Wakefield secures his grip on history

BOSTON -- Accidental pitcher. One-trick pony. Abject failure. Reclamation project. Playoff goat. World Series celebrant. Middle-aged survivor. Revered Boston icon.

And now, at 45 years and 42 days, 200-game winner, 19 years and six weeks after winning his first.

It took eight tries, and 18 runs from his teammates, but Tuesday night in Fenway Park, the myriad storylines that comprise the amazing run of Tim Wakefield merged into a singular moment of triumph, Wakefield becoming the fifth pitcher to win his 200th game while wearing a Red Sox uniform.

As with so many of Wakefield's wins, this was an exercise in survival. Wakefield gave up two home runs that accounted for five runs early as he gave back two early leads. He would not give back a third, setting down the last six batters he faced before departing with a five-run lead after six innings.

He would reemerge from the dugout after it was over, Boston's 18-6 win over the Toronto Blue Jays finally unlocking a celebration postponed in maddening fashion for almost two months.

"I'm very grateful, one, that it's over with," said Wakefield, his breath all but taken away by the waves of affection that washed over him from the crowd of 38,020 as he raised his champagne-drenched cap to the top of the grandstand in salute.

"Two, that it was able to happen here at Fenway Park in front of our home crowd and going outside and seeing the signs and all the people, my teammates came out in support. It just says a lot about everything that's gone on in my career and tonight."

The knuckleballer joined a select group comprised of Curt Schilling, Luis Tiant, Ferguson Jenkins and Lefty Grove. Grove, who also won his 300th game for the Sox, and Jenkins are in the Hall of Fame. Schilling is coming up for election, and Tiant won't make it unless the Veterans Committee sees something the writers didn't.

Wakefield's place in history does not require a spot in Cooperstown for validation. The story would never fit on a bronze plaque anyway, relying as it does on the wildly improbable tale of a grizzled baseball lifer named Woody Huyke, who, after watching Wakefield tossing his knuckler during a game of catch, decided that an overmatched minor league first baseman might yet be able to salvage his future in pro ball as a knuckleballer.

Wakefield, still in the lowest rungs of the minors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, went along with the plan. It was either that, he said, or get a real job. So he joined the tiny fraternity of practitioners of one of baseball's oddest arts, throwing a baseball with no spin and no discernible means of predicting where it would end up, the way his father used to throw it to him after work in their Melbourne, Fla., backyard.

That was the start of what became an irresistible saga, taking Wakefield from instant success as a Pirates rookie to a stunning reversal of fortune -- his release by the Pirates less than three years later -- to his rescue off the scrap heap by Dan Duquette and the Red Sox.

And on a Tuesday night in the Fens, the knuckleballer who relies on how precisely he manicures his fingernails takes an honored place among the game's strongest arms.

"I'm very grateful I've been able to wear this uniform for as long as I have, and reach a milestone that I thought I'd never reach, just…very grateful," Wakefield said.

In his 17th season with the Red Sox, a length of service exceeded only by three Sox players -- Carl Yastrzemski (23) Ted Williams (19) and Dwight Evans (19) -- Wakefield endures at an age stretching well beyond the normal arc of a ballplayer's career. Case in point: Sox infielder John Valentin, who broke into the big leagues the same year Wakefield did, retired nine years ago.

Think about this for a moment. Wakefield has pitched to 13 players who have gone on to manage in the big leagues, including Joe Girardi, Mike Scioscia, Ozzie Guillen and Bud Black. His manager, Terry Francona, was just beginning as a minor league manager in South Bend, Ind., in '92. Sox general manager Theo Epstein was just finishing his freshman year at Yale. His catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, was just completing first grade.

It was Jim Bouton, the former pitcher and "Ball Four" author, who once observed, "A ballplayer spends a good piece of his life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

And so it has been for Wakefield, who puts off his retirement party as if his very life depends on it -- and just maybe it does. He has started, he has closed, he has been ousted from the rotation, he has fought his way back in, he has been left off a playoff roster, he has started a World Series game, and through it all, his glove and spikes have always been at the ready.

Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit is not the only quest that attracted a documentary film crew. Wakefield's trip to 200 also is being recorded for posterity by a production company called Break Thru Films. As a leading man, the laconic Wakefield can't compete with Jeter's star power, but as a testament to perseverance and professionalism, Wakefield takes a back seat to no one.

A few months after Wakefield gave up the haunting home run to Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series against the Yankees, he sat in his Melbourne home and told a visitor, "I was terrified that I would be remembered like [Bill] Buckner.''

A year later, Wakefield was winning a World Series, and three years later, another.

He might fall short of catching Roger Clemens and Cy Young for most wins by a Red Sox pitcher -- he has 186, he needs 193 and a return in 2012 is by no means assured -- but Wakefield needn't worry about how he will be remembered.

There have been greater players to wear a Red Sox uniform, but few as respected. That's no trick pitch, but one straight and true.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.