x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tim Wakefield's pitch perfect career

Tim Wakefield will turn 45 this week and he is still pitching in the major leagues - but that is not the most remarkable thing about him.

Tim Wakefield is seven victories from becoming the leading winner in Red Sox history.
Tim Wakefield is seven victories from becoming the leading winner in Red Sox history.

Tim Wakefield will turn 45 this week and he is still pitching in the major leagues - but that is not the most remarkable thing about him.

Nor is the fact that he is the only active player to have played on the last Pittsburgh Pirates team to win more games than it lost (19 years ago), though surely, that must count for something, too.

Instead, consider that sometime soon, Wakefield will record his 200th career win in the regular season.

A couple of decades ago, that would have been a nice though not entirely stupendous accomplishment. Then, 300 career wins was the gold standard. Reach that figure and you could make your case for the Hall of Fame.

But then came five-man rotations, fewer complete games, more caution when it comes to injuries ... and the notion of a 300-game winner became an anachronism.

So, if 40 is the new 30 in terms of life stages, then 200 is the new 300. That Wakefield would be the one to do it - he is already the game's active pitcher with the most wins- is all the more remarkable because Wakefield throws the knuckleball, itself a lost art. And remarkable because his career almost ended - twice.

Once was in the lower minor leagues, when he was about to be released as a first baseman before someone had the idea to let him try pitching, using the knuckler he had experimented with on the side.

Before long, Wakefield was helping the Pirates to a spot in the play-offs as a most improbable rookie injection into a faltering Pittsburgh starting rotation, going 8-1 in the regular season and winning twice more in the play-offs.

Then, the following year, he skidded to a 6-11 record with a bloated 5.61 ERA. One year later, Wakefield had pitched himself out of the big leagues and was one of the worst pitchers at Triple A, leading the league in every negative category.

Released the next year, he signed with Boston - and has won 185 more games. He is now second in team history in strikeouts (behind Roger Clemens) and is just seven away from becoming the all-time leading winner in Red Sox history, besting Clemens and Cy Young.

The fact that he does it with a thoroughly unpredictable offering like a knuckler, which butterflies its way to the plate and often does not break the motorway speed limit, makes the success all the more astounding.

Wakefield did not overpower hitters as a rookie and he does not do so now, nearly 20 years later. In that sense, he is both ageless and timeless. He may be a few pounds heavier and a step or two slower, but his basic pitching style is no different now than it was in 1992.

For that, and for his stewardship of the knuckler, his next win should be celebrated by all who love the game. The next one, and however many more remain.