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Straight-out beloved

His knuckler goes all over, but friends of Wakefield are direct with their praise

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / July 13, 2009
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On July 31, 1992, Montreal Expos general manager Dan Duquette rooted against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team with which the Expos were tied for first place, and he felt confident. For the Pirates, a 25-year-old curiosity named Tim Wakefield was making his first major league start.

Duquette followed the game loosely - was that pitcher throwing knuckleballs? - as Wakefield conjured a complete-game victory against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Expos lost a game in the standings. By Aug. 16, Wakefield was 3-0 with a 1.32 ERA, and Duquette’s Expos trailed the Pirates by two games. Where did they get this guy? Duquette thought. Wasn’t this guy a position player?

By season’s end, the Pirates had dusted the Expos by nine games. Wakefield was 8-1 and, Duquette believed, the primary reason his Expos were watching the playoffs. Duquette would not forget Wakefield.

In the years to come, Duquette played a central role in Wakefield’s baseball career, one of the innumerable people the game weaved into Wakefield’s life between that first start and today, the eve of Wakefield’s improbable first appearance in the All-Star Game.

Wakefield, 42, has played 17 major league seasons and in Boston for 15 years. His selection to the All-Star Game resonated throughout baseball and the city in a unique way. When a man who stays in one place for that long reaches a pinnacle, the accomplishment can mean something different to more people than he may know.

Doc’s diagnosis
Doc Edwards manages an independent league team in San Angelo, Texas, these days. He is “two years older than dirt,’’ he said, and going on his 52d year in baseball. He was a backup catcher once traded for Dick Howser. He played with Tito Francona and coached Terry Francona. In 1994, he managed the Triple A Buffalo Bisons, and one of his pitchers was Tim Wakefield.

Two years prior, Wakefield had been an October hero, a sensation in Pittsburgh, where people actually debated whether he should pitch in Game 7 of the NLCS on zero days rest. Now he was back in the minors, his fall as rapid as his rise, a pitcher who couldn’t get anyone out.

After one short start, Wakefield smashed the bat box. He still fumed in the clubhouse when Edwards walked in. Edwards had handled dozens of veterans staring at life without baseball. He believed they needed an arm around their shoulder, sympathy, and a soft landing.

Edwards saw something else in Wakefield. He had watched hundreds of pitchers go bad and recover by reverting to their ground level. Well, Wakefield’s basics meant playing first base. Wouldn’t it take him longer to figure himself out?

Wakefield, Edwards thought, needed to get mad. He knew the knuckleball to be fickle, having caught Tom Sturdivant and Bob Tiefenauer. He thought Wakefield possessed the athletic ability necessary to be a knuckleball pitcher. More important, standing face to face with Wakefield in the Buffalo clubhouse, he thought Wakefield had the guts to pull himself out of an abyss.

“Timmy, a lot of us in this game get knocked to the floor,’’ Edwards told him. “We got two choices. Stay on the floor or get back in the ring and fight. I feel like you got what it takes to get in there and fight your ass off. As long as you get up off the floor and fight with me, I will pitch you every fifth day, come hell or high water.’’

Things did not immediately improve for Wakefield, although Edwards saw signs. One inning, his knuckleball fluttered and batters flailed. The next, it spun and they crushed it. Wakefield finished the year with a 5-15 record and a 5.84 ERA. Before the 1995 season began, the Pirates released him.

That season in Buffalo still means as much to Edwards as anything that came after it. Edwards kept his promise. Wakefield made every start.

“I read him right,’’ Edwards said. “He deserves all the credit. I’m just proud to be there when he started fighting. He was knocked down, but he didn’t quit. He got up.’’

Charitable person
Right away, when you walk into her office on the third floor of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, you can tell Lisa Scherber loves Tim Wakefield. You mention his name, and she tells you. A lot. “I just love Tim,’’ she said. “I love him, I love him, I looove him.’’

