THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Late in career, Wakefield playing role of old standby

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / March 12, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Tim Wakefield pitched before the days of the designated hitter and color television. He was in the bullpen when Ted Williams hit his 521st homer. He played opposite Morgan Freeman in “The Bucket List.’’

OK, none of that stuff is true, but doesn’t it seem like Wakefield has been around forever?

Wakefield is 44, the oldest active player in baseball. He pitched for the Red Sox when Roger Clemens pitched for the Red Sox. Carl Yastrzemski, Dwight Evans, and Williams are the only players who have played more seasons for the Sox.

And now there’s some question about Wakefield’s immediate future. Or maybe I’m just imagining things.

Wakefield pitched two terrific innings against the Twins at Hammond Stadium yesterday. In three spring outings his ERA is 2.70. (We pledge not to overreact to spring training numbers, otherwise we’d be calling for the immediate release of Jonathan Papelbon.)

Wakefield’s age and recent results make one wonder about his role on the 2011 Red Sox. All history and emotion aside, what is Wakefield’s competitive value at this hour? The Sox have five starters. Wakefield is not particularly useful as a reliever. It takes a long time for him to warm up and there’s nobody equipped to catch him. He’s coming off a 4-10 season with a 5.34 ERA, and that’s on the heels of 2009, when his ERA was 4.58. He is guaranteed $1.5 million for this season, but is it possible that the ancient knuckler has run his course in Boston?

I ran this by him after yesterday’s outing. Wakefield is unfailingly polite and professional, but he was not a fan of my premise.

Q: Is it guaranteed that you are on the team? Has it ever occurred to you that you might not be on the team this year?

A: It hasn’t occurred to me.

Q: Well, you looked really good today, but your value is as a starter.

A: Right. In my opinion, that’s what my value is.

Q: So if you’re not going to start . . .

A: What are you getting at? If I’m not a starter, I don’t make the team?

Q: Not my call. I’m just wondering what else they would do. I like you as a starter.

A: Well, I like me as a starter, too, but right now it can’t happen.

Awkward.

Wakefield is a team guy, all the way. He demonstrated this in large fashion when he took a bullet for the bullpen in the infamous 19-8 Game 3 loss to the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series. Wakefield’s human sacrifice enabled the Sox to line up Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and Lowe (again) for the historic four-game sweep into history.

Wakefield is not going to be the one to point out that he might be a better option than Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Sox’ fifth starting spot. As promised, we will not attach too much importance to spring training numbers, but among the many reasons for the Sox to keep Wake around is the ever-impending implosion of Dice-K (11.42 ERA in three spring starts). If Dice-K can’t fill the role of a No. 5 starter, Wake is always an option. Too bad the Sox can’t just keep him around as a taxi squad guy.

Wakefield was dazzling yesterday. One of the Twins’ kids tried to bunt for a hit, but Wakefield nimbly picked the bunt and threw out the runner. His second inning was a 1-2-3 beauty that took about 90 seconds.

“That’s me,’’ Wakefield said with a smile.

“I feel fine,’’ he added. “Everything works. I needed a little more work so I went out to the bullpen after the game and threw another 24 pitches.’’

His role with this team?

“I have no idea. It is whatever they ask me to do . . . If I’m the sixth guy in a five-man rotation, then that’s what it is.’’

He doesn’t mind his status as baseball’s resident old guy.

“I think it’s a tribute to a lot of hard work to be able to last into my mid-40s.’’

Wakefield will have a book on the stands next month: “Knuckler: My Life With Baseball’s Most Confounding Pitch’’ (with Tony Massarotti).

No doubt the movie will be next. Wonder if they can get Clint Eastwood to play the lead?

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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