He was as unique as the pitch he threw, and it is fair to say the Red Sox and their fans may never see the likes of Tim Wakefield again.
But what they saw from the knuckleballer over the past 17 seasons will never be forgotten.
Wakefield said goodbye to baseball Friday, announcing his retirement after a 19-year career at age 45.
“This has been the hardest thing I ever had to do, so it’s with a heavy heart that I stand here today to say that I’ve decided to retire from the game of baseball,” Wakefield said in Fort Myers, Fla., where the Red Sox he leaves behind prepare to open Spring Training this weekend. “Ever since I was a little boy, all I ever wanted to do was play baseball. Even at an early age, after I learned cursive, I would always practice my autograph in hopes that I would become a big leaguer. Those hopes became a reality and I’ve been lucky to be able to live out my dream.”
Wakefield, who won his 200th and final career game last season, finished his Red Sox career third on the franchise list with 186 victories, trailing only Cy Young and Roger Clemens.
Wakefield pitched the most innings (3,006) and made the most starts (430, in 590 total appearances) in franchise history. He trails only Carl Yastrzemski (23 seasons), Ted Williams (19), and Dwight Evans (19) for the most seasons played for the Red Sox.
But it is the way Wakefield did it – and, considering his role in the 2004 postseason, that made him forever one of the 25 players that ended 86 years of futility.
“To be able to share the same field with the greats before me as well as the ones I played with is truly amazing,” Wakefield said. “There have been many ups and downs along the way, but one thing is for sure. Every time I stepped on the field, I gave everything I had. All I ever wanted to do was win. And the bigger goal was to win a World Series for this great city. Finally, after 86 years, we were able to do that.”
Wakefield, perhaps more than any member of that 2004 team, held a special bond with Red Sox fans after symbolizing the helpless trauma of the 2003 ALCS loss to the Yankees, only to find redemption.
And Wakefield connected with the fans on a philanthropic level, becoming one of the most involved Red Sox players of the last quarter-century in charitable causes.
Wakefield joined the Red Sox inauspiciously — via a minor-league contract in April, 1995 as one of a flurry of shrewd moves by newly-installed general manager Dan Duquette.
But Wakefield, who pitched his first two Major League seasons for Pittsburgh and starred in the 1992 NLCS against the Braves, became an instant star with the Red Sox, throwing his knuckleball brilliantly in the 1995 season, including two near no-hitters, going 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA, as the team exceeded expectations and won the AL East, the first of Wakefield’s nine postseason appearances with the Red Sox.
“I remember in ’95, the first time I stepped out of that dugout and saw the Green Monster the first time, I knew I was in the place I belonged,” Wakefield said.
But Wakefield’s role with the team would vary over the next few seasons, particularly under manager Jimy Williams, who used Wakefield as both a starter and closer in the late 1990s. Wakefield returned to starting under Grady Little and was on his way to earning 2003 ALCS MVP honors with two strong victories over the Yankees to help force a Game 7.
But Wakefield and Red Sox Nation were dealt the cruelest of fates in the 11th inning at Yankee Stadium, when after Little allowed starter Pedro Martinez to blow a 5-2 lead in the eighth, Wakefield surrendered a series-losing walk-off homer to Aaron Boone.
Wakefield would play a critical role in the epic 2004 ALCS comeback, giving up his planned Game 4 start to eat up innings in the disastrous 19-8 loss in Game 3, then overcoming three passed balls in the 13th inning of Game 5 – with Jason Varitek, not Wakefield’s usual catcher Doug Mirabelli, unable to corral the knuckler. But Wakefield escaped the inning with a strikeout, and the Red Sox marched on to the unprecedented comeback from 3-0 down to reach the World Series. It was against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 that Wakefield make his only career World Series start, taking a no-decision in what proved the beginning of a four-game sweep to the first Red Sox title since 1918.
Wakefield would again shine in a World Series season, going 17-12 in 2007 before the first of a series of late-season injuries would hamper the final years of his career.
Wakefield, who turned 45 last August and was the older active player in the game, went 7-8 last season with a 5.12 ERA, pitching 154.2 innings. When it became clear the Red Sox were ready to part ways, Wakefield decided to call it quits, rather than join another team.
“Whether it was starting, or relieving, or whatever I was asked to do, I always had my spikes on and was ready to go,” Wakefield said. “I’ve been so blessed to be able to wear this uniform and be a part of this historic franchise for as long as I have.”