Tuesday, July 5, 2011

FN Review: Wakefield's 'Knuckler'

Book Review by Susan Richards

Phil Niekro, appropriately enough, contributes the Foreword to this extremely readable memoir by an unsurprisingly very likable athlete, and more importantly big-hearted person, Tim Wakefield. He starts off with: "Knuckleballers aren't superstars. Tim, especially, was rarely the kind of pitcher who got front page billing during any year, but when the season ended, I bet the Red Sox and everyone else looked up and gave thanks that they had him." The rest of this book describes, from three unique perspectives, just why Red Sox Nation should be grateful to Tim Wakefield, the athlete, and the person, for his unique contributions to our Boston sports culture and beyond.....

The first perspective is the knuckleball itself or as Umpire Ron Luciano describes it; "Not only can't pitchers control it, catchers can't catch it, coaches can't coach it, and most pitchers can't learn it.. The perfect pitch." The first chapter introduces the knuckleball itself and tries to address the how, why, and where of it.... not an easy task. We are introduced to other infamous "knucklers", Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur "Wilbah"" Wood, and most importantly to Wakefield..... Hall of Famer, Phil Niekro, a real mentor to Wakefield, whose sage advice would prove invaluable especially during challenging times in Tim's career. What the reader learns from the knuckleball perspective is that it takes a unique personality to even try to harness the mystery that is the knuckleball....most pitchers won't even try it. And to maintain a career as a knuckler for all the years that Tim Wakefield has... well, it's truly remarkable.

The second perspective is the sport of baseball itself... College, minor league, and finally major league... the Pittsburgh Pirates, and most importantly, the Boston Red Sox with whom Wakefield has been playing since 1995, the longest tenured Red Sox player, and of course the oldest as well. We read through a brief history of the Red Sox including the more "traditional" stars - Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Roger Clemens and we see where they are as an organization when Wakefield joins them in the mid-90's, during the Dan Duquette years. It's fascinating to see how the Sox deal with Wake... the owners, the managers, the coaches..... and it hasn't always been pretty.
Finally, and most importantly, the third perspective is through Wakefield's eyes. From his early years growing up in Melbourne, Florida... playing catch with his Dad who taught him the knuckleball when Tim was around 9 years old, and following the closest professional baseball team to his home, the Atlanta Braves, with his favorite ball player, Dale Murphy... to high school ball where he played shortstop, first base, and pitched a little, on to college at Florida Tech. His strong work ethic combined with bulldog tenacity, and a refreshingly humble nature, were apparent in Wake from the start, qualities that obviously helped him handle the inevitable challenges that becoming a knuckler would present as he graduated to minor leagues and finally to the majors.

No memoir of a Red Sox player who played in the last decade would be complete without yet another retelling of the now legendary climb to the World Series championship in 2004, as well as 2007, and this book does not disappoint with its version. Of course Wakefield starts the 2004 climb to the World Series from the pitcher's mound in Yankee Stadium in October of 2003, where he famously pitched the ball that Aaron Boone hit for the home run that would win game 7 of the ALCS and end the Sox's season in yet another heartbreak. No one was more heartbroken than Wake and it takes a good deal of that bulldog tenacity to bring him back through the 2004 season. Through Wake's eyes we see that infamous game 3 of the ALCS where he volunteers to sacrifice his start in game 4 to give the team some innings and spare more pitchers in that horrendous 19-8 game. This selfless act really reflects many such acts throughout Wakefield's career.

The final pages of "Knuckler" bring us to Tim Wakefield as he approaches age 45.... still pitching , still contributing wherever and whenever he can, he can't help but eye the win records of Roger Clemens and Cy Young... perhaps breakable records, depending on how long he can stay with a team he is determined to end his playing days with, the Boston Red Sox. In this age of flashy superstar athletes, it is absolutely refreshing to read a memoir of a hardworking, skilled, and selfless baseball professional who is absolutely committed to his team and to Red Sox Nation.