Generally, Tim Wakefield’s 19-year MLB odyssey is broken down into two separate and distinctive parts. There was the Wakefield of Pittsburgh Pirates fame, the hotshot knuckleball specialist who helped guide the franchise to the brink of the 1992 World Series.
Specific details pertaining to the body of work Wakefield compiled during his 17 seasons in a Red Sox uniform, is too voluminous to list here, though that’s probably not going to impede team officials from concocting some sort of tear-jerking, tug-at-your-heart tribute in conjunction with ‘Thanks, Wake Day.’ Tuesday afternoon will see Boston pay homage to the recently retired pitcher with a pregame ceremony slated to go off roughly a half-hour before the 4:05 start time against Seattle.
We may know the beginning and the end as it correlates to Wakefield, but on a day specifically designated solely for him, it seems appropriate to explore a segment of his playing days that for the most part has remained under lock and key. Granted the time frame being thrust into the spotlight for this particular piece is so fleeting that if you blink, chances are you would miss it. Back in May 1995, Wakefield took those few important steps he needed to take as a member of the Pawtucket Red Sox.
Rick Wise was Pawtucket’s pitching coach at the time when Wakefield made what amounted to a pit stop with the Triple-A club. Reached late last week at his Beaverton, Ore. residence, the 66-year-old Wise was upfront that mechanically as it relates to throwing the darting pitch, he offered little in the way of guidance to Wakefield.
“He’s a knuckballer! Those guys are freaks!” offered Wise with a slight chuckle. “I couldn’t teach him anything. He was pretty much on his own unless he contacted other pitchers that threw the knuckleball.”
Behind Wise’s point, there lies a little truth. The conundrum of coaches trying to establish a common ground with Wakefield is something that every last one of his pitching coaches likely had a hard time wrapping their brains around.
“It must have been difficult at times because who can tell him what he’s doing wrong?” Wise asked.
With Wakefield, the one pitch he relied upon so heavily was so unique – and to a degree uncoachable – that Wise thought the better tactic to take was akin to a budding psychologist.
“More than anything, it was about getting back on track mentally and trusting in his stuff,” said Wise, a 188-game winner during his 18 seasons. “Any pitcher, whether you throw a knuckleball, fastball or sinker, they go through some tough times and getting their head around the problem is one the biggest things.
“A couple of good games in a row and the bad things are behind you.”
What allowed Wise to connect with Wakefield in a sense that stretches beyond the typical pitching coach-pitcher relationship is that prior to Wakefield docking in Pawtucket on May 5, 1995, he was stationed in Fort Myers, Fla. There at Boston’s spring facility, Wakefield worked under the tutelage of the First Family of Knuckleball Pitchers, Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and his younger brother, the late Joe Niekro.
Remember, Wakefield was coming off a disasterous 15-loss season with Triple-A Buffalo in 1994 with the Pirates releasing him the following spring. Opting to take a flyer, Dan Duquette, Boston’s general manager at the time, signed Wakefield on April 26, 1995.
“Any pitcher that’s gone out there for any length of time, he’s going to have his lunch handed to him. There’s going to be tough times. I don’t care if you throw 100 miles per hour or like [49-year-old] Jamie Moyer right now, throwing 75,” said Wise, who thanks to Carlton Fisk went into the books as the winning Red Sox pitcher in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. “Everyone is going to go through some tough times, but you can’t get down on yourself. Every time you take the mound, you take it with confidence and say that this is going to be a day that I give a good account of myself and give the team a chance to win. That’s all you can do.”
After Wakefield joined the Sox, the rest, as they say, is history. Whatever words of wisdom the Niekro brothers imparted, it carried Wakefield from the brink of being out of baseball entirely to a productive and longstanding career that ended with exactly 200 wins.
Still, it’s worth noting Wakefield’s time with the PawSox because it allowed him to put into practice Phil and Joe Niekro’s message. Asked what he kept an eye out for when watching Wakefield from the dugout during the four starts he wound up making with Pawtucket, Wise answered, “The consistency of his release. Even though it’s a knuckleball, I could still tell.
“He was able to add and subtract from the knuckleball. It wasn’t always the same speed. He had a slower one and a faster one,” went on Wise, Pawtucket’s pitching coach from 1993-95. “For Tim, it was about getting him comfortable with his release point and windup and letting the ball go with confidence.”
Wise wasn’t surprised that Wakefield went on to post a 2-1 record with a 2.52 ERA with the PawSox, numbers that earned him a spot on the 40-man roster and subsequent big-league promotion on May 25, 1995 – mainly because Wakefield was so apt in refining his technique.
“The big thing is that Tim made the adjustments himself,” he said. “He wasn’t discouraged or down on himself. It was a matter of other people not getting down on him.
“All I told him was ‘Tim, you have a unique pitch. You’ve been successful before and chances are you’re going to be successful again. These things, they take care of themselves,’” Wise delved further.
Years later, Wise can look back on May 1995 and take solace in the following: The interaction he had with Wakefield may have been slight, however the time the pair spent together in Pawtucket was more than enough for Wise to merit passenger status on a forthcoming journey that was professional in every sense.
“He had a tremendous career and God bless him for it,” Wise said, a sense of pride etched in his tone.