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ON BASEBALL

Keeping his grip

Wakefield, his knuckler, moving ahead

MELBOURNE, Fla. -- The thought first came to him in a clubhouse gone numb from the shock of a season suddenly cut short with agonizing finality. It resurfaced again on the plane ride that brought the Red Sox home to Boston from the Bronx in a funereal state. "I was terrified," Tim Wakefield said, "that I would be remembered like [Bill] Buckner. I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to show my face in Boston again. But I soon realized that wasn't close to being the case."

In the foyer of Tim and Stacey Wakefield's lovely home in Melbourne, in a golf-course development just down the street from Cecil Fielder's mansion, there is a beautifully rendered life-sized sculpture of Tim Wakefield's right hand. In the hand is a baseball, held in a grip unique to Wakefield and the select few who have mastered the art of throwing a knuckleball.

The sculpture was done by Alex Flanagan, the wife of former pitcher and current Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. The grip -- two fingers above the ball, nails digging into the seams -- is the one Wakefield first mastered on the playing fields of Melbourne, his hometown, where he was transformed from failed minor league first baseman to veteran major league pitcher who is one of just 10 to win 100 or more games in their Red Sox careers.

Boston's 2003 season was held in Wakefield's grip on the first pitch of the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, when he floated a knuckleball to Aaron Boone, the New York Yankees' third baseman who had faced Wakefield six times in the ALCS and been retired all six times.

But not this time. It was 12:16 a.m. Oct. 17, when Boone swung at Wakefield's knuckleball and hit it into the left-field seats, propelling the Yankees into the World Series and pushing Wakefield, he feared, to the brink of a place no Boston baseball player ever should have to go again.

"I . . . I can't explain it," Wakefield said 10 weeks later. "I felt great. I wasn't sore from the start before. I really felt good. Dana [LeVangie, the bullpen catcher] was having trouble catching it, so that gave me a sign that it was moving good."

Wakefield had entered the game in the 10th inning with the score tied at 5, and retired all three batters he faced.

"I went into the game, I felt good," he said. "I got through that one inning. I didn't strike anyone out but I had good movement on my pitches. I went to warm up for the next inning, everything seemed to be great.

"I don't know what happened. You know, you try to throw strike one, get ahead of a guy. I just left it up."

As soon as Boone made contact, Wakefield suspected the outcome.

"Yeah, I had a pretty good idea," he said. "I kind of turned around, which I normally don't do. I didn't watch it hit the seats, but as soon as he hit it I pretty much knew it was out.

"I just walked straight to the dugout and grabbed my stuff."

A fun season Tim Wakefield, 37, has been playing professionally since 1988, when the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him as a first baseman on the eighth round. A year later, he was converted to a pitcher.

"Ten years I've been playing in the big leagues, 15 years I've been playing professional baseball, this [season] was the most fun I've ever had in my whole career," he said.

"I've always said you can't buy chemistry. It takes a special person to understand that. When you're adding and subtracting people, you've got to take a hard look at that. The organization -- Theo [Epstein, the general manager] and whoever else was involved, did a very good job of getting the right people.

"Our chemistry was unbelievable. I've never been a part of a team that was a team. When I first got here the saying about the Red Sox was 25 players, 25 cabs. That's gone out the window. We all hang out together.

"The biggest thing is, we didn't have a lot of distractions in the clubhouse. We didn't have a Carl Everett. We didn't have the Jimy Williams/Dan Duquette thing, which was a huge distraction. That causes people to go in their shell and worry about themselves, put blinders on and go, `I just work here.' "

Wakefield said the atmosphere surrounding last season's team was not only because of Epstein altering the clubhouse mix with players such as Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, Mike Timlin, and Kevin Millar. "Our new ownership has turned the organization around 180 degrees," he said. "They are by far not only the best ownership group but the best people. Tom Werner is just a super guy. Mr. [John] Henry is a super guy. Larry Lucchino is a great guy. They make you feel like coming to work is fun."

The day that defined the Sox' season, Wakefield said, was Labor Day in Philadelphia, when the controversy surrounding Manny Ramirez threatened to derail Boston's stretch drive. Ramirez had missed a key weekend series against the Yankees with a sore throat, and ticked off management and his teammates when he didn't show for a doctor's appointment that Sunday. The next day in Philadelphia, Ramirez refused to pinch hit, a further invitation for the Sox to fall prey to the kind of distractions that had roiled the clubhouse in the past.

Not this time, after Trot Nixon's dramatic grand slam made them a winner in the ninth. "I think it could have," Wakefield said, "but I think because we were so close-knit and together for such a long period of time, we didn't allow it to become an issue.

