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A soft pitch from a tough guy

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  February 17, 2012 08:49 PM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — When spring training opened in 2010, Tim Wakefield was coming off back surgery. But he was healthy enough to take the mound with the other starters during the first workout for pitchers and catchers.

Watching from a short distance away, it was hard not to notice that Wakefield appeared a little stiff. He was grimacing when he followed through on his pitches and moving cautiously.

"Tim Wakefield looks like a guy who had back surgery," I wrote on Twitter.

The day continued and when the workout broke up, reporters were allowed into the small clubhouse at the team's dusty old complex on Edison Ave. Wakefield was waiting for me.

"I want to talk to you," he said gruffly.

The next 10 minutes were basically Wakefield lecturing me that his back felt fine and questioning my motives. He was furious and let me know it.

I did a lot of nodding and when he was finished, we shook hands. I never did find out how he was monitoring Twitter from the field. But apparently somebody was.

From afar, I knew Wakefield only as a knuckleballer who was heavily involved in community service. I respected his durability, but that was all I really knew. It was that day I learned how stubborn and tough he was.

You don't spent 19 years in the majors throwing a pitch that comes in at 65 mph or so without being extraordinarily competitive and a little ornery. Wakefield was released by the Pirates in 1995 and for 17 years, he pitched for the Red Sox like he was worried they would do the same.

Wakefield, as the pitchers say, always had his spikes on. He didn't always like the role he was in, but he always showed up and did it.

We had this quote from Mike Stanley on the blog earlier tonight. He really hit the mark with it.

"You always hear the term 'professional hitter,' but you don‟t hear that about pitchers. For me, 'professional pitcher' is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Tim and his career," Stanley said. "He started, was a spot starter, worked out of the bullpen and even closed for us for a short time when I was with Boston. A consummate team player, he always put his nose to grindstone for the betterment of the team and did what he was asked. That to me is what Tim Wakefield is all about."

There are two sides to the guy. Daniel Bard and Jon Lester told stories today about how Wakefield was essentially mean to them when they were rookies then became a trusted friend once they proved themselves.

"To be honest with you, it was tough," Lester said. "He's probably one of the tougher veterans that we had when I first came up, and that's not a bad thing. I think he did a good job of being a tough leader and making sure that he was vocally present. My locker was right next to him from day one, and he made sure I stayed in line and did the right things both on and off the field. I'm grateful for that."

There were rookie pitchers on the team last year who were downright afraid to talk to Wakefield. But Wakefield also did everything he could to help Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who inherited the difficult task of catching the knuckleball.

Salty said earlier today that he hoped Wakefield would be lifelong friend.

Wakefield locker's was in the corner of the clubhouse at Fenway. He would sit in his chair and do crossword puzzles before the game, his way of easing the tension a bit. There were plenty of times he blew off requests to be interviewed. But when he did talk to reporters, he was honest, direct and intelligent.

Lester said it's almost hard to imagine a pitcher lasting 17 years with one team, not with how frequently teams change rosters these days.

"It's hard to believe how long he was around," said Lester, who was 8-years-old when Wakefield broke into the majors.

That was in 1992. Dennis Eckersley was the MVP of the American League that year and Cecil Fielder was the big slugger of the day. Fielder faced Wakefield 20 times in his career. His son, Prince, faced him six times.

Bobby Valentine was fired by the Rangers that year. Sparky Anderson was still managing the Tigers and Joe Torre was with the Cardinals. You could walk up to Fenway Park 10 minutes before a game, buy a good ticket and be in your seat in time to hear Sherm Feller announce the lineups.

Now, in 2012, so much is different. And without Wakefield around, baseball will be a little different.

You can make a case — and many will — that the Red Sox could still use Wakefield. But Ben Cherington, who has the clear eyes needed by a GM, decided differently. He is probably right given the events of last season. And Wakefield is doing the right thing, too. Better to walk away like this than to get called into the office on April 2 and told you're not going to Washington with everybody else.

Agent Bary Meister claimed that four other teams has an interest in Wakefield and one offered a major league deal. If true, then more credit to Wakefield for his loyalty to Boston.

Regardless, it's a little bittersweet if you're one of the fans Wakefield emotionally thanked today.

But consider yourself lucky. It's a pretty safe bet you won't ever see a player like him again.

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