Tim Wakefield’s retirement reduces the number of active knuckleballers in Major League Baseball to only one, R.A. Dickey of the Mets. Every knuckleballer has their own story of how they came to throw the baffling pitch that seems to frustrate batters and pitchers equally. Having little hope of rising above Double-A as a position player, the choice for Wakefield was either try something new or give up professional baseball. Clearly his choice of the knuckleball was a match that was meant to be.
Wakefield was the every man for pitchers for many years, much the same way that David Eckstein was for position players. Gritty, scratching and clawing for everything, knowing nothing would ever be given. Both worked tirelessly to perfect the craft which got them to the Majors and would keep them there. For Wakefield it was the knuckleball, for Eckstein it was hustle and an unwillingness to quit.
Over his 19 season career the player once destined to never see Triple-A, let alone the Majors, compiled 200 wins against 180 loses. While his numbers we never eye popping, unless you count the 16 and 18 batters he hit in 1997 and 2001 respectively or the 38 homeruns he allowed in 1996. Wakefield was reliable and different. It’s not uncommon for a pitcher in the Majors to hit the upper 90’s with a fastball, but it is uncommon for a pitcher to make the ball dance and dart the way Wakefield did. No other pitcher in the majors has the ability to make so many professional hitters look like they belong on a church soft ball team. For many the most frustrating part about their experience against Wakefield was knowing that he would throw the knuckleball and still not be able to do anything with it.
Watching Wakefield pitch was never as exciting as watching Nolan Ryan blowing a fastball past Rickey Henderson for his 5000th career strikeout. However, both were equally successful. Ryan and Wakefield have identical career winning percentage, .526. Ryan and Wakefield were completely different pitchers but they were good at beating batters for many years, even though the batter usually knew what was coming. The two may be on completely different planets when it comes to pitching style, but they both battled through a combined 46 years in Major League Baseball and above all they were both good for baseball.
While Ryan was a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee, the same is highly doubtful for Wakefield. A career ERA of 4.41 with 2156 strikeouts over 19 seasons will not turn heads among the baseball writers with Hall of Fame votes. However, Wakefield’s contribution to the game should not be over looked.
Wakefield was an honest man working to perfect his craft even though he could not always control where the ball went once it left his hand. When he had his good days, it was spectacular to watch, when he had his bad days, it was horrific to watch (unless you were rooting for the other team). The era in which he pitched will forever be linked to PEDs, but it can be argued that Wakefield was among the most honest. No chemicals, no injections, no pills. Just climb the hill every fifth day, aim for the catchers’ mit, and hope that when the ball left his hand it danced for him.