Future Yankees hurler Roger Clemens was the ace out of the gate. Erik Hanson was signed to short cash and put up a surprising 15-win campaign.
It was a season in which Tim Naehring actually played 120 games and steroid poster boy Jose Canseco was in uniform.
Theyíre gone now, mostly, the players that comprised the 1995 Red Sox, the last Boston squad to win the American League East. Clemens, of course, is back with the Yankees, aimed at a June introduction. Matt Stairs is still swinging for the fences in Toronto. Scott Hatteberg is hanging on with the Reds at age 37 and Kevin Kennedy leaves the state police shades at home these days, sharing time on the Fox set with Jeanne Zelasko.
And, oh yeah, that Wakefield cat.
While his teammate from that í95 season, Luis Alicea, is living his second baseball life as the Red Sox first base coach, it is the knuckleballer who keeps on motoring through this increasingly magical 2007 season, harking back to the season he first appeared in Boston, picked up off the Pittsburgh scrap heap.
Wakefield was 16-8 that season with a 2.95 ERA. He went 14-1 to start a career in a city where heís made his name synonymous with the all-time winningest pitchers in the franchiseís history. Only Clemens and Cy Young have won more games than Wakefield in a Red Sox uniform. In that debut season, he finished third in Cy Young voting, behind Randy Johnson and Jose Mesa. He held the opposition to just a .227 average, fourth-best in the AL. He won 10 consecutive starts from June to August, the first Sox pitcher to accomplish that feat since Ellis Kinder in 1949.
Itís now more than a decade later, and Wakefield is having his best season since 1995, baffling the opposition to the tune of a .189 batting average against. His 1.79 ERA is second only to Dan Haren in the American League, and every evening he steps on the mound, he shows no signs to make anybody believe heís not about to go on another one of those special runs as he did in í95.
It could be argued, should the Red Sox go on to win the division crown, that the team MVP isnít anybody named David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka, or Jonathan Papelbon, but rather the only guy who was with the Sox the last time they won the East.
Wakefield goes into tonightís start against the Tigers with a 16-inning scoreless streak, and is once again in the Cy Young discussion of mid-May. After surrendering 19 home runs last season and a career-high 35 in 2005, he has allowed only a pair in '07. Heís pitched into the sixth inning in each of his seven starts, and his earned run totals go like this: 1, 1, 1, 3, 3, 0, 0.
Thatís four runs short of a binary start to the season. Know what Wakefieldís first seven starts of the í95 season looked like? 1, 0, 0, 1, 3, 3, 2. His ERA after seven starts? 1.72. Sound familiar?
Last week the Blue Jays were so desperate, noting his career 18-8 mark indoors, that they left the roof open at Rogers Centre even with rain in the forecast. The knuckleballer responded by surrendering three hits over seven innings. Jim Leyland probably even knows his name, especially since heís seen him go on this kind of streak before: in 1992, when the former first baseman blew onto the NL scene by going 8-1 for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Heís 40 now, will turn 41 in August, but he hasnít looked this good since he was a 28-year-old at a crossroads. He followed up last seasonís injury-shortened campaign with a better conditioning program, and the results have shown with his improved mechanics on the hill. His 19 walks place him in the top 10 in the AL, but thatís simply a product of the knuckleballís unpredictability more than anything else.
Of course, the best news of all for Wakefield is his supporting cast in 2007 vs. 1995. Twelve seasons ago, Wakefield wrapped up his magical run by stinking up the joint, dropping seven of his last nine regular season decisions, starting with an Aug. 19 game at Seattle, in which he allowed seven runs over three innings. After it took him 11 starts to give up his 16th run on the season, he went on to allow 16 runs in total over his next four starts. The lowest point came in October, when he was hammered in Game 3 of the ALDS, allowing seven earned runs over 5 1/3 innings as his pumpkin burst.
In 2007, Schilling, Beckett, and Matsuzaka help anchor the staff, not a pre-"twilight" Clemens, Hanson, and Zane Smith. That 1995 team was more of a surprise than anything, a squad consisting of picked-up pieces tossed together, one of whom stuck longer than most of us could have possibly imagined.
Anyone who remembers that season canít help but think that Wakefield might be on the verge of doing it again, a summer where the knuckleball dances in ways that even its guardian canít explain.
ďIt could be that after all these years, Wakefield simply has found the perfect grip for his trademark pitch, and -- combined with a few lucky gusts of wind -- is on pace for another knuckleballer season for the ages,Ē writes ESPN.comís Jonah Keri. ďOr he could get rocked in his next start, miss a bunch of starts to injuries like he did last year, and go back to being good ol' back-of-the-rotation Tim Wakefield. It's as fun a story as there is in baseball right now.Ē
It sure is.