Tim Wakefield, the Knuckleball, and Character

My favorite baseball player retired a few days ago. Tim Wakefield, a knuckleball specialist who had pitched the last 17 years with my home town Boston Red Sox, finally decided to hang up his spikes at the age of 45. There were several remarkable aspects to his long and successful career (he won 200 games, something the vast majority of major league pitchers never do), not the least of which was throwing the knuckleball almost exclusively, an infamous and rare pitch that is almost as difficult to throw as it is to hit or catch. (Former catcher Bob Uecker famously quipped that the best way to catch a knuckleball was to wait until it stopped rolling, and pick it up.) The most remarkable, however, was the way Wakefield always exhibited exemplary character, on the field and off of it.

Pitching the knuckleball, I have come to believe, both requires and builds character. Nobody begins throwing it if they have the talent to hurl a 95 mph fastball or a back-breaking curve, because those pitches, once perfected, allow a pitcher to control his own fate. They also avoid  the ingrained prejudice of scouts, managers, pitching coaches and of course, catchers against knuckleball pitchers, whom they tend to regard as the equivalent of  carnival freaks. Knuckleball specialists are usually athletes who cannot rely on outstanding physical gifts, and who instead have to achieve success with even more than the usual measure of dedication, patience, practice, hard work, perseverance and sacrifice. Then, if they are among the few individuals who can master it, they must accept and adapt to another harsh reality unique to the pitch: even if they do everything right, everything may still go horrible wrong. Unlike the case with other pitches, where a ball can be guided to a specific area of the strike zone,  a knuckleball pitcher has no idea where a perfectly thrown knuckler is going after he releases it. The perfect knuckleball has no spin, so rather than cutting through the eddies and breezes in the atmosphere, it is carried by them, often changing direction more than once in its unpredictable flight to the batter. This can mean that the pitch, thrown the same way, can be literally unhittable; it can mean that no catcher can hold it, allowing runners to advance and swinging strike threes to become virtual singles when the ball flies past the catcher; it can mean that the ball sails far out of the strike zone, and worst of all, it sometimes means that an expertly thrown pitch arrives like a batting practice meat ball, to be deposited deep in the bleachers for a home run. A knuckleball pitcher has to accept this uncertainty and injustice. He can’t get angry, or frustrated, or curse the fates, because the slightest anxiety or tension may cause him to lose the feel of the ball on the next pitch. A knuckleball master has to conquer fear, and embrace accountability. He throws the ball, and he’s accountable, even if it is only moral luck—where the wind blows—that determines whether he succeeds or fails. All he can do is try his best, and take pride in that, without relying on results or praise for affirmation.

An ethical life is like the career of a knuckleball pitcher. There is no guarantee that doing the right thing will have the consequences we would like, and much of our character is formed by how we deal with failure, as well as the consequences of our own conduct that we neither wished nor fully controlled. The risks, stresses and uncertainties of daily living, like the inherent unfairness of living by the knuckleball, can make us  better people, or worse ones.

In the case of Tim Wakefield, it made him a better one. Throughout his Boston career, he was willing to do whatever the team asked. Sometimes it was to start—in 1995, when he joined the team in May fresh from being released as hopelessly erratic by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wakefield ran off an astounding steak of 14 wins against only one loss, giving up fewer than two runs a game. Sometimes he would pitch long relief; for a while, in an emergency, he was the team’s closer. Whenever his team was short of arms or the staff needed rest, Wakefield pitched relief between starts, a practice common in the 1930s but almost extinct now. Sometimes his reward was to be treated miserably: one year, after the pitching coach specifically praised him for “saving the staff” with his versatility, he was cruelly left off the post-season play-off roster. Nonetheless, Wakefield refused to complain to sportswriters, or create clubhouse dissension. Rather than squeeze every last dollar out of baseball by putting himself on the free agent market, he signed a series of continuing contractual arrangements with Boston designed to keep himself with the team and city he had adopted as his home.

In the off-season, Tim Wakefield was immersed in community work and charities, including the Jimmy Fund, Boston’s children”s cancer fundraising project led by a former Red Sox star, Mike Andrews. In every way, he exemplified what we wish sports stars would be, but seldom are—a real role model, quietly combining excellence on the playing field with professionalism, sportsmanship, good citizenship, caring, humility, loyalty, courage and character.

When he retired on Friday, saying that while he still felt he could play at the major league level, it was clear to him that the best thing for the team, and thus himself, was to end his career now, heartfelt tributes from team mates past and present, sportswriters and fans came in tidal waves, as they should have. And while extolling his achievements on the mound, they were equally emphatic in praising what matters most in a knuckleballer, and in all of us: character.

That, even more than his ability to throw the most difficult of pitches as only a handful of major league pitchers ever have, makes Tim Wakefield a true hero.

4 thoughts on “Tim Wakefield, the Knuckleball, and Character

  1. Wonderful analogy and Wakefield story. After practicing the knuckler for weeks and cleverly sneaking a few during pre-game warm-up, and gaining confidence because each pre-game toss was in (or fairly close to) the general strike zone, I pitched the one and only knuckler I ever pitched in live play. It almost went out of the park – behind home plate.

  2. Jack, you made it through a lengthy post about knuckle balls and never mentioned Hoyt Wilhelm… I’m still ponder whether that deserves congratulations or otherwise.

    The beauty of Mr. Wakefield’s decision is that he will be remembered for all that he did, both on the field and off, and not that he was a good player and stayed too long at the dance. Its hard to convince the kids today that Willie Mays may be the best to have ever laced up a pair of spikes because they remember that last year with the Mets.

    • He didn’t say too long at the dance. He had a better year than A.J. Burnett, who just became the #1 pitcher for the Pirates. He had a bad end to the season, like a lot of the Red Sox, but he also pitched some very good games, and the knuckler was still knuckling. He was less than two years off of back surgery—he might have bounced back. He had a bad year, but nothing near Willie’s.

    • Hoyt, Joe and Phil Neikro, Wilbur Wood, Eddie Fisher, Charley Hough, Tom Candiotti, and the Mets R.A. Dickey—and Wake. I think those are the six that lasted longer than a cup of coffee in my lifetime. Tim’s behind Phil, Hoyt and Charlie. Not bad.

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