One of the unlikeliest success stories in Major League Baseball history is reportedly set to call it a career.
According to the Red Sox’ official Twitter feed (@redsox), Tim Wakefield will announce his retirement at a press conference at 5 ET/4 CT. The 45-year-old knuckleballer had been a steadying presence in the team’s clubhouse for the better part of two decades. He was reportedly hoping to return for the 2012 season but, unlike in previous years, the team was unable to guarantee him a roster spot. Now, the man with the funny legkick and the easy breezy delivery will take his ball and go home a Red Sox legend. He’ll never be enshrined in Cooperstown, but if he ever buys a beer in Boston ever again it’ll be a travesty.
Wakefield spent 17 of his 19 seasons with the Sox, more than any other pitcher in the team’s storied history. He finishes his career ranked no. 1 all-time in innings pitched (3,006), games started (430) and losses (168). He also including wins (186 — 2nd behind Cy Young and Roger Clemens), games (590 — 2nd behind Bob Stanley), strikeouts (2,046 — 2nd behind Clemens), WHIP (1.34 — 23rd) and saves (22 — tied for 24th). In those 19 seasons, he was selected to just one All-Star Game in 2009 at the ripe old age of 43.
There was nothing spectacular about Wakefield, but if you saw him pitch you certainly didn’t forget it. Maybe it was his slow, halting legkick or the way his knuckleballs seemed to float up to the plate like lollipops about to be obliterated by the batter. More often than not though, it was the hitter looking like a sucker than Wakefield.
Wakefield started his career as a first baseman in the Pirates’ system before learning how to throw a knuckleball after realizing that pitching was his fastest way of getting to the big leagues. It was perhaps the smartest decision he made in his entire life. His rookie season in 1992 was absolutely sensational. After getting called up in July, he proceeded to go 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in the season’s final three months including four complete games. While he’d win two World Series with the Red Sox, his greatest individual postseason pitching success came during his rookie campaign. Had the Pirates not lost in Game 7 in such heartbreaking fashion, Wakefield likely would’ve been named the MVP of the NLCS after throwing two complete game wins against the Braves.
After two seasons with the Pirates, he’d sign with the Red Sox in 1995, establishing himself as a versatile innings eater who could step into any role and thrive. In 1997 he stepped in as the team’s closer, a sort of anti-fireballer who would save 15 games for a team that would eventually bow out in the ALCS to the hated New York Yankees.
Speaking of the Yankees, Wakefield’s career could have been defined by a single pitch that Aaron Boone sent over the left field wall to win Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, forever a goat in Red Sox lore. But Wakefield was more than that pitch both to his Red Sox teammates and fans. He came back the following season to win 12 games, helping lead the team to its first World Series title since 1918. He was a man of character, the kind of ballplayer all fans could relate to because of his work ethic and his devotion to his teammates.
While he’ll never have a plaque in Cooperstown, it’s a safe bet that no other Red Sox player should wear his no. 49 ever again.