30 baseball books in 30 days of ’11: Day 21 — Wake up, Wakefield: A knuckleballer’s dream career is about to end


The book: “Knuckler: My Life with Baseball’s Most Confounding Pitch”

The author: Tim Wakefield and Tony Massarotti

The vital stats: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pages, $26

Find it: At the publisher’s site (linked here) as well as at Powell’s (linked here), Amazon.com (linked here) and Barnes & Noble (linked here)

The pitch: Chances are that Wakefield will make an apparence against the Angels sometime in their current four-game series — either as an emergency starter, closer, short reliever, middle reliever, set-up man … late-inning defensive replacement?

Wakefield, who hits 45 later this season (in August), is this ultimate survivor. A team player. A utility pitcher with a pitch that is a recipe for disaster. But one that deserves his story told on more than 250 pages?

It’s a stretch, but, as it turns out, one that the reader will, page by page, realize he’s part of Wakefield’s dream ride, which even in baseball lore is pretty far fetched. He is the every-man player, doing whatever it takes to stay in a uniform.

For those who don’t remember: This was a utility infielder and bullpen catcher who was about to get released by the Pittsburgh Pirates before a minor-league coach noticed him messing around with a knuckleball. That became his ticket to the big-leagues, being promoted to the Pirates in time for a run into the playoffs in 1992. Manager Jim Leyland called him “the (explective) Elvis Presley of the National League.”

But as is the pitch’s fate, it left the building the next year. Three seasons later, the Pirates released him.

The Red Sox’s foresight was to have Phil Niekro tutor him not just on the pitch, but how to mentally master it. Niekro was the Wakefield Whisperer. “Use the uncertainty (of the knuckleball) to your advantage.” Mix up speed and elevation within a mechanically sound delivery.

It was against the Angels in Anaheim, on May 27, 1995, that Wakefield returned to the mound, 20 months after his last major-league start. He walked leadoff man Tony Phillips. A passed ball. Another walk. An RBI single by J.T. Snow. But the Red Sox won, 12-1, and manager Kevin Kennedy took him out in the eighth inning, using him on two-day rest at Oakland, and Wakefield came back with a 1-0 win. Next, a 2-1, 10-inning complete game win at Fenway.

The mojo was back.

It would of course come and go — the reason he was left off the Red Sox 1999 ALCS roster, and the reason why he started Game 1 of the 2004 World Series. But 16 seasons later — and seven wins shy of 200 (tops among active pitchers) in a career where he’s already the franchise leader in starts and innings pitched (take that Roger Clemens and Cy Young) — Wakefield is still with the Red Sox, in the final year of a contract.

Survive and conquer.

An excerpt:

As Wakefield and his teammates are celebrating their 2004 ALCS Game 7 incredible comeback win over the Yankees, a season after Wakefield gave up the ALCS Game 7 game-winning homer to Aaron Boone, this takes place:

As Wakefield continued to speak with reporters in front of his locker, one of the attendants in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium leaned in and delivered a message to the pitcher.

“Joe Torre’s on the phone,” he said. “He asked to speak with you.”

Yankee manager Joe Torre, his clubhouse eerily quiet following what is still regarded as the greatest collapse in the post-season history of Major League baseball, had returned to the solitude of his office, sat behind his desk, and picked up his phone, dialing the number that connected him to the Red Sox clubhouse. Excusing himself from the group, Wakefield promptly joined the attendant at the rear of the clubhouse, an area sectioned off from the merrymaking and typically reserved for what players referred to as their “lounge” before and after games. This room was off-limits to the media, so that players could eat, read, and socialize without any interference. As new ballparks were constructed, lounges would become rather sizable, with large flat-screen televisions and card tables as well as sofas and chairs. At Yankee Stadium in 2004, however, the room was far more like a small kitchen, the proverbial heart of the home, where, in this case, Wakefield picked up the receiver and accepted the well wishes of one of the most accomplished and respected managers in baseball.

Joe Torre had spent a lifetime in the game as a player, broadcaster, and manager. From failure to success, he had experienced everything the game could muster. It was Torre’s impeccable people skills, combined with his comfortable, easygoing manner, that had allowed him to be a successful and longtime manager of a storied franchise like the Yankees, in a boiling media kettle like New York, for a megalomaniacal owner like George Steinbrenner. The 2004 ALCS Game 7 loss to the Red Sox was the indisputable nadir of Torre’s tenure with the Yankees, but he nonetheless felt compelled to call Wakefield in the fallout of Game 7 and deliver the simplest message:

“I’m happy for you. You deserve this. Good things happen to good people.”

How it goes down in the scorebook: Knucks all around.

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