Wakefield reminds of the good old days

One of Tim Wakefield’s teammates on the 2000 Red Sox was a veteran reliever named Steve Ontiveros, who once played with Tommy John on the 1985 A’s. John didn’t throw a knuckleball, but threw about as hard as a knuckleballer late in his career. John was a teammate of Early Wynn on the 1963 Indians and Wynn did throw an occasional knuckler. Wynn played with Bruce Campbell, who played with Charley O’Leary, who played with Ed Summers and Eddie Cicotte, the two pitchers widely credited with inventing the knuckleball, or at least popularizing it.

Such is the cycle of baseball, where we link Tim Wakefield back to a member of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox and a guy born in 1884 in Ladoga, Ind., who once won both games of a doubleheader.

Tim Wakefield won his 200th career game on Tuesday night, and while his knuckleball wasn’t dancing, he survived six innings, got plenty of run support and will happily take the win, especially considering it took him eight tries to achieve it. Heck, Justin Verlander won nine games in the time between Wakefield victories. Wakefield has more career wins than David Cone or Dwight Gooden or Sandy Koufax or Lefty Gomez or Dizzy Dean or Rube Waddell. No, Wakefield wasn’t as good as those guys, and, yes, we’re not supposed to care about wins for pitchers anymore, but on this night, take a step back and simply appreciate the iconoclastic, wonderful career of a former small-college first baseman.

As a rookie with the Pirates in 1992, Wakefield went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA and won both of his playoff starts with complete games. He struggled in 1993, spent 1994 in the minors and the Pirates released him in 1995. They should have known better. Knuckleballers don’t hit their peak until they’re 35. One of his teammates on that ’92 Pirates team was Kirk Gibson, who played with Rusty Staub on the ’79 Pirates. Staub was a 19-year-old rookie on the 1963 Houston Colt .45s. A pitcher on that staff was an old guy named Hal Brown. Who threw a knuckleball.

Wakefield is a throwback. You see him throw the knuckleball and you imagine baggy, wool uniforms that haven’t been washed in three days and stink of sweat and liniment. You can imagine a time when the fields weren’t perfectly manicured and colorful advertisements covered the outfield walls and players looked old by the time they turned 30 from all the lines around their eyes caused by years of squinting in the sun.

Back then, a lot of pitchers threw the knuckleball. As Rob Neyer chronicled in “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers,” in the late ‘30s through World War II, a dozen or so pitchers reached the major leagues with the knuckleball as their primary weapon. The 1944 and ’45 Washington Senators had four knuckleballers in their rotation. (I don’t think Jason Varitek would have enjoyed catching for that team.) After that, however, the knuckleballer slowly died out. Sure, there was Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti, but those guys became the exceptions.

Wakefield has played with Barry Bonds and Pedro Martinez. He gave up the famous home run to Aaron Boone in the 2003 ALCS. He helped the Red Sox win it all in 2004. He seemed old then and that was seven years ago. He won 17 games in 2007 when the Sox won it again. Red Sox fans are as comfortable with Wakefield’s knuckler as they are with the Green Monster and the sausage stands outside Fenway.

A rotation mate of Wakefield’s with the Pirates was Bob Walk, who pitched with Niekro in Atlanta and was a teammate of Steve Carlton on the 1980 Phillies. Carlton pitched with Curt Simmons with the Cardinals and Simmons pitched with Dutch Leonard on the 1948 Phillies. Leonard was one of the members of that all-knuckleball Senators rotation.

So, yes, Tim Wakefield is a reminder of another time. And maybe he’s the last of a breed. I hope not.

After all, we always need more 45-year-old athletes to root for.