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A retrospective: Tim Wakefield’s journey to 200 wins

09.14.11 at 9:21 am ET
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The moment was spontaneous and remarkable, a reflection of what Tim Wakefield has meant to both a baseball team and a community for the better part of 17 seasons. Few milestones at Fenway Park have been commemorated with the enthusiasm of the knuckleballer’s 200th career victory.

Wakefield’s entire team embraced the moment, dousing the pitcher with champagne and then entreating him to return to the field, where a sellout crowd had remained at the ballpark several minutes after the conclusion of the game — and long after the pitcher’s departure — in order to congratulate the longest-tenured pitcher in Sox history.

It was far more than a celebration of a single win. Instead, it was the celebration of a career arc of a 45-year-old pitcher who — despite achieving a mastery of a dancing pitch in a fashion achieved by few in the history of the game — has always seemed a kind of baseball Everyman. After all, Wakefield throws his signature pitch in the 60s, and his fastball tops out in the mid-70s — something that makes him more accessible to fans than a pitcher who delivers his pitches with high-90s velocity.

And then, of course, there is Wakefield’s unassuming personality and remarkable history of charitable endeavors. Those traits have tied him to a region in unique fashion.

And so, there it was: The celebration of an unlikely career arc by a group of teammates and fans who respect Wakefield for everything that his career has been.

“I was at the door, greeting everybody. I got a hug from every single guy. They kept telling me, ‘€˜You need to go outside.’€™ I already had planned to go outside. But after the celebration inside with my teammates and going outside and greeting the crowd, having my teammates come back out really meant a lot to me,” said Wakefield. “It really makes you feel special. It makes you feel like you’€™re one of the guys. It’€™s unbelievable, the reception I got — not only from the fans but from my teammates. It says a lot.

“Sometimes you go through the grind of a season, and you’€™re so locked into your personal stuff, trying to get things done, your work, your personal numbers. Everybody is in their own little bubble. But when a moment like this happens and you’€™re able to share it with your teammates — a lot of whom I’€™ve been with for a long time and the new guys who got called up today — being able to share that with them is very special to me.”

In light of career win No. 200, it is worth looking back at a few aspects of Wakefield’s career:

–He was drafted as a power hitter, but it took all of about one month for him to realize that his career would quickly plateau as a position player. And so, he was more than willing to comply when the Pirates suggested that he become a knuckleballer. Here is a look back at that decision, from earlier this season.

–Wakefield enjoyed extraordinary initial success in his pitching career, then quickly fell upon hard times, to the point where a player who was dominant in the majors in 1992 was released by the Pirates at the beginning of 1995. But that, in turn, created the opportunity for one of the great signings in Red Sox history, and a partnership that has worked out remarkably for both a pitcher and a team.

From 2009, a look at the process that led Wakefield to the Red Sox. This quote, from Phil Niekro (as recounted by Dan Duquette) in 1995, seems particularly fitting.

‘€œTim fulfilled the prophecy that Niekro set for him,’€ Duquette said. ‘€œHe said, ‘€˜Timmy, you can pitch until you’€™re 45 and if you want to stay in one place, you can do that, too.’€™ He told him all that.”

–Speaking of Niekro (actually, the Niekros), part of the reason why Wakefield’s career got back on track was because he had the opportunity to work with both when they were managing a women’s baseball team in Fort Myers at a time when the Sox were having their spring training there. Interestingly, it was only because of the MLB strike of 1994-95 that the Sox were still in Fort Myers at a time when the Colorado Silver Bullets were there, something that played into Wakefield’s opportunity to work with Phil Niekro and Joe Niekro, two of the greatest practitioners of the knuckleball.

For more on the story of Wakefield’s opportunity to work with the Niekros, click here.

–To Terry Francona, Wakefield’s signature moment was an act of complete selflessness, when the Red Sox were getting pounded in Game 3 of the ALCS and Wakefield, the Game 4 starter, told the Sox skipper that he was available to work out of the bullpen, and thus kept the Sox relief corps intact.

On a night when the Sox got hammered by the Yankees, 19-8, Wakefield’s 3 1/3 innings of relief meant that neither Keith Foulke nor Mike Timlin had to pitch, and limited other Sox relievers to just an inning of work. That, in turn, ensured that the Sox bullpen was able to help carry the team through 12- and 14-inning victories in Games 4 and 5, ultimately helping to turn the momentum of the ALCS en route to the Sox’ historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees that laid the groundwork for the franchise’s first World Series title in 86 years.

“I look back at that ’04, when he went out to the bullpen, that’s probably something that’s as special to me as anything. That signifies what Wake means,” said Francona. “Obviously, you’ve got to have a ton of talent to get 200 wins. But those other things are probably what stick with us, and I think he’s been around here long enough that people appreciate that, as they should. But those are things that are very meaningful.”

–Despite such contributions, there has always been a perception that the pitcher was on the margins of the roster. It is a perspective that the knuckleballer himself has come to embrace, as he refers to himself as having spent a career in “survival mode.”

Of course, he has not merely survived but thrived, a fact that has earned him an accomplishment that just 88 other pitchers in modern baseball have reached.

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