The knuckleball.

I didn’t get my first real Red Sox jersey until I was 21 years old. Until then, there was quite a bit of hemming and hawing over which player’s number to get on the back.

The first number I really wanted was 39, in honor of Mike Greenwell, but growing up 50 miles outside of Boston in the pre-internet age, finding that was easier said than done. Then 1995 rolled around, and the Red Sox picked up a knuckleball pitcher who had been released by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was called up on April 26 (my birthday, interestingly enough), was flexible enough to occasionally pitch on two days’ rest, and rattled off a ridiculous number of wins in that first half, flirting with no-hitters and baffling the American League as the Sox climbed to the top of the American League East.

I really wanted Tim Wakefield’s 49 after that. A friend talked me out of it, though. “He’s probably not even going to be here for more than a year or two,” the argument went. I sighed, and agreed.

* * *

Last night, the Red Sox took on the the Toronto Blue Jays in what could accurately be described as a desperate attempt to hang in the playoff race. But John Lackey couldn’t make it through the fifth, and after a less-than-stellar appearance by Michael Bowdon, the Sox were down 10-2 in the sixth inning.

Rich Hill gets through two outs without giving up a run, but Matt Fox gives the Blue Jays their 11th. So, with two outs in the seventh inning, Terry Francona makes another switch.

In comes Tim Wakefield, and as soon as he starts running in from the right field bullpen, the fans start to react. They start cheering. And now they’re standing. And now, down 11-5, Fenway Park is screaming as Wakefield is announced as the new pitcher. Perched in a standing-room-only section above the grandstand on the first-base line, it was a sight to see.

Wakefield is currently in his 16th season with Boston. He’s 44 years old. He’s under contract for one more next year, though whether he comes back remains to be seen. At 179 wins, he’s 14 away from tying the Red Sox wins record shared by Cy Young and Roger Clemens. It seems unlikely that he’ll get there now, being shuttled back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen.

But in 16 years, he’s given the Sox much more than they could’ve dreamed when they signed him to that minor league deal after a year with the AAA Buffalo Bisons. He was a key contributor to two World Series winners, a number of playoff teams, and famously sacrificed his 2004 ALCS start in order to save the bullpen in the 19-8 loss to the Yankees in Game 3. He’s had flops, he’s had gems. He’s been durable, he’s defied age, and he’s consistently taken less money on the open market to stay in town. I don’t think there’s any more he could have possibly done for Boston in his time here.

Seeing a standing ovation burst from a tired crowd in a loss as Wakefield entered made me absurdly happy. It was this fan base at their best, showing appreciation for a lifetime of work. I can only guess how it made him feel.

I never got his jersey, which is too bad; I would have certainly got my money’s worth.

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