"I like Manny, don't get me wrong. I think what he did was wrong, but I think the game in Philadelphia turned our season around because he was able to play [and didn't] and Grady [Little] didn't play him the next day, either. I respect him for that. That was a huge turning point for us as a team because that distraction was nipped in the bud right then and there. It didn't become an issue, and I think that had a lot to do with the decision Grady made.

"I think Kevin [Millar] said it [on the team highlight film]. `We're going to do it without him. If he doesn't want to be part of this team, that's fine, that's his decision, but we're going to win it without him.' I think that brought us even closer together and then he realized, I think, that he wants to be part of this team and if you noticed, his numbers got a little better. He started playing harder. Not that he wasn't playing hard before, but he realized it wasn't enough. It was about us as a team."

When the Sox clinched a playoff spot at home against the Orioles Sept. 25, Wakefield was among the players who ran around the field, slapping hands with as many fans as he could and spraying champagne on others.

"That was the biggest thing for me, sharing it with our fans," Wakefield said, "and with the guys on our team who had never been in that position before, like Todd Jones. You could see a look on his face like a little child.

"Mike Timlin, myself and Todd Jones, it was weird, but the three of us ended up in the middle of the field, sitting on the mound. We were just so blessed. I think we all felt the same way. I feel so fortunate putting that uniform on every day. I work, or play a child's game, for a living. Yes, it's work, but it's still a game, something I started playing when I was 5 years old."

Back from adversity The last time the Red Sox were in the playoffs, in the 1999 season, Wakefield suffered the indignity of being left off the team's roster for the ALCS against the Yankees. On the outs with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, Wakefield expected his days in Boston were numbered. A free agent, Wakefield nearly signed a contract with the Minnesota Twins, but in the end decided to remain with the Sox, a fortuitous outcome for the ball club, as Wakefield pitched well as a starter and a reliever in 2000 and '01. He continued to serve effectively in a dual role the following season, when Kerrigan was dumped as manager and replaced by Little.

Last season, for the first time since 1998, he took a regular turn in the rotation, making 33 starts, pitching 202 1/3 innings, winning 11 games, and finishing with a 4.09 ERA, second to Pedro Martinez among Sox starters.

He pitched twice against the A's in the Division Series, losing Game 2, 5-1, and working 1 2/3 innings of relief in the Game 4 win.

He got the win in Game 1 against the Yankees in the ALCS, going six innings and allowing two runs in a 5-2 victory. He was just as strong in Game 4, allowing a run in seven innings in a 3-2 win that sent the series back to New York.

With two wins in a series in which neither Martinez nor Derek Lowe had a victory, Wakefield was a candidate to be named the series MVP.

Wakefield said before Game 6 in New York he walked into the visiting manager's office in Yankee Stadium and told Little he'd be willing to be in the bullpen if Little needed him. Since Wakefield had only a day's rest since his Game 4 start, Little told him he would use him only in an emergency.

Wakefield couldn't recall if he made the same offer before Game 7, when the atmosphere in the Sox clubhouse was one of "relaxed excitement." All he knows for sure is that he was in the bullpen from the beginning of the game, in which the Sox and Martinez took a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning.

"There are two places that I've played in my entire career that you can actually feel momentum change," Wakefield said. "Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. You can actually feel it change."

He felt it that night, he said, when Jorge Posada's bloop double fell in to tie the score at 5. Like most of New England, Wakefield had anticipated a pitching change when Martinez got in trouble in the eighth.

"When he didn't," Wakefield said, "I guess Pedro must have talked him out of it. I've seen it happen a thousand times."

It was a decision that will be second-guessed as long as Red Sox fans draw breath.

"It's not Grady's fault," Wakefield said. "It's not anybody's fault. Do I wish he had taken Pedro out? Yes. Would it have changed the outcome of the game? I don't know. You don't know. But the way things were happening in the playoffs, Timlin and [Alan] Embree were our go-to guys.

"Do I understand why he didn't take him out? Yes. I mean, that's your No. 1 guy out there. As an athlete, I'm not going to tell him I'm tired. I want to compete. But sometimes, management has to make a decision for us."

When Posada's hit fell in, tying the score, Wakefield knew there was a chance he would be more than just an onlooker to history.

"He had used me in that situation before," Wakefield said. " `If the game goes extra innings and it's tied, we'll go to Wake.' I was getting ready mentally. All I was thinking about was what I have to do to get ready and get outs.

"I'm not going, `I hope we score runs, because I don't want to pitch at all.' That stuff didn't cross my mind for a second."

After Timlin held the Yankees scoreless in the ninth, Wakefield entered in the 10th. He got Hideki Matsui to ground to first, Posada to fly to center, and Jason Giambi to fly to left.

The Sox failed to score in the top of the 11th off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who was working his third inning.

