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The Importance of Being Wakefield

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The key to the Red Sox 2009 title hopes (our third title in six years) is turning 43 in three weeks.

Timothy Stephen Wakefield might be my all-time favorite Red Sox (after John Valentin). He’s the epitome of a team player. He’ll do anything for the win. You need me to go nine? Fair enough. Need to me come in and mow down three in the eighth? I’ll be there. Need me to rake the infield between innings? Lemme check my contract real quick.

In fact, I like Wake so much, I don’t even hold the fact that he was raised in Florida against him. He excelled at Florida Tech at first base – cranking out 40 home runs – and was drafted in the eighth round by the Pirates where a scout told him he would never get above AA ball as a position. And so the knuckleball was born.

Phil Niekro is the first name you think of when you hear knuckleball, but I like to think Tim Wakefield’s the second. He’s been able to enjoy a lengthy and lofty career since his go-to pitch simply can’t tire out his arm. He’s about to turn 43 in August and he could still have another season or two left in him. That’s practically unheard of in any professional sport these days.

Wake joined the winning team back in 1995; when we had fellas like Mo, Johnny V & Willie McGee on our team. And he’s still huckin’ that knuckler to this day; the current longest-tenured Sock. If I were a SportsCenter writer this is where I’d put a cute little graphic about what’s changed in our world since 1995. How many Presidents have we been through since then? Three?!?! Holy Schlamoly!

One thing I will say about the difference between then and now: Wakefield was first brought up to Boston in ’95 because of an injury to Aaron Sele. Aaron Sele?? Isn’t he dead? Wake won 14 of his first 15 and Boston fans were head-over-heels in love.

That isn’t to say it hasn’t been a stormy marriage. The thing about the knuckleball is if it isn’t knuckling, you’re screwed. Wakefield battled through control issues during the early years and from ’95 to ’98 he was an important cog in the Sox rotation. In 1999, Jimy Williams tried him out as the new closer after Flash Gordon went down, and he recorded 14 saves before Derek Lowe took over the job. From 2000-02 he was more of a spot-starter, starting on the mound some days while sitting in the bullpen others.

During the ill-fated 2003 ALCS, Wake was our best pitcher. I was in my sophomore year at JMU in 2003, and I vaguely remember his excellence through a smoky/beery haze; overshadowed by Aaron Boone’s home run. I remember thinking at the time that someone oughta cut that damn Boone’s heart open..
In the Game Three ravaging of 2004, Wake heroically gave up his Game Four start to pitch 3 1/3 and save the Sox bullpen arms. When Wake finally retires, 30 years from now, the one word you’re going to hear more than any other is “selfless.” He then threw three innings in Game Five and got the win; and, as a sort of thank you gesture, he started Game One of the Afterthought World Series. His first ring. And our first one in a long long time.

But my all-time favorite memory of Tim Wakefield came three years later. After their second title in four years, in a postseason in which Wake couldn’t participate due to shoulder problems, Mike Timlin gave a heartfelt, teary-eyed speech on the importance of Time Wakefield, while Ol' Wake stood right there next to him bleary-eyed, trying to hold back.

Now Ol' Wake’s 11-3 and appearing in his first-ever All-Star game after seventeen seasons-in-waiting. He should be the second man on the mound after Halladay (Royals and Mariners fans may disagree) and it’s been a long time comin’. The second-half looms large with the Yanks and Rays coming on strong, but for now we get a few days to appreciate how important the second-oldest first-time All-Star of all time (behind Satchel Paige) has been to our squad. If it wasn’t for Wake, we’d be having one for our season already.

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