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AL East: Knuckling Down
For the past decade, the Red Sox have played especially well at the start of the season. After an exciting, if improbable, win yesterday over the Orioles at Fenway Park bumped their record to 25-11, Boston increased its lead over the O's and Yankees to eight games. This isn't even their best start in recent years, though it is close -- they were 25-9 in 2002. Boston's offense has been sensational for over a week now; quite frankly, everything is clicking for the whole team right now.
"If the Red Sox keep playing the way they are," Johnny Damon said yesterday after the Yankees lost 2-1 in Seattle, "nobody is going to catch them."
Surely, the Sox are playing over their heads to a degree, but there is nothing flukey about their pitching. Josh Beckett, who had his first blister scare of the season yesterday, is 7-0; future Hall of Famer Curt Schilling has pitched very well; Daisuke Matsuzaka has been inconsistent but has shown flashes of brilliance. Jonathan Paplebon is one of the elite closers in baseball. And so, once again, it's been easy to overlook the unique contributions of Tim Wakefield, who has been with the Red Sox longer than any current player.
Last week, Wakefield outpitched Roy Halladay, lowering his ERA to a league-leading 1.79 in the process. Wakefield is the only true knuckleball pitcher left in the game, which makes him a precious commodity. Yet the Red Sox are paying him at the bargain-basement rate of $4 million a year, proving that, seniority be damned, knuckleballers still don't get much respect.
Still, thinking about how good Wakefield has been brought to mind great knucklers from the past. Of Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, Roger Angell once wrote, "He delivers a pitch with approximately the same effort as a man tossing a pair of socks into a laundry hamper."
Minor-league-pitcher turned major-league writer Pat Jordan once wrote that the knuckleball is "a curious and irrational pitch with more than a little madness tied up with it. A pitcher does not really throw a knuckleball; he surrenders it to the elements as it were some wild, unattainable bird he is glad to be rid of. Once unleashed, the pitch has a will of its own ... Pitchers must ask themselves: is it worth the effort? Not many say yes. It takes a strong-willed, well-disciplined man to throw a knuckleball. A man not given easily to despair and defeat."
The legendary Phil Neikro was one of those men (as is Wakefield). Neikro toiled in the minor leagues for eight long seasons learning to master the pitch. In a 1970 profile in True magazine, Neikro told a writer:
"Damn, but my life is tied up with that pitch. Sometimes I can't even separate the two. It's as if the pitch and my life are one and the same thing. You know what I mean? I owe everything to that pitch. Everything."
Neikro went on to win 300 games in the major leagues. His knuckler was so nasty that Pete Rose once said of it, "Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living." Once, after striking out four times against Neikro, the slugger Dick Allen nonchalantly said, "I never worry about it. I just take my three swings and go sit on the bench. I'm afraid if I even think about hitting it, I'll mess up my swing for life."
Wakefield will never win 300 games, but he's a joy to watch, the pride of the Red Sox. Oh, in case you missed it, be sure to check out Ben McGrath’s 2004 New Yorker profile on Wakefield.
"It's the pride factor and the responsibility factor; his biggest problem right now in his mind is letting people down," [manager, Joe] Torre said. "I think he'd have an easier time snapping out of this thing if we had been winning a lot more."
Labels: AL East
posted by SI.com | View comments |
The McGrath essay is a classic, and it made me wonder then, as I do know, why no one else sees the value in having a knucklers on staff. I know the Sox have Charlie Zink in the minors - does anyone else have a knuckler in the system?
By the way, I don't suppose Wake has any shot at ever making the Hall of Fame, but in my book, he's everything a major league ballplayer should be.
I think it just boils down to: "It's really hard". It may not be as physically taxing, but even the Sox's up-and-coming knucklers are still struggling too much to be brought up to the big leagues.
Timmy Teammate! Topstep Timmy! Look, he's always on the top step, cheering the team on. He is why I love baseball!
i agree with yall. the sox, and all of baseball for that matter, just wouldnt be the same without tim wakefield. It will be a sad day when he hangs it up and retires. I also want to say that I believe that he signed a contract that keeps him in boston until the want to realease him ( ya right) or he retires. Its a choice that he made to only make 4 mil a year in order to stay with the team that he loves, the ultimate team player!!!
Wake has gotten the short end of the stick for a long time, he doesn't get the accolades, and he doesn't seek them out. He makes you proud to be a Sox fan.
Chaos Theory and the Knuckleballer
for Tim Wakefield
On the mound you stand -just so- exhale -so-
throw at the same spot over and over.
There's only one way to toss a knuckleball,
near-impossibly simple; your fingernails flick it
at the distant lozenge of your catcher's mitt,
and it must be thrown so evenly
the ball won't spin at all,
60 feet six inches from hand to plate,
it can't rotate, not once.
At its end, it turns a half inch
so when the slits end, it turns a half inch
so when the slight braking surface
of its raised stitched-seam
shears against the stream of air
the ball ploughs through,
that change in flow will kick it aside
-not much- enough
for a bat to swipe over, under,
just to the left of where the ball was.
Somedays, it's like trying to throw an oak leaf
across the street into your neighbor's half-closed mailbox.
Somedays it's good: you're on;
just that the ball perversely dips and skews
straight to the bat - right out of the park.
Or the ball won't break, just hangs
like a bright piñata. Somedays it's perfect.
You can't hold runners for a damn,
floating that ball towards home like a soap bubble,
but most will wait anyway,
for the ball to lunge under the bat into the dirt,
carom off the catcher's shin-guard, and roll
-like an evil bunt- into the on-deck circle.
Anything too good by a hair,
or not good enough, kills you.
After a shutout (or single inning debacle)
reporters want to know Why - What happened?
As the press corps questions swirl around you
and the baseball that nestles like a Buddha in your glotles like a Buddha in your glove,
you sense a slight breeze, an eddy so weak
it can barely sift through heat rising off the dirt.
A drop of sweat left on the ball? A stray mosquito?
The fat guy in the forth row who blew on his coffee?
Who knows? Who knows how this pitch makes itself?
They say, to Jehovah, men were tools:
Samuel a sword, Isaiah a trumpet.
What are you to a knuckleball
that pulls the world into itself?
© 1998 by Robert J McCaffery Jr.
I hope Tim stays healthy this year because he makes a huge difference despite being overshadowed by the other starters. Go Wake!
I never post on the internet, but this is different. Tim Wakefield may never get the chance to be HoF, but every year he makes a difference. Every start he quietly holds up his end of the game and gives his team a chance to win. Sure, sometimes he coughs-up a hairball, but never really melts down.
And us Boston fans love him like no other. Grady can never come back. The Babe is a bum. Roger can flirt with us, but will we ever really forgive him? Buckner's whole career is defined by a groan.
But Wake. He can lose us a trip to the Series, and we welcome him back with open arms every year. I don't know why. Other than because we just love him.
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