A week ago Tim Wakefield announced his retirement from Major League Baseball after a career that spanned three decades.
At many points in those three decades it looked like Wakefield’s career would be over, including before it even started.
Wakefield was drafted in the 8th round of the 1988 draft out of Florida Tech by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but not as a pitcher. He was a first baseman.
He struggled as an infield prospect in the lower levels of the Pirates minor league system and subsequently was told he would never reach the majors as an infielder, so Wakefield started working on a knuckleball pitch. He was given the opportunity to pitch by the Pirates in the single A with the Salem Buccaneers. He found quick success pitching and soared through the minor league system.
He made his big league debut in August of 1992 and immediately found success with the Pirates, posting an 8-1 record with a 2.15 ERA in 13 starts. This was good enough to earn him the Rookie of the Year award from The Sporting News.
Where Wakefield really made his mark though was the postseason.
In the 1992 NLCS, Wakefield posted complete game shutouts in games three and six outdueling Tom Glavine both times. He was going to be named NLCS MVP, until the game seven 9th inning Pirate fans are still trying to forget, in which the Braves rallied for three runs off Stan Belinda to win the series.
After that impressive rookie season, Wakefield struggled and lost his control the next season. He lost his rotation spot and eventually was sent down to the minors. He spent the majority of the following season in triple A where he also struggled, leading the league in losses, home runs allowed and walks allowed.
The Pirates subsequently gave up on the Wakefield and released him in April of 1995. Despite having little success in two straight seasons, the Boston Red Sox signed him just six days after being released.
After working with the Niekro brothers on his knuckleball, Wakefield regained his form and went on to win 16 games for the Red Sox in 95 and finish third in Cy Young voting.
He went on to pitch 17 seasons with the Red Sox including 2 World Series championships in 04 and 07.
You cannot really blame the Pirates for releasing him, as he had shown little signs of being able to control his pitches, or have much effectiveness at all. He looked like a flash in the pan that could not sustain a major league career, but Wakefield never gave up.
There are other stories out there that are similar, for example Rick Ankiel, the pitcher who lost his control and fought his way back to the majors as an outfielder, but Wakefield was special. His career should be defined by more than just his famous knuckleball pitch. He should also be remembered as a guy who when things looked as if they were close to the end would always find a way back.