Missing Tim Wakefield, Already

BOSTON: Tim Wakefield #49 of the Boston Red Sox tips his cap tot he crowd during the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Tim Wakefield's been my favorite player for a long time, and I'm still not ready for him to quit.

I'm going to miss Tim Wakefield.

I'm not going to miss him as much as I miss Terra, my last dog. I'm not going to miss him as much as I miss my grandfather, who was here forever and then suddenly wasn't.

I am going to miss him, though.

When Wakefield debuted in 1992, just a few days before his 26th birthday, I had just turned 26. The first time I saw him, I noticed a strong resemblance between him and John Cusack ... and if you were an ostensibly sensitive soul who grew up when I grew up and loved movies, you identified with John Cusack. Beginning with The Sure Thing and running through Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer and then Say Anything ... John Cusack was just sort of who you wanted to be. Since you knew you couldn't be Matt Dillon or Tom Cruise or Rob Lowe. There were those guys, and there were us guys.

* Of course, in real life John Cusack and Rob Lowe were best friends (at least until Cusack bedded Lowe's girlfriend), and Cusack was about eight years too old to play Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything ... But who knew or cared about any of that stuff? It was the movies.

So both Tim Wakefield and John Cusack were almost exactly the same age as me, and somewhere in my fantasy world we were triplets separated at birth, all making our ways through the world on different paths, and two of us wildly successful.

To my surprise, just a few years later I actually met Tim Wakefield. It was my very first visit to the major-league clubhouse. The Red Sox were visiting Seattle, and I somehow found my way into the visitors' locker room and tracked down Wakefield to ask him a few questions about being a knuckleball pitcher.

Oh. I forgot to mention that I'd been obsessed with knuckleball pitchers even before I'd ever heard of Tim Wakefield. I was predisposed to falling in love with the ex-first baseman who showed up in the summer of '92 and was essentially unbeatable for the last two months of the season.

When Tim Wakefield crashed to earth in 1993 -- pitching for the Pirates, he went 6-11 with a 5.61 ERA, and spent a couple of months back in the minors -- I sort of crashed right along with him; underemployed and mostly destitute, for one stretch I was reduced to using my mom's Texaco credit card just to buy groceries. And sometimes I would drive 20 miles outside of town, just to be sure nobody noticed I was a pauper.

Wakefield actually spent the entire 1994 season in the minors, and he was terrible. I'd gotten a real job, and at that point my future actually looked brighter than his. At that point, it looked like he might suffer the same fate as Gene Bearden, another brilliant rookie knuckleballer who seemed to have just one good year in him.

In 1995, spring training got off to a late start because of the strike. Just before the Pirates broke camp, they released Tim Wakefield. Flat-out released him. From Knuckler: My Life With Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch:

Wakefield, for his part, was all but destroyed as he packed up his belongings and began the drive back home to Melbourne, to his previous life. It's over, he thought. I'm done. He was convinced of that. He was already planning for life without baseball. He was considering going back to school. Both the rise and the fall had occurred with astonishing speed, and years later Wakefield could still feel the turbulence when he recounted the early years of his career...

But of course he wasn't finished. Just six days later he signed with the Boston Red Sox, who lined up Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro as Wakefield's personal coach. They worked together in Florida for less than two weeks, at which point Wakefield went to triple-A Pawtucket. He posted a 2.52 ERA in four starts, was promoted to the big club and ... well, you know most of the rest of it. His ERA with the Sox that season was 2.95, and he gained the first 16 wins of the 186 he would ultimately earn with the club.

Not long after Wakefield joined the Red Sox, I met him. This would have been in 1997 or '98, probably. I was then -- as now -- intimidated by the locker room, because I don't feel welcome there. Never have, probably never will. But I did summon the courage to buttonhole Wakefield, and I will always be grateful for his kindness. Sometimes players flat-out won't talk to you. Which is their prerogative. Sometimes they'll talk, but obviously would much rather be doing something else. Which is also their prerogative.

Tim Wakefield could not have been kinder to me. He found us a relatively quiet spot, and answered all of my nervously delivered questions with grace and some degree of introspective candor. And ever since then, I have felt an affection for Wakefield that I might feel for John Cusack if he'd invited me to the set of Eight Men Out and introduced me to all the guys, maybe had a game of catch with those old-timey baseball gloves.

In 1991, when I was working for Bill James, we met Dan Okrent, one of my writing heroes, for drinks one evening in Manhattan. That was a long time ago and I've forgotten almost everything, but I have never forgotten Dan talking about his affection for the active major leaguers older than him: Nolan Ryan, Carlton Fisk, and Charlie Hough.

Knuckleballer Charlie Hough.

Last season, my Charlie Hough was Tim Wakefield.

Okay, so technically I'm older than Wakefield by about six weeks. But when you're on the wrong side of 39 you grasp at whichever thin straws you can find. I've been counting him.

No more, though. And Omar Vizquel wasn't even born in the same year as me (or Tim). So, yeah. Now Jamie Moyer's my favorite player. It won't be the same, though. It won't ever be the same.

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