He is one professional athlete whom I have always admired. Tim Wakefield seems to be cut from a different cloth than most. During his 17 year stint with the Boston Red Sox he has done just about everything that has been asked of him and more. He has been a starter, a long reliever, a closer and a mop-up guy.....whatever was needed at the time. He has played for 5 managers and 3 general managers in Boston. Sometimes his efforts have been deeply appreciated while at other times his contributions have seemingly been overlooked. This past weekend I stumbled upon a book about his life and career. "Knuckler: My Life with Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch" chronicles the improbable story of a most unusual athlete. And because I am both a Red Sox fan and a huge admirer of Tim Wakefield I simply could not put it down.
Tim Wakefield began his life in professional baseball as a first baseman at Class A Watertown in the New York-Penn League in the summer of 1988. The Pittsburgh Pirates had selected him in the eighth round of the draft earlier that summer. It quickly became apparent to everyone that Wakefield was never going to make it as a position player. He simply did not have the bat speed that was required to be a big league hitter. But there is an old maxim in baseball that says "a guy with a good arm who plays a position and can't hit, you almost always try him as a pitcher before releasing him." Since he was a youngster Tim Wakefield had been fooling around with a pitch that his dad Steve had taught him. It was a knuckleball. One day in extended-spring training in 1989 Wakefield was playing catch with a teammate and mixing in an occasional knuckler. Unbeknownst to Tim his manager Woody Huyke was watching and he was intrigued by what he observed. Within a matter of weeks the Pirates organization made the decision to convert Tim Wakefield to a full-time pitcher. And the rest as they say is history.
After just a couple of years learning how to pitch Tim Wakefield was summoned to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the end of July, 1992. He had a terrific final two months for the Bucs and went onto to win two games in the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. But his success in Pittsburgh would be short-lived. In 1993 he simply could not get anyone out. By June he found himself back in Double A where he continued to struggle. Wakefield would spend the entire 1994 season at Triple A Buffalo. He continued to be unimpressive and the Pirates released him the following spring. Just a few weeks later Tim Wakefield was signed to a minor league deal by the Boston Red Sox. Thus began a long and fruitful relationship that persists to this day.
After signing Tim Wakefield, then Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette brought in Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro as a sort of mentor for Wakefield. Along the way Wakefield had discovered that when he was struggling most pitching coaches did not possess the wherewithal to help him. Phil Niekro spoke Tim's language and was intimately aware of the struggles he was experiencing. Niekro imparted a set of basic precepts to his eager young student that have served him extremely well throughout his career. And as a result Tim Wakefield rose from the scrap heap to have a long and productive career in a Red Sox uniform.
"Knuckler: My Life with Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch" presents a comprehensive overview of Tim Wakefield's entire baseball career. What I discovered along the way is that "Wake" has really been a much better pitcher than I had ever realized. Tim has done it all over 19 seasons in the big leagues and continues to be one of the games most respected players. With so many screwed-up celebrities and athletes out there it is quite refreshing to read about a man who is so generous and humble. Now as to the book itself I must agree with another reviewer who found it extremely curious that the entire book was written in the third person. Very strange. "Knuckler" was written by Tim Wakefield along with Tony Massarotti who is a sports columnist for The Boston Herald so you would expect that much of the book would be in the first person. Furthermore, at several junctures in the book you got the clear impression that Tim Wakefield has already retired from the game. Happily this is just not the case. Tim Wakefield continues to be a valuable member of the Red Sox pitching staff. In fact, this past Sunday afternoon I watched Tim post his 199th career win in a game against the Seattle Mariners. Whether you are a baseball fan in general or a Red Sox fan in particular my hunch is that you would enjoy "Knuckler". So pull up a chair, break open a brew and enjoy! Quirks aside this is still great summer reading! Recommended.
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