Tim Wakefield was having his Red Sox breakout season (1995 version, not 1997 redux) when I worked at the snack bar at a beach club in Oak Bluffs. It was the third job I ever had. I, along with everyone else, hated it when people ordered frappes, because they were a pain to make. Ice cream does not want to blend the same way Timmy Wakefield didn’t want to bend, but would if you coaxed him. He’d be a long reliever, a short reliever, a closer or a mop-up guy but he’s only really Tim Wakefield as a starter the way ice cream is only ice cream when it’s frozen and gooey and basically the best thing on earth.
I mention the 1997 season as a second breakout for Wakefield because I’m pretty sure every Red Sox fan thought 1995 was a fluke. He was a 20-something year old kid embarrassing fools with his senior citizen discount pitch. Then 1997 happened, and we were waiting for it every year. Two was a pattern, and pattern basically repeated itself with converging highs and lows for the next 15 years. He was generally good and reliable and was shuttled around the pitching staff as its needs changed. He was a silly putty puzzle piece, ready to fit in where you needed him, but he needed to be in the rotation.
There was something about the first inning that spoke to him. I wonder if it was something about the knuckleball, about finding it the day that it’s on, trusting physics, and hanging on for dear life. Actually, that’s every start for a knuckleballer. The great starts would be the ones where you had absolutely no doubt whatsoever in physics, in the invisible but comically powerful forces that rule the universe, and you’re halfway back to the dugout just when Scott Brosius is starting to whiff at your 65 mile-per-hour junk, and everyone in the stadium knows it’s happening.
Every Timmy start had a chance to be like that, even more than every Pedro Martinez start had a chance to be a perfect game. You weren’t looking for perfection with Timmy. There would always be a hit or two. You just wanted to see whether the ball cared to participate. As good as knuckleballers are at what they do, they’re ultimately subjected to geothermal forces. There’s only so much Tim Wakefield could do. For Pedro’s overt grandiosity and religiosity, Tim Wakefield was the one whose God mattered. He could show up and throw the knuckleball as well as it’s ever been thrown, but if the weather wasn’t cooperating it would rain Rawlings in the bleachers. Every start, you waited to see if Wakefield had it, and on those times he had it, I mean, what could you do? It felt like a bitching rewards program for a store really close to your house. How the hell did I get this new car?
I know non-Red Sox fans understand. For all that Yankees fans could never understand about our love for many of our players, there was no questioning what made Wakefield respectable, the same way there isn’t about Mariano Rivera. Any fan that wouldn’t have killed to have Tim Wakefield on its roster would have been off its rocker until about three years ago. (Any team repeating the sin with Rivera would be committed to an open-air insane asylum in the Northwest Territories.) The knuckleballer papacy transfers now, I guess, to R.A. Dickey, whose apprenticeship is likely less Aaron Rogers than Benedict himself—elected as a transitional titleholder but a dude whose successor is anyone’s guess. The one-MLB, one-knuckleballer policy strains the limits of faith even more than the Vatican, because it’s science: What is is about this sport that makes certain there is exactly one person in the world who can dominate it with this silly pitch, even as the league and population grow? When will that stop? Will it ever? Tim Wakefield was great because he kept this mystery going for 20 years longer than it had to. We would have admired him for it anyway, but because he was ours, we loved him.