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Bob Ryan

Wakefield easily the star of six Stars

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / July 6, 2009
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It has been 14 years since Tim Wakefield put on the finest demonstration of knuckleball pitching in the history of baseball.

No knuckleballer - not Hoyt Wilhelm, not Phil Niekro, not Belmont’s Wilbur Wood - ever has been as dominant over a stretch of time as Wakefield was in 1995 when he went 14-1 at the beginning of his Red Sox career. He flirted with a no-hitter or two, he pitched a 10-inning complete game against the Mariners, and he jump-started the Sox as they won the AL East. It was a virtuoso performance of the highest order.

No one ever could top that.

If anyone could, that man would have multiple Cy Young Awards and he’d be on the fast track to the Hall of Fame. It is just not in the nature of the knuckler. Yes, you can get to Cooperstown, as Messrs. Wilhelm and Niekro have done, but throwing that knuckleball for a living is a daily high-wire act with a high risk-reward factor for any general manager, manager, or team. That’s why the list of exceptional knuckleballers is short, and why there are very few making a successful living throwing that pitch at any given point (five fingers usually suffices if you need to start counting).

Tim Wakefield is not going to Cooperstown. What he has done is make himself an indispensable member of 15 Red Sox pitching staffs. He has been a comfort to managers and a great teammate. What he did 14 summers ago set an unattainable standard, not only for himself, but for any knuckleballer past, present, or future. Were that all he ever did in service of the Red Sox, it would have been enough for the fans to remember him fondly.

But here he is, 15 summers into his Red Sox career. He is the franchise leader in starts, walks, and, yes, losses. He trails only Cy Young and Roger Clemens in victories. He is second to Clemens in strikeouts. He even shows up among the leaders in saves. If there was a category for Taking One For The Team, he’d be the clear leader in that one, too. He is the Grand Old Man of the Boston pitching staff.

Four weeks shy of his 43d birthday, he is also a first-time All-Star.

He was so informed by his proud manager before yesterday’s 8-4 Sox conquest of the Mariners. “That was one of the funner things I’ve gotten to do since I’ve been here,’’ said Terry Francona.

In what actually has been a continuation of an effort last year that was not properly reflected in his wins and losses, Wakefield has pitched his way onto the American League team. He was personally selected by Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon, and there was no lobbying by Mr. Francona, who says he never was asked. Nope, Maddon looked at Wake’s 10-3 record, his 10 quality starts, and the overall quality of his work and said that he wanted Wakefield as one of the 13 pitchers on his team; that’s all.

Some will object. There are always too many deserving players for too few spots. There are many with better secondary numbers (his 1.35 WHIP, for example). Some will say, “Hey, this is nothing but a Lifetime Achievement Award.’’ And Wakefield might agree with them.

“Absolutely,’’ he says. “I’m not young anymore. I’m 42 years old and I’m making my first All-Star team. It’s a pretty proud moment for me and my family.’’

There always has been an everyman quality to Wakefield’s presence in a major league locker room, and that was on display during the past few weeks when he repeatedly violated an unwritten jock rule by admitting that, Hell yeah, I want to be in that All-Star Game. If he wasn’t overtly lusting for it, it was the next closest thing. When he awoke yesterday, he knew what day it was all right.

“I tried to [ignore it], but it’s kind of hard not to think about it,’’ he says. “It’s one of those things where you know the announcement is going to come. I feel very honored and humbled at the same time. Excited. Nervous. A lot of emotions are going through me right now.’’

Wakefield was ready with his list of thank-yous. “I need to credit my teammates, who scored runs when I needed runs and played defense behind me,’’ he says.

Then there’s the training staff that has nursed his 42-year-old body through what so far has been an injury-free season. People think as long as a knuckleballer is able to stand up on the mound he can pitch, but Wakefield’s back, legs, and of course arm need TLC, just like everyone else’s.

Finally, there is perhaps the most surprising factor in Wakefield’s 2009 success. Like, when’s the last time you heard anyone pining for Doug Mirabelli?

His catcher’s name is George Kottaras, and he gets to share in this honor.

“George has done a tremendous job all year long so far,’’ declares Wakefield, “and I look forward to him continuing to do the kind of work he’s done the whole first half. He’s really filled some very big shoes that have been here in the past and I’m very happy and proud of him.’’

“That’s a pretty big compliment to George,’’ concurs Francona. “Takes Wake right out of the chute and it’s the first time Wake ever makes the All-Star team. I think George should be proud of himself.’’

Wakefield is the oldest first-time All-Star since the - and this is one time the word is not being abused - legendary Satchel Paige made the AL squad at age 46 (supposedly) in 1953. He is also the first knuckleball pitcher to be an All-Star since Charlie Hough in 1986.

Perhaps there’s a reason. In that appearance Hough was reached for two hits and the only two runs given up by the victorious AL in his 1 2/3 innings of work. Hough also had a wild pitch and Rich Gedman was charged with a passed ball.

“Means the knuckleball was working,’’ shrugs Wakefield.

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. We’ve got 15 years of Wake watching to know that, more often than not, his does.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe’s 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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