|(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)|
The Knuckler takes a curveball
In the midst of a locker room celebration, a Red Sox pitcher gets an unexpected call.
In the immediate aftermath of Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, the clubhouse had the feel of Bourbon Street at the peak of Mardi Gras. The Red Sox still needed four more victories to record their first World Series championship since the days of World War I, but they had every reason to celebrate, to extend and cherish the moment. The Red Sox owners, executives, and players embraced one another and celebrated what was arguably the greatest victory in the history of the franchise, even though the Sox still had another series to play before reaching their ultimate destination.
Tim Wakefield stood off to the side of the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, a room that, in customary baseball practice, had been draped in protective plastic sheets as the Red Sox were routing New York. It was team equipment manager Joe Cochran who oversaw the process during the game, anticipating a Red Sox celebration that would be like no other in the history of the franchise. In the visitors’ clubhouse at the old Yankee Stadium, there were stalls with one shelf (on top), a bunk (at the bottom), a chair (which usually faced the stall), and two hooks (one on each post that framed the space). Everything was painted white. Visiting players would come in and sit on the chair or bunk before putting on their uniforms, draping their clothes on the hooks, and stashing any other belongings on the shelf above. Equipment was strewn about – gloves and cleats could be on the floor, on the bunk, or on the shelf, depending on the player’s preference – and it was Cochran’s responsibility to make sure that everything remained dry in the inevitable champagne celebration that would follow such a monumental victory.
Wakefield had elected to station himself in the general area of his locker, which had been in the same place for as long as he could remember. This, too, is quite customary in baseball. Every team has personnel who oversee both the home and visitors’ clubhouses, and every team tries to make players as comfortable as possible. Baseball is, after all, a game of routines. A small plate just above the space was engraved with Wakefield’s number 49, and his game jersey hung on one of the hooks, but the pitcher no longer had to look for either the plate or his jersey to find his space. The older a player got, the less the routine changed.
In the Major Leagues, longstanding membership, especially, has its privileges.
With friend and fellow veteran Mike Timlin stationed at the locker next to him – Timlin wore number 50 – a smiling Wakefield sipped from a can of beer while many of his rowdier teammates were spraying champagne wildly and pouring beer over one another’s heads. Predictably, the area near Wakefield and Timlin was far more controlled. At that point in their careers, Wakefield and Timlin had a combined 27 years of Major League experience – some good, some bad – and each man was quite content to leave the heavy-duty partying to the younger members of the team. Wakefield had not pitched in Game 7, but media members streamed toward his locker after being allowed into the Boston clubhouse – some because Wakefield stood in one of the safer parts of the room, but most because they had all congregated in precisely the same place a year earlier, albeit under far, far different circumstances.
“This is as big as the World Series,” said a beaming Wakefield. “To be down 3-0, losing Game 3 the way we lost it [in blowout fashion], with the way we won Game 4 and the way we won Game 5, then coming back and winning Game 6 and Game 7 here, it’s tremendous, not only for this organization but for the city and the fans that stuck around through thick and thin for us.”
Reserved as ever, Wakefield resisted talking too much about 2003, when the Red Sox lost the ALCS to the Yankees in seven games, but the big, bright smile on his face spoke for him.
While reporters scribbled away on notepads and poked their microphones into the scrum to capture the knuckleballer’s every word, the extension in the back of the clubhouse began to ring. Yankee Stadium was a workplace, after all, and there was an interoffice phone system that connected most every part of the ballpark. Anyone with a master list could pick up the phone and call just about anyone else, just as a hotel guest might call a friend staying in a nearby room.
As Wakefield continued to speak with reporters in front of his locker, one of the attendants in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium leaned in and delivered a message to the pitcher.
“Joe Torre’s on the phone,” he said. “He asked to speak with you.”
Yankee manager Joe Torre, his clubhouse eerily quiet following what is still regarded as the greatest collapse in the post-season history of Major League baseball, had returned to the solitude of his office, sat behind his desk, and picked up his phone, dialing the number that connected him to the Red Sox clubhouse. Excusing himself from the group, Wakefield promptly joined the attendant at the rear of the clubhouse, an area sectioned off from the merrymaking and typically reserved for what players referred to as their “lounge” before and after games. This room was off-limits to the media, so that players could eat, read, and socialize without any interference. As new ballparks were constructed, lounges would become rather sizable, with large flat-screen televisions and card tables as well as sofas and chairs. At Yankee Stadium in 2004, however, the room was far more like a small kitchen, the proverbial heart of the home, where, in this case, Wakefield picked up the receiver and accepted the well wishes of one of the most accomplished and respected managers in baseball.
Joe Torre had spent a lifetime in the game as a player, broadcaster, and manager. From failure to success, he had experienced everything the game could muster. It was Torre’s impeccable people skills, combined with his comfortable, easygoing manner, that had allowed him to be a successful and longtime manager of a storied franchise like the Yankees, in a boiling media kettle like New York, for a megalomaniacal owner like George Steinbrenner. The 2004 ALCS Game 7 loss to the Red Sox was the indisputable nadir of Torre’s tenure with the Yankees, but he nonetheless felt compelled to call Wakefield in the fallout of Game 7 and deliver the simplest message:
I’m happy for you. You deserve this. Good things happen to good people.
“First of all, I always admired the fact that he’s taken the ball and gone to the post. He’s never been an excuse maker, and he’s been a great competitor,” Torre said later. “The thing that obviously came to mind was when he walked off the field after giving up the home run to [Aaron] Boone in Game 7 in 2003. He had pitched really well in that series, and yet I knew his year was going to be defined by that home run. I didn’t think that was fair.
“Despite all that was going on with [the Yankees], that was all that came to mind for me. It was just like a flashback. It was a lasting image for me. We all say sometimes that life is unfair, and when I saw him walk off that field in 2003 . . . I don’t know if this is the right word, but it was sort of a redemption.”
Wakefield accepted Torre’s thanks and returned to the Red Sox celebration. The New York manager’s call would forever remain one of the highlights of his career.
Excerpted from Knuckler: My Life With Baseball’s Most Confounding Pitch, by Tim Wakefield with Tony Massarotti. Copyright©2011 by Tim Wakefield. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.