After an electric rookie campaign in 1992, Wakefield's knuckleball lost its magic. For two years, he floundered, even pitching all of 1994 in the minors. Just before the 1995 season began, the Pirates cut ties to make room for Mackey Sasser and Mike Maddux. Just three years removed from taking the city by storm, Wakefield's demise was dramatic.
He must have had doubts. Newly unemployed, 28 years old, and coming off a 5-15 season in the minors. Who wouldn't have doubts? Apparently, Tim Wakefield wouldn't.
"I think a change of scenery and a clean slate will do wonders for me," Wakefield told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the day of his release. "But Pittsburgh means a lot to me. I always said I wanted to finish my career in Pittsburgh. Maybe in my 28th year in the big leagues I can."
So there you have it. The Red Sox might need to look for a new fifth starter in 2020 when Wakefield will be 53.
Knuckleballers famously age well, but given his circumstances, Wakefield's confidence on that day remains stunning. It also helps explain how he's made it this far.
Even at his most optimistic, Wakefield couldn't possibly have imagined what would come. Less than a week after being released, he signed a minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox. A month after that, he was in the big leagues receiving a prorated share of a $175,000 salary. The rest is history.
On Friday night against the Kansas City Royals, Wakefield begins his 16th season with the Red Sox, a feat further solidifying his place in club history. Only four other players have donned the uniform for that long: Carl Yastrzemski (23 seasons), Dwight Evans (19), Ted Williams (19) and Jim Rice (16). No other pitcher has been with the club longer than 13 seasons.
Wakefield continues his assault on the Red Sox record book. Last year, he became the all-time leader in starts, passing Roger Clemens. With 17 more innings, he'll tie Cy Young for second in team history and could pass Clemens (whom he trails by 64 2/3) by the All-Star break. Then, there's wins, the most coveted of the records. Young and Clemens share the record with 192. Wakefield needs 18 to pass them, perhaps a stretch for 2010, but a good possibility before he retires.
It would be difficult to overstate the improbability of Wakefield's steady rise with the Red Sox.
Consider his first game with the team on May 27, 1995. More than anything, desperation led to Wakefield getting the call just five weeks after his release. The rotation was depleted by injuries to Clemens, Aaron Sele and Vaughn Eshelman. Rheal Cormier, who started the second game of the season, was deemed more valuable out of the bullpen. The Red Sox so needed arms that Tim VanEgmond started the next day, his last game in a Boston uniform.
At 28, Wakefield was not your typical minor league call-up. He was the fourth-oldest Red Sox player to take the field that day, but he's easily outlasted them all. Tim Naehring, picked one spot ahead of Wakefield in the 1988 draft, enjoyed a career year in 1995 but was out of baseball just three years later. Apart from Wakefield, Troy O'Leary was the last Red Sox player from that game to appear in the majors, and that was in 2003. Yet Wakefield is still standing, fluttering 65 mile-per-hour knuckleballs interspersed with the occasional 72 mile-per-hour fastball.
Indeed, Wakefield's 16 seasons with the club are particularly astonishing considering his late introduction to Boston. The oldest player in the American League, and second only to the Phillies' Jamie Moyer, Wakefield turns 44 in August. On Friday, he becomes the fifth-oldest player to appear in a Red Sox uniform, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Next month, he will pass Rickey Henderson. By the end of the season, he should pass both Dennis Eckersley and Yastrzemski for second in club annals.
If Wakefield is still playing in May of next year (he is signed though 2011), he will become the oldest Red Sox player ever, a distinction currently held by something of an interloper. Deacon McGuire was 85 days shy of his 45th birthday when he played his final of seven games in a Boston uniform in 1908. The Red Sox were McGuire's 11th of 12 teams, a record for a position player that Matt Stairs tied Monday when he made his Padres debut.
Just how long has Wakefield been around? He actually played on the last winning Pirates team, a franchise that has posted 17 straight losing seasons, a record for all four major sports. In fact, since Wakefield broke into the big leagues in 1992, 2,698 players have made their debuts and are no longer in the majors, according to Elias.
Longevity is common among knuckleballers, who put far less stress on their arms. Phil Niekro set records with 121 wins and 1,977 innings after turning 40. Charlie Hough made more than 200 starts. Hoyt Wilhelm had more than 500 appearances. Wakefield is 38-31 in 86 starts since turning 40. Last year, he earned his first trip to the All-Star Game, becoming the oldest first-time participant since Satchel Paige in 1953.
At this stage, you know what to expect from Wakefield. He's logged at least 120 innings for 15 straight seasons, the longest such streak in the majors. Since rejoining the rotation in 2003, he's essentially been good for 10 wins, an ERA in the 4.00s and about six innings per start.
Opposing batters also know what to expect -- that is, what pitch. First pitch? That will be the knuckleball 93 percent of the time, according to Inside Edge. If he's ahead in the count, expect the knuckler 90 percent of the time. Looking for that 72 mph fastball? There's a 29 percent chance it's coming when Wakefield is behind in the count, and it's about 50-50 with three balls.
Hitters know what's coming, they just don't know where it's going. And often, neither does Wakefield. That's the key to his longevity. As long as the knuckler is dancing, there's no reason he can't keep going. That is, if he can stay healthy. Over the last four seasons, Wakefield has made 71 starts before the All-Star Game, but only 34 afterward.
On Friday, Wakefield's age and experience will continue to make history. But despite his age, Wakefield continues on, very much a part of the present, though the Red Sox will need to make a tough rotation decision once Daisuke Matsuzaka is healthy enough to join the team.
Jumping around with the restlessness of youth, the knuckleball keeps Wakefield young.
Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.