And then you look around at her walls, and there are only three pictures of ballplayers. All three are of Wakefield, including the one of him sitting in the stands surrounded by smiling, bald children.

Since 2002, Scherber has organized the Jimmy Fund’s Red Sox trips. Any teenager in active cancer treatment - “kids going through hell,’’ Scherber said - is invited. The group makes a pilgrimage to Fort Myers, Fla., for spring training and another to a major league city for a Red Sox game. About 50 kids huddle on the field before a game and wait to meet players.

“I can tell the kids I don’t know who’s coming out,’’ Scherber said. “But I do know Tim Wakefield will be there.’’

Wakefield doesn’t talk about it much, but he made 31 community appearances last year, more than any Red Sox player. In 1998, he began the Wakefield Warriors program. Every Tuesday, children from the Franciscan Hospital for Children watch batting practice with Wakefield; the hospital gave Wakefield its Community Leadership Award in 2003.

Scherber first met Wakefield before the trips started, when he and his wife would pass out presents in the clinic during Christmas. He once waited two hours to visit with a kid because the doctor was waiting to see him.

Once they began, Wakefield embraced the trips. Scherber watches him walk over first, and over the years younger players have joined him. She sees Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis every trip now, too, following behind Wakefield. The trips always start the same.

“Being a knuckleball pitcher, it’s not like all the teen girls are like, ‘Woo, I want to meet Tim,’ ’’ Scherber said. “But by the time we leave there, I think everyone loves Tim.’’

Last year, in Chicago, a teenager named Robby sat in the front row as Sox players stopped and said hello. Wakefield bounded into the seats, 10 rows up. Robby didn’t want to wait for Wakefield to come see him. On one leg, Robby started hopping up the stairs.

The other kids parted, and Robby plopped down next to Wakefield. They chatted before it came time to leave.

“Need a lift?’’ Wakefield asked.

“Sure,’’ Robby said.

Wakefield put Robby on his back and carried him down the steps.

The kids talked about it on the plane ride home and for weeks afterward. They remembered Wakefield most, and for them his selection to the All-Star Game represents something different.

“That’s the thing,’’ Scherber said. “These teenagers who have met him, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, who would think a knuckleballer would make an All-Star team? And who would think with my disease that I can get through this?’ I think they all do. Anytime they can hold on to something that’s just kind of against odds.

“He’s an All-Star in our eyes, anyway. It just put a smile on my face. I was rooting for him. Because I just think he deserves it. It’s a nice thing, to be the 40-something-year-old that throws the knuckleball. It’s not a pretty pitch. It’s not something that blows you away. But it does what it needs to do. And it’s like magic.’’

A pro’s pro
As a pitcher, Mike Timlin shared little in common with Tim Wakefield. Timlin relied on his power as a reliever. Wakefield used the slowest pitch in the game as a starter. Timlin knew Wakefield, but only from playing against him.

When Timlin signed with the Red Sox in 2003, he learned, as a person, he had a lot in common with Wakefield. They were born a year apart. They both grew up in the South, Timlin in Midland, Texas, and Wakefield in Melbourne, Fla. They both liked to hunt. “We hit it off pretty easily right at the beginning,’’ Timlin said.

He saw in Wakefield the things he respected in a player. Timlin watched Wakefield work hard, say little, and then let his performance talk for him.

Wakefield would speak up when it mattered. In 2003, Wakefield had been with the Sox longer than any other player. If he felt something or someone needed to be addressed, he let the team know. Timlin and a few teammates gave Wakefield a nickname. They called him The Heavy.

“That’s what leaders do,’’ Timlin said. “He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.’’

Timlin and Wakefield started spending a few weekends together during hunting season. They went hunting for hogs in Fort Myers, Fla. Timlin saw Wakefield bag an elk with his bow.

They’re trying to plan a trip for next hunting season, but Timlin hasn’t seen his old friend much since he moved out to Colorado. He figured he would call Wakefield and invite him to his new place during the All-Star break, until Wakefield started getting hot and he realized Wakefield might make the game.

