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Monday, July 13, 2009

Tim WakeField: A Knuckleballer’s Winding Path

BOSTON — The first baseman loved throwing knuckleballs. That was a problem for Stan Cliburn in his first managing job with the Watertown Pirates in upstate New York in 1988. Almost every day, Cliburn began fielding practice by reminding his first baseman to throw the ball straight.

“I’d catch him throwing that knuckleball around the infield all the time,” Cliburn said. “I had to tell him we weren’t fooling around.”

Eric Shelton/Associated Press

Tim Wakefield, who pitches deep into games and succeeds with a pitch rarely thrown faster than 68 m.p.h., is a first-time All-Star at age 42.

Tim Wakefield, the frolicking first baseman, tried to entertain teammates before Cliburn marched on the field. but he was perpetually caught fiddling with the pitch. Before long, Cliburn and others learned, Wakefield was not fooling around anymore.

What started as an aimless way to toss a pitch that danced eventually became Wakefield’s vocation. He realized that a .189 batting average in his first season at Class A was going to make him an afterthought. By his second season, Wakefield had begun the transformation from a floundering hitter to an apprentice knuckleball pitcher.

The transformation was steady, then superlative, then stagnant, then steady, remarkably steady, in the last 15 seasons with Boston. Wakefield has been a reliable back-of-the-rotation starter for the Red Sox, a solid pitcher who devours innings and succeeds with a pitch no faster than 68 miles per hour.

And at the age of 42, after uncorking thousands of knuckleballs since his major league debut with Pittsburgh in 1992, Wakefield will make his first appearance at the All-Star Game on Tuesday in St. Louis. The knuckleball was a desperate way for him to prop up a teetering career. But he has used the pitch to tiptoe to 189 wins, to secure two World Series rings and to keep going and going.

“It’s a pretty cool story,” Wakefield said. “It makes me understand how blessed I am to have had a second chance.”

He said his selection for the All-Star team was his first since he was chosen for a travel squad in Florida as an 18-year-old. He is 11-3 to lead the American League in wins, but he also has a 4.31 earned run average, which is not in the league’s top 20. Still, Wakefield, who is the oldest first-time All-Star since Satchel Paige at 46 in 1952, said he valued innings pitched more than any other statistic.

Wakefield was a phenomenal rookie who almost helped Barry Bonds and the Pirates reach the World Series in 1992. Three years later, his knuckleball had taken too many unexplained detours, so the Pirates released him. Wakefield was unemployed for six days before Boston signed him to a minor league contract.

Since then, he has performed like a pitcher who punches a clock. Wakefield has started more games than any other pitcher in Red Sox history and has also been their closer.

He gave up a devastating home run to the YankeesAaron Boone in the 2003 postseason. A year later, he saved the bullpen in a blowout Game 3 loss during the A.L. Championship Series, an unselfish move that helped the Red Sox as they rallied to stun the Yankees in seven games, then won their first World Series in 86 years.

“Sometimes, pitchers drift into never-never land on the days they don’t start,” said Toronto’s Kevin Millar, Wakefield’s former teammate. “As a position player, you appreciate guys that are in the dugout when they’re not starting. Wakey was always there.”

Wakefield’s achievements almost never happened. He homered in his first pro at-bat, which might have been the highlight of his hitting career. He was not immediately assigned to a minor league team by the Pirates in 1989, his second pro season, so he stayed at extended spring training. That can be a baseball wasteland.

Fortunately for Wakefield, Woody Huyke, who managed the Gulf Coast League Pirates, spotted him flipping a knuckleball in the outfield on a steamy day in Sarasota, Fla. Huyke asked him to throw a few more. Then Huyke asked him to take the mound and float more pitches. Huyke studied the ball’s gyrations and locked that image into his memory.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

“I had to do it or finish school and get a job,” Tim Wakefield said of developing his knuckleball.

Peter R. Barber/Watertown Daily Times

Tim Wakefield, as a first baseman with Class A Watertown, entertained teammates by tossing knuckleballs in fielding practice.

John Swart/Associated Press

As a rookie with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992, Wakefield, with catcher Don Slaught, went 8-1.

During an organizational meeting later that season, Huyke said, the Pirates discussed releasing Wakefield because he had shown no promise. An eighth-round draft pick who signed for $15,000, Wakefield did not come close to being the hitter who set home run records at the Florida Institute of Technology. At that point, Huyke interjected.

“I told them, ‘If you’re going to release him, make sure you look at his knuckleball,’ ” Huyke said. “The ball had a lot of movement. You never knew where it was going to go.”

Wakefield had told Cliburn, his first manager, he would never make it to the majors as a hitter, so he happily agreed to undergo a drastic makeover to try to master a trick pitch.

“I had to do it or finish school and get a job,” Wakefield said. “I had to take it seriously.”

He was emotionally drained in his first minor league season because his grandfather Lester died less than a month after he arrived in Watertown. Wakefield struck out 92 times in 256 at-bats over two seasons, so throwing the knuckleball gave him some freedom.

Joe Ausanio, a former Yankees pitcher who played with him at Watertown, said Wakefield had tremendous power and was a stellar athlete. But Ausanio said that Wakefield’s long swing “had some holes” and that he could not adjust to hitting sliders.

“When he hit it, he really hit it,” Ausanio said. “But when he didn’t, he looked foolish.”

So Wakefield the hitter looked the way Wakefield the pitcher often makes hitters look.

“He messes you up,” said Boston’s Dustin Pedroia, who has faced Wakefield in spring training. “He controls it. He can move it left or right. He’s perfected a pitch that pretty much no one else throws.”

Millar jokingly described Wakefield as a pitcher who is “66 years old and throws 65 miles an hour.” But he also offered a serious scouting report.

“The problem is he can make you look as stupid as you can,” Millar said.

As Wakefield sat in the first-base dugout at Fenway Park on Thursday, he recalled some important knuckleball mileposts. The day he first threw the pitch to his father in the backyard, the conversation he taped with the knuckleballer Charlie Hough so he could repeatedly absorb the advice, and his gradual ability to handle any failure that stemmed from throwing a pitch as soft as a marshmallow.

Twenty years ago, Wakefield became a knuckleball pitcher, not a pitcher who throws a knuckleball. To the proud Wakefield, there is a major distinction between those descriptions. Wakefield is a knuckleball pitcher and has been ever since he stopped fooling around.

“It was my only option,” he said. “I had to take that road.”