Last night, Tim Wakefield accomplished something no other pitcher ever has: he recorded his 8,329th out as a member of the Boston Red Sox. For those who are less than mathematically inclined (like myself), that’s 2,776 and 1/3 innings, one out more than Roger Clemens recorded with a B on his cap.
It’s a useful moment with which to reflect on the astonishing career of Tim Wakefield, and on what he has given this team both on the field and off. The longest tenured member of the Red Sox (Wake arrived in Boston as a free agent during the first month of the 1995 season, two years before anyone had heard of Nomar Garciaparra), Wakefield has been as selfless a player as has ever worn a Sox uniform. That he can arrive at this record is a testament to his loyalty, selflessness, and love of this game.
Wakefield began his pro career as a first baseman in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, back when the Pirates had a system (or a team) to speak of. It was clear then, however, that he would never make the bigs on the offensive side of the ball. Desperate to stay in the game, and on the advice of Pirates front office personnel, Wakefield began to practice the knuckler that he’d fooled around with. The pitch would change his life, allowing him to shoot through the minor league system and establish himself as a major league pitcher in his rookie season in 1992. He struggled later, and was finally released after the 1994 season. Signed by Boston, he worked with the Niekro brothers in spring training; the results nearly netted him a Cy Young in 1995.
Since then, Tim Wakefield has filled every role the Sox have had on the pitching staff. He’s been an ace (1995), an innings eater, a long reliever, and even, for a time during the crazy 1999 season, a closer. In 2006, he signed an unprecedented contract which all but guaranteed he would finish his career here – a four million dollar one year deal with a mutual option that went on indefinitely. As long as both sides wanted him in Boston, he’d stay.
And stay he has: Wakefield has made more starts than anyone in team history, has more strikeouts in a Red Sox uniform than anyone not named Clemens, and trails only five pitchers in WAR over his Red Sox career (Clemens, Cy Young, Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove, and Luis Tiant – not a bad group to follow). He is third in team history in total victories; if he holds on long enough for 17 more, he will be the all time leader.
Tim Wakefield will never be in the Hall of Fame. I hope his number 49 will one day hang on the right field facade, but I have no illusion that it’s a guarantee. What is clear, though, is that Tim Wakefield has given more of himself to this team than any player this side of Johnny Pesky. He is as much a part of this team as anyone who has ever worn the uniform, and whether he retires this season or after ten more, he’ll always have my admiration and thanks.