The morning after Wakefield was selected, Timlin called Wakefield. “I told him I was very proud of him,’’ Timlin said. “I’m excited for him. I was glad he was going to get to do it. It’s something I never got a chance to do.’’

Knuckling down
In March 1992 in Sarasota, Fla., Charlie Hough watched Tim Wakefield walk toward him across a spring training diamond. Wakefield wore street clothes and carried a small tape recorder.

Hough, 22 years into his career as a knuckleball pitcher, played for the Chicago White Sox. A former pitching coach of his who now worked for the Pirates asked Hough if he would meet a converted first baseman learning the knuckleball. Hough agreed.

Hough had learned how to throw the pitch from Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro and Wilbur Wood, pitchers who played with him and against him. “You pick where it fits you,’’ Hough said. “The more guys that have thrown it, the more little things you get to pick from.’’

On some level, all knuckleballers play together. The first thing Hough told Wakefield was, “Be prepared for nobody wanting you.’’ Managers fear knuckleballers. If a typical pitcher throws 95 miles per hour and gets shelled, they chalk it up to a bad day. If knuckleballs start spinning and the game gets out of control, they blame the pitch itself. When things turn, “it just looks awful,’’ Hough said.

Hough and Wakefield chatted about 20 minutes, then played catch in jeans and T-shirts behind a fence. Wakefield’s grip and the ball’s movement impressed Hough. He showed Wakefield a few things from his own grip.

Hough told the Pirates farm director Wakefield threw the best knuckleball of any kid he had seen. He also thought Wakefield’s background would help.

“He knew how hard it was to hit,’’ Hough said. “Because he couldn’t do it.’’

Hough, who is the pitching coach at Single A Lake Elsinore, and Wakefield stayed friends. They meet once or twice a year, usually when Wakefield comes to Anaheim, Calif. Hough will send Wakefield text messages after good games with small congratulations.

Theirs, they believe, is not a freaky or weird pitch. It is just how they had to compete. Wakefield showed R.A. Dickey and Charlie Zink the little things he picked up over the years. Hough likes that.

Tomorrow night, Hough plans on watching his friend stand on a baseline in St. Louis and tip his cap. Wakefield is the first knuckleballing All-Star since Hough made the team in 1986. Until someone asked him to do a radio interview early last week, Hough didn’t know that.

“There just haven’t been many lately,’’ Hough said. “I guess it shows you how hard it is.’’

Lasting contribution
After the Pirates released Wakefield on April 20, 1995, Duquette, now the Red Sox GM, did some research. He discovered no team was going to claim Wakefield. He called the pitcher’s agent. Six days after the Pirates dumped Wakefield, Duquette made him a Red Sox on Opening Day.

On May 27, 1995, Wakefield won his first Sox start. He threw a 10-inning complete game in his third start, and five days later threw a nine-inning complete game. He won 14 of his first 15 decisions. He finished third in the Cy Young Award voting. The Sox made the playoffs, and like three years earlier, Duquette believed Wakefield was the primary reason.

“It was like a gift from God,’’ Duquette said.

All 30 teams had a clean shot at Wakefield. Only Duquette acted. He couldn’t know it then, but he had signed a pitcher who would start more games than any other Red Sox pitcher, win two World Series, and one day go to an All-Star Game, with an 11-3 record and a 4.31 ERA.

Wakefield once had burned him. When Duquette looks back on his Sox tenure, which included trading spare parts for Pedro Martínez, he considers Wakefield’s signing perhaps his proudest moment.

“Sure,’’ Duquette said. “Look at the quality of the innings that he’s given the team over the years. Look what he’s done for the team in the community. He’s been a good veteran player for the team. Because he’s a knuckleballer and he’s been there so long, people can take him for granted. Now he’s getting his due.

“We should have more knuckleball pitchers. So it’s an anomaly, right? But why don’t teams want more pitchers like Tim Wakefield? Who wouldn’t want more like him?’’

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com

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