Wakefield came out of the third-base dugout for the Yankees' 11th. Standing on the on-deck circle was Aaron Boone.

Unbearable scene The Yankees charging from the first-base dugout, leaping with joy and relief. Boone circling the bases. The Yankee Stadium crowd shaking the ancient ballyard to its hallowed foundation yet one more October night. Wakefield insists he saw none of it. When he picked up the warmup jacket and towel he'd left on the dugout bench, he said he doesn't remember which teammate was sitting nearby. He recalled Little and [pitching coach] Dave Wallace, sitting at the end of the dugout nearest to the bat rack, patting him in consolation as he passed by on his way to the clubhouse.

"That's the only thing I remember," Wakefield said. "I walked in. I walked to the clubhouse. I sat down at my locker and put my head down."

And he cried.

"Regardless of the situation, I was asked to do a job, and I didn't get it done," he said. "I was disappointed in myself. I felt like I let my whole team down. People said we wouldn't have gotten this far if it wasn't for me. I believed that in a sense, but I was still asked to do something and I couldn't get it done."

Timlin was the first to come to him, placing an arm around his shoulders and telling him he had no reason to be ashamed. Little said a few words to the team. So did Nomar Garciaparra.

Wakefield remembers slowly taking off his shoes.

"I remember [Jason] Varitek coming up to me and wrapping his arms around me," he said. "We were both upset and cried a little bit.

"It's almost like a death in the family. You don't know what to say, because you spent so long with each other, you fought so hard for each other, and it comes down to one pitch and you're going home."

The Sox owners -- Henry, Werner, Lucchino, along with vice president Charles Steinberg -- entered the clubhouse.

"I went to John Henry and said, `I'm sorry,' " Wakefield said.

"It's not your fault," Wakefield recalled the owner saying in reply. "Don't worry about it. I'm proud of you. Regardless of what happened, I'm proud of you."'

Wakefield stood at his locker and answered a few questions from the reporters crowded around. He also thought about his wife of less than a year who was waiting outside. That would be the hardest part, he said. He had to retreat to a back room, he said, to regain his composure.

"I know how much she wants me to succeed," he said. "I know how proud she is of me. I knew how upset she was. It was going to be hard for me to face her. We've only been married a year, but we've gone through so much already, baseball-wise."

Stacey was waiting for him, on one of the buses taking the team and family members to the airport.

"She put her arm around me and said, `Are you OK?' I said, `Yeah, are you OK?' "

Wakefield was exhausted by the time the team plane returned to Boston around 3:30 a.m. On that quiet flight home, he thought again about Buckner, the Sox first baseman who never has been forgiven for the error he made in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when the Sox had been a strike away from winning the Series.

"Buckner, I think it was unfair what happened to him," Wakefield said. "He played his heart out for this organization. One play ruined him as a Bostonian. I feel that was kind of wrong, but I understand it, too."

But Wakefield soon discovered that he would be spared the burden of blame that is Buckner's legacy, only in part because the wrath of the fan was turned on Little, who soon would be fired.

Wakefield did not go to Fenway Park the next day to pack up his belongings like some teammates. "I hung around the house," he said. "I didn't want to go to the ballpark."

But because he and Stacey are building a new home in the Boston area he stuck around for a week. That first night, he and Stacey went out for dinner, with Wakefield braced for the worst. "I felt like I'd let a lot of people down," he said.

Instead, there was this: "I got a lot of thank yous," he said. "In restaurants, or while I was running errands, people came up to me and said, `Thanks.' "

Moving on Has he seen the replay? Countless times, beginning the night Boone connected, and day after day since. "I turned on the `Today' show the other morning and saw it again," Wakefield said.

"I went on with my life. I don't think it's going to affect me. Sometimes bad things can happen. As long as you go out there and try hard, that's all you can do.

"I don't think I'm a bad person. It's not going to get my self-esteem down. I'm disappointed that it happened, I'm truly sorry not only for the organization but our fans who have rooted for us for so long. But I tried my best. I left everything I have on the field. That's all I'm going to do in 2004 and 2005 and however long I'm going to play."

The home run soon will be part of a new movie. Wakefield gave permission to use a clip of the home run in the film, in which Drew Barrymore suffers amnesia and Adam Sandler tries to convince her that she loves him. The amnesia attack apparently occurs on the night of Game 7.

"I think it's pretty cool," Wakefield said of the Hollywood treatment.

"The night we lost, Grady said, `You guys have nothing to be disappointed about. You really entertained a lot of people.'

"And we did. We want to win, we want to go to the Show, the Dance, the World Series. But we entertained a ton of people this summer. It was a lot of fun for the people of New England to get behind us and to root for us as hard as they did. That was just awesome."

One flat knuckleball to Aaron Boone, as painful as it was, can't change that.

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