Since bursting onto the Red Sox scene in 1995 with a 14-1 start, Tim Wakefield has generated many different emotions among Red Sox faithful. Some love him, some hate him. Sometimes these two emotions are felt by the same fan during the same start. Some fans are nervous when he is scheduled to start and others are confident. Some fear his every pitch, others enjoy watching major league hitters flail at the knuckler like Little Leaguers. Some want him cut today to make room for the young guns (Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden), while others hope he stays until he's 50. How can one man generate such a dichotomy of emotions?
For those who are unabashed Wakefield supporters, his ability to "eat" innings is always pointed to as a key component that he provides to the team. Terry Francona knows he can write in Wakefield's name every 5th day and Wakefield will be ready to give the team 6+ , usually solid, innings. Wakefield is the rare 21st century athlete who puts the team ahead of individual accomplishments. When asked to close during the 1999 season, he accepted without complaint and proceeded to accumulate 15 saves in that role. From 1999 through 2002, Wake shifted back and forth between the rotation and the pen with nary a complaint.
Never was this team first attitude more evident than during the Red Sox historic comeback over the Yankees in 2004. Only the most ardent of Sox fans remember that it was Wakefield who told Francona he would stay on the mound and absorb the punishment during the game 3 shellacking. Because of this Francona was able to save Derek Lowe for the game 4 start and keep his bullpen fresh. Were it not for Wakefield taking a bullet for the team, history may not have been made that year.
For the Wakefield detractors there are many aspects of his game that cause them anguish. His inconsistency is historic. Wakefield is like the little girl with the curl, when he is good he is great, when he is bad he is horrid. When Wakefield is on one of his 9-10 game hot streaks, there might not be a pitcher more fun to watch in Major League Baseball. However, when he is on one of his tough streaks it is painful. Others see a 42 year-old pitcher who throws a 72 mph fastball and a 67 mph knuckle-ball keeping strong armed starters like Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden down on the farm. Wakefield has demonstrated the propensity to give up the long-ball at inopportune times, see Aaron Boone, while also struggling the past few years come playoff time. His detractors will point out that yes, he is a solid #4-5 starter in the regular season, but please, don't start him in the playoffs.
Because of the uniqueness of his trademark pitch, the knuckleball, Wakefield has always had to have his own catcher take up a roster spot. This has hampered his versatility, especially in the playoffs, as its hard to expect Jason Varitek to catch him in a relief role, so if you bring in Wakefield in long relief in the playoffs, in years past, you would have had to bring in Doug Mirabelli or Kevin Cash. The Sox seem to be in the process of getting away from this this year as George Kottaras appears to be more than just Wakefield's caddy.
Whether you love him or hate him, Wakefield is making history with the Red Sox. Since his arrival in 1995, he has compiled 165 wins which has him firmly entrenched in third place on the All-Time Red Sox Wins list. That means that Wakefield has won more games in a Red Sox uniform than Luis Tiant, Bruce Hurst, Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove, and Mel Parnell. Pretty good company. Conversely, ammo for the haters, Wakefield has suffered defeat 146 times which places him FIRST on the All-Time list. His durability is exhibited in the fact that he trails only Bob Stanley in appearances for a Red Sox pitcher.
As Wake takes the mound tonight, fans in the stands will be feeling all of these emotions. We will see a person who has been a class act both on and off the field. We will see an athlete who answers the bell and accepts responsibility for the results of the game that he has just pitched in. We will witness a man who accepted below market money so he and his family can continue to enjoy the life that they have built for themselves in this city. On the other hand, we will also observe the man who, at times, has frustrated us, especially in the post season. We don't understand the pitch so, therefore, we don't understand the man.
Is it time to hang it up? Clearly, based on his last performance against the Oakland A's, not yet. Despite the occasional frustrations provided by Wakefield, we have been fortunate over the past 15 seasons to have had the opportunity to watch an athlete who is a class act both on and off the field and who places the fortunes of the Red Sox above his own. Love him or hate him, watching a Wakefield start is always and event and I'm sure tonight's will be no different.