McAdam: It was quite a ride for Wakefield

McAdam: It was quite a ride for Wakefield
February 17, 2012, 8:59 pm
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the Red Sox rescued Tim Wakefield from the scrap heap in 1995, no one -- not then-general manager Dan Duquette, nor Wakefield himself -- could have forecast that his career with the team would last another 17 seasons.

At the time, Wakefield had just been released by the Pittsburgh Pirates after a season in which he was, arguably, the worst pitcher in pro ball. Consigned to Triple A Buffalo, Wakefield had either led the league or came dangerously close to leading the league in virtually every negative category: wild pitches, walks, hits allowed and ERA.

Wakefield was so bad that it wasn't clear he could pitch in the minor leagues, let alone the majors.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that "there are no second acts in American lives,'' but Wakefield proved that false. On the brink of athletic extinction, Wakefield played for parts of three decades and came close to retiring as the winningest pitcher for a franchise whose history dates back more than a century.

That's a pretty good second act, no?

Wakefield's long travelogue -- from out-of-nowhere postseason phenom in 1992 to nearly out of baseball three years later, to pitching in parts of three decades for the Red Sox -- ended Friday when the pitcher announced his retirement.

Along the way, he won two World Series, logged more innings and recorded more strikeouts than all but a few Red Sox pitchers in history, and got himself mentioned with the likes of Cy Young and Roger Clemens.

He made an All-Star team near the end of his career, got himself into the record books and won 200 games in the big leagues, almost all of them after he had every reason to believe that his career was over almost as quickly as it began.

It could be said, actually, that Wakefield not only had a second act, but really, a third, since he was almost released by the Pirates once before at Single A when it was determined that he wasn't going to make it as a first baseman.

An alert instructor in the Pirates' organization mentioned that Wakefield had toyed with a knuckleball on the side and perhaps, he should be given a chance to make it as a pitcher.

Two hundred major-league wins later, that seems like a prescient call.

Wakefield played for five managers and too many pitching coaches to count, some of whom who were clearly unsure how to, well, coach him and his enigmatic, signature pitch.

After winning 59 games in his first four seasons, Wakefield was, much to his displeasure, shuttled between the bullpen and the rotation. When Tom Gordon blew out his elbow in 1999, Wakefield took over as closer and saved 15 games.

Too often, though, Wakefield would relieve one day, fill in as a starter two days later and be back in the bullpen a day after that.

More than once -- and not without reason -- he proclaimed: "They're abusing my versatility.''

His career bridges two distinct eras in Red Sox history: pre-Glory Days, when the franchise was mired in disappointment and heartbreak, and post-World Series triumphs, when, for a period of about five years, they were the sport's model franchise.

He was the one Red Sox player in modern history to have been on a losing team (78-84 in 1997) and two title winners. Like his trademark pitch, Wakefield was up, down and everywhere in between in his 17 seasons in a Red Sox uniform.

Somewhat cruelly, his role in the 2004 and 2007 postseason was slight. In Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, with the Sox on the verge of being ignominiously swept by the Yankees, Wakefield volunteered to pitch in relief of beleaguered starter Bronson Arroyo, thereby forfeiting his own start in Game 5. He started Game 1 of the World Series and couldn't get out of the fourth inning.

In 2007, after one start in the ALCS, he was left off the World Series because of an injury.

But each season, Wakefield helped the Red Sox get there, contributing 188 13 innings in 2004 and 189 in 2007.

Along the way, whether scarred by his release or in fear of the wholly unpredictable nature of pitch with which he made his living, Wakefield seemed gripped by insecurity, suggesting he was somehow unaware of his own permanence.

But the list of players who lasted more seasons in a Red Sox uniform is a short one, and filled with immortals: Ted Williams (19 seasons), Dwight Evans (19 seasons) and Carl Yastrzemski (23 seasons).

His final season with the Red Sox was tainted by a seemingly endless quest for career victory No. 200, which he reached on his ninth try. At times, instead of a remarkable achievement, it seemed more like a task to be crossed off the organization's to-do list.

That uncomfortable environment, more than anything, is probably why the Red Sox did not elect to bring Wakefield back for his 18th season, one in which he could have become the franchise's all-time winningest pitcher.

Wakefield, in a moment he surely wishes he could have back, told FoxSports.com's Jon Paul Morosi late last September that the fans "deserved'' to see him come back and go for the club record -- just as the Red Sox were finishing off one of the worst months in franchise history.

So Wakefield heads off into retirement, short on credentials for Cooperstown and tantalizingly close to the record for most wins by a Red Sox pitcher.

Still, it's not a bad legacy for a player to have won 200 games and two championships plus the reputation for being arguably the most charitable and philanthropic player in modern Red Sox history.

Not bad at all, in fact, for an American life in its third act.