Tim Wakefield retired from baseball over the winter, leaving the majors after 19 years, leaving Boston after 17 years with the Red Sox. A much-appreciated professional, Wakefield’s once-every-five-days turns in the Red Sox rotation will be missed. Not because he was Hall-of-Fame-great. But because he was a pure knuckleballer, one of the last of the breed, who threw the baffling pitch oh, 90 percent of the time.
The knuckleball, even to those who use it, is baffling not only to the batter, but to the thrower. Many a time we have heard a pitcher say he has no idea where the knuckler is going when it leaves his hand. Baseball is a complex game of many nuances and to me it was a treat just to hear a top-tier athlete say that. A knuckleball is as close to a magic trick as anything in the sport.
The knuckleball is the anti-common sense weapon in a pitcher’s arsenal. We marvel at fresh crops of young flame throwers whose fastballs record 98 mph on speed guns. We laugh at knuckleballs that log in at 63 mph on the same equipment. The guys that use the knuckler essentially rely on it because all else has failed. Their fastball, slider, curve, or all of the above are just not good enough to handle Major League hitters.
I met Wakefield just once, in a locker room, soon after watching him pitch a game on television. Periodically during the several innings he threw that I saw on the tube the radar gun recorded his pitches at 59 mph. I asked him if that could possibly be true. He said the reading was probably correct. There are other pitchers in the sport who probably can’t throw that slow even if they are lobbing the ball to the umpire.
Wakefield is 45, so by the standards of professional baseball, except for Jamie Moyer, he was an old man in the game. He stayed trim at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds and he never strained his arm (one advantage knuckeball throwers have over fastball pitchers). Normally, pitchers adapt to the loss of velocity as they age. Knuckleballers have no velocity to lose, so something else goes wrong to propel them into retirement. A knee problem, perhaps. Wobbly legs. It’s difficult to listen with a straight face when a knuckleballer says he is going to quit because he can no longer control his pitch.
Wakefield had a yeoman career with the Red Sox. He started when asked, handled middle relief when requested, filled in for the injured when needed. His career numbers are 200 wins, 180 losses and a 4.41 earned run average. Wakefield also posted 2,156 strikeouts. Pitchers who bring the heat thrive on K’s. They throw so fast that batters can’t see the ball. Pitchers who twirl knuckleballs throw so slowly that batters can’t adjust their timing. They twist their bodies into knots swinging. They flail. They miss pitches by a foot. Sometimes it’s hard not to chuckle at the sight of a slugger going batty trying to connect with a knuckler.
Being a knuckleball pitcher is a bit like being a perpetual underdog. It’s like David bringing a slingshot to a showdown battle. The knuckleball is about deception and fooling hitters, not overpowering them. I once had a knuckleball chat with a pitcher named Dan Boone. Boone had a sip of coffee in the majors and for the love of the game returned to playing semi-pro in the Alaska Baseball League. He was in his 30s. The hitters were college kids. They had never seen anything like the junk he threw up to the plate. Boone made sure they got the full flavor of his PhD in pitching. It was almost unfair to watch and Boone did get pleasure out of these 6-foot-4, 220-pound future Major League millionaires swinging at air.
To me, the single worst thing about Tim Wakefield’s retirement is that it leaves just one knuckleball specialist in the majors. At the moment, R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets is the only knuckleball thrower left in the bigs. Surely, there must be some younger pitcher out there who could benefit from the knuckler to keep his career going.
Hey, that’s what Tim Wakefield should do now. He should open the only knuckleball instructional school on earth. Training the knuckleball throwers of the future would be a public service to fans, to the game, and to the lucky pitcher who someday will need the skill to save his career.