I don’t have any clever insights to Tim Wakefield’s now-completed career; Gentle Readers who care will know where to go for those. I just wanted to point out something that is probably not going to be emphasized in the retirement columns and blog posts, but that I always associated with him and his career. And that’s how amazing his story already was by the time he was thirty.
For those who missed it: he’s a 21-year-old eighth-round first baseman with the Watertown Pirates in the New York-Penn league in 1988. He bats .189 and slugs .308. But he hangs on. The next year, in the New York-Penn League and the Sally League, he plays some first and third, and even second. He still can’t hit (.216/.255/.330) and his professional baseball career is over. Except—like a lot of guys, he fools around with a knuckleball when he’s playing catch, and the manager—U.L. Washington in the only year he manages at any level—gives him a shot on the mound. And his career is not over.
In fact, despite struggling at Buffalo in 1991, he is up in the big leagues at the end of July 1992 for a Pittsburgh team that (a) goes into his first game tied for first place, (2) has won the division two times hand running, and (iii) knows it will lose its two biggest stars at the end of the year to free agency. They need a young man with a big future, and while he is already 25, he is that rarest of all things, a young knuckleballer. He could pitch forever. And here’s his first game. It was Timsanity. The rest of that year he starts thirteen games and finishes four of them, going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA and giving up only three home runs. Out of nowhere.
I know this is painful for a certain Gentle Reader, but take a look at the 1992 Playoffs. The Pirates can’t hit John Smoltz in Game One and get absolutely crushed in Game Two. Game Three is Tim Wakefield and Tom Glavine, and Tim Wakefield outpitches him to get a complete game victory. The Braves win Game Four (I don’t remember John Smoltz giving up those runs, do you?) but the Pirates win Game Five at home to send it back to Atlanta (I almost typed send it back West to Atlanta—do y’all remember that Atlanta was the champion of the National League West that year?) and another Glavine/Wakefield matchup. And Tim Wakefield throws another complete game, winning on the back of a Barry Bonds-led 8-run second inning. And then, you know, they lose Game Seven in the ninth—but they are only in Game Seven at all because of two complete games by the rookie Tim Wakefield, only three months in the Big Leagues and a star.
And then they next year, he’s through. He starts out OK, a fine April with one bad outing, but by mid-May he can’t get anyone out. He manages one Quality Start out of six before they move him to the bullpen in June. In July, he’s sent down to AA, where he stinks, and although they bring him back up for a few starts in September, he starts 1994 in Buffalo, where, I’m afraid, he stinks. He doesn’t get called up at the end of 1994, and the Pirates release him before the start of the season in 1995. His career is over.
Only it wasn’t. The Red Sox signed him, gave him four starts in Pawtucket, and brought him up at the end of May. He gives up three runs in his first four games (pitching 33 innings), and is a star again. His ERA is a full run lower than Roger Clemens (who is in the twilight of his career), and he and Mo Vaughn lead the team to the division title. He was 28 years old, and his career had ended twice. The first time almost a stillbirth, the second a spectacular flame-out. To come back at all was astonishing and improbable; to come back and be great was one of the great baseball stories. To come back and pitch for fifteen years…
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,