Tim Wakefield, a picture of defiance

His pitching motion, so casual and determined.

In conversation with a friend, I joked that I wanted to see Tim Wakefield pitch until I retire at whatever it is that I do. That would put Wakefield right around 81 years old, at least, and we would be treated to another 35 years of stories of him, his knuckleball and his age-defying ability to eat innings, throw strikes and put out fires.

It’s a silly and obvious exaggeration, but it wasn’t far from the truth. Through the course of the past few seasons, there may not be a player I’ve rooted for harder and more frequently than Tim Wakefield (save for Jason Varitek). There was a feeling that Wakefield needed all the good vibes he could get in order to hang on and rebel against time and culture.

Wakefield isn’t just a pitcher who played until he was very old. He’s a pitcher whose career looked to be over 18 years ago. He’s a pitcher whose existence hung on a throwback to the deadball era — a pitch designed to be pushed by the wind, released from his hand to the cradle of nature. Sometimes it left hitters stupifyed, and sometimes, it offered up a gift they happily sent flying back onto the Mass Pike. Such was the life he chose.

And such is the chapter that officially closes today, with the announcement that he will retire from baseball rather than try to make the Red Sox out of camp or, more feasibly, continue his career elsewhere.

He has literally seen the highest highs (the 2004 and 2007 World Series winning teams) and lowest lows (serving up Aaron Boone’s pennant winning home run in 2003) in that time. He’s been a starter, a closer, a mop-up guy, a Cy Young candidate and, finally in 2009, an All-Star. He spent that night in St. Louis’ Busch Stadium sitting in the bullpen talking shop with another marvel of nature, Mariano Rivera.

If I may indulge in a bit of naval gazing, his career with the Red Sox began on my 13th birthday, and he will retire two months shy of my 30th. No player from my childhood has stuck with me this far, never mind one who remained with the home team for so long.

And, it’s with the home team he’s staying. Though Boston always had bigger stars — Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, etc. — no one else seemed to embody the spirit of the team quite like Wakefield. He was a reject who hung on, an afterthought who continued to contribute and, occasionally, dazzle well into his forties. He was a survivor, hanging on the thread of the most unpredictable pitch baseball has to offer.

At some point this season, Wakefield will be honored by the team before a home game, before a thunderous ovation. No one will wear his no. 49 jersey for a while. He might even land a roving instructor gig with the team.

But he won’t be standing on the mound, and he won’t be waiting in the bullpen. He won’t be there to win a game, he won’t be there to eat up innings in some Andrew Miller disaster start, and he won’t be there to give the rest of the staff a much-needed night off.

Simply, he won’t be there. After 17 summers of baseball, that won’t be an easy adjustment.

One response to “Tim Wakefield, a picture of defiance

  1. Nice piece.
    I will miss Wake — he is more or less the last Red Sox player still around from my college days. (He made his first Red Sox start maybe two weeks after I graduated from BU.)

    I remember once around ’98 or ’99 when he was going so poorly that I got tickets to a game mainly b/c I thought it would be his last.
    He ended up pitching deep into the game and turning his season (and maybe his career) around shortly after that.

    I will also always remember his “fastball,” which I saw get abused on one or two occasions.

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