favorite player on the Red Sox for years. The only jersey I own is a Tim Wakefield jersey. I have two framed photographs that I have hung on office walls over the years: one is of Dennis Eckersley (my childhood Red Sox fave); the other is of Tim Wakefield. My most valued sports memorabilia is a signed Tim Wakefield baseball, given to me by my Yankees-fan sister for my birthday.

Why did I like Wakefield so much? Perhaps it was because he was a Yankee killer (he frequently confounded that hard-hitting lineup). Maybe it was because he was one of the few baseball players still older than me—by two years! The truth is much deeper and is about the man and what he represented about baseball. To explain, I’ll share three vignettes from Wake’s career.

Memorial Day 2003

On Memorial Day 2003, the ESPN-televised contest between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox was expected to be Roger Clemens’ 300th career win—he even went to the mound wearing a glove with a “300” patch on it.1This is the kind of entitled Yankees expectation that drives fans of other teams nuts.

Lost in all the hoopla about Clemens’ imminent win (and the controversy about that “300” patch) was the pitcher for the Red Sox that day: Tim Wakefield. I hadn’t seen Wakefield much before this; I was living out of the New England market and didn’t have cable—my chances of seeing Red Sox games were few. But there was something about him during this game that caught my attention.

Even as Clemens and the Yankees geared up for their “inevitable” victory, Wake quietly went to the mound without any showmanship or braggadocio and dazzled the Yankee batters with a knuckleball—of all pitches.

Tim Wakefield throws a knuckleball
Tim Wakefield throws a knuckleball.

See, the thing about a knuckleball is that it is thrown from the tips of the fingers, which means it doesn’t really spin. The net effect of this is that its movement is unpredictable. It might only be traveling 50–60 miles per hour, but it is really hard to hit.

But the contrast between a hard-throwing right-hander and a knuckleballer wasn’t the only contrast between the two that day. There was a humility and a quiet dedication to doing the best he could for his team that impressed me. And in the end, the Red Sox won the game 8–4; Wakefield got the win. When asked later whether he’d been motivated to deny Clemens win number 300, Wake responded that he got no special satisfaction from spoiling Clemens’ bid. “Roger was a teammate of mine for two years, and I respect Roger more than anybody in the game,” he said—unassuming and gracious.

October 16–19, 2004

It was Game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Red Sox had already lost games 1 and 2 to the Yankees, and it wasn’t going much better in the third game. Down 9–6 with two men on, the Red Sox were staring at another defeat.

Tim Wakefield offered to forego his start the following day and go into the game in long relief. It was doubtful that the Sox would win—they would end up getting blown out 19 to 8—and it wouldn’t serve any purpose to burn out the bullpen. Wake offered to go in and eat up innings to spare the relief staff for Game 4. Wakefield absorbed the blowout and gave his team a chance to win the next night—which they did in legendary fashion, coming back from being down 4–3 in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and ultimately win it after twelve innings.

In Game 5, the Red Sox again mounted a come-from-behind effort, tying the game in the eighth and pushing the game once more into extra innings. With a depleted bullpen, Wakefield once again came into the game in long relief, pitching three shutout innings, which were all the more remarkable given that Sox catcher Jason Varitek—who did not usually catch for Wakefield—struggled with catching the unpredictable knuckleball, producing some real white-knuckle moments. But Wake’s efforts kept his team in the game, giving them a chance for the walk-off win in the bottom of the 14th inning. Wakefield got the win.

The Sox would come back from their three-games-to-none deficit, win the American League Championship, and go to the World Series, winning that for the first time in 86 years. Tim Wakefield was a big reason why.

October 28, 2007

The Red Sox would return to the World Series only three years later. This time, although he had a 17–12 record for the 2007 series because of a shoulder injury that had been bothering him for a while, he took himself off the World Series roster for the good of the team. After the Red Sox won that series, Wakefield was being interviewed following the winning game when fellow pitcher Mike Timlin came up and interrupted the interview:

In those forty-six seconds, Timlin says everything I have been trying to express here: Tim Wakefield was a selfless player who did what was best for the team. His willingness to take a drubbing to spare the bullpen in 2004, his willingness to sit out for the good of the team in 2007, and his commitments to public service and charity work off the field show him as a man of deep character.

In a way, he is not unlike the knuckleball that he threw—unassuming, not flashy, not a power pitch, but quietly and surprisingly effective, leaving you in awe.

The Greatest Game

I enjoy watching other sports from time to time. I like watching the Buffalo Bills play football, and I got caught up in the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup championship a few years ago. But baseball is my true sports love.

I love the drama of every pitch. I love the unusual nature of the game—so unlike all the other goal-at-each-end-of-the-field sports. I love the way it balances individual achievement with team play. But perhaps what moves my baseball-loving soul the most is that the game embodies the concept of self-sacrifice; it’s an essential part of the game.

Often, a player will bunt or get a long flyball out to move his teammate along, not for his own glory. Baseball players routinely trade outs or hits of their own to move their teammate 90 feet closer to home, and the team another run closer to victory.

Tim Wakefield #49 jersey
The aforementioned jersey, which I have been wearing while writing all of this.

Tim Wakefield was made for baseball and embodied everything about the sport that I love.

It warms my heart to know that he has the second most wins as a pitcher for the Red Sox, behind Cy Young—yes, that Cy Young—and Roger Clemens. I was happy to learn that he had a rolling contract renewable every year that kept him on the Red Sox for the rest of his career. I was proud to hear about his charitable work, which garnered him the Roberto Clemente Award.

But most of all, Tim Wakefield helped me reclaim the wonder and affection for baseball I had as a kid. There have been a lot of Red Sox that I have admired and liked over the years—hitters like Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, position players like Dustin Pedroia, pitchers like Pedro Martinez—but for the first time since I was a kid, there was a player that I rooted for.

It has been bittersweet this week to see all the tributes to Tim Wakefield, all of them celebrating what I have long liked him for. Sad that it took his death for these things to be said so publicly about him, but happy that he had left a mark on other people’s lives, too.

Rest in peace, Tim Wakefield. For many of us, you represented the best of what we love about baseball, and you will be missed.

NESN—Tim Wakefield Remembered Red Sox Teammates Pay Tribute to Tim Wakefield