John Tomase

What the irascible, lovable Tim Wakefield was like behind the scenes

John Tomase shares his favorite memories of the beloved Red Sox knuckleballer from his years on the beat.

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As the shock sets in over the loss of Tim Wakefield -- former teammates saw him only last week and were preparing to support him through his fight with brain cancer -- those who knew him best are fondly recalling the lovable old curmudgeon.

Here are a few Wake stories I picked up over the years to provide a little taste into what he was like in the clubhouse.

-- In 2017, I was hosting a weekend show on WEEI and we asked for callers' most beloved Boston athlete -- not the best, but the guy they most respected.

We didn't steer the conversation in one direction or another, but calls started pouring in with tales of Wakefield's selflessness, visiting someone in a hospital, getting a sick relative onto the field during batting practice, etc.

He won in a surprising landslide, and late in the segment, my phone buzzed.

"Thx," he wrote. "That's really nice."

-- Wakefield loved playing the grizzled veteran hazing hapless rookies. A particular target was a young Dustin Pedroia, who was expected to cart around a cooler of beer even as Pedroia was putting together a Rookie of the Year season in 2007.

The rookie code is to just shut your mouth and take it, but since when did that description fit Pedroia? He finally decided he had had enough on a team flight and screamed back, "Got it, man, but just let me know -- when do I get to hit off you?!"

Wakefield loved Pedroia for the rest of his career.

-- A young fan in 2009 asked a confused Rob Bradford of for an autograph during spring training. "Aren't you Tim Wakefield?" they asked. The rest of us were giddy at the prospect of telling Wake the next day he had been mistaken for a sportswriter, basically racing to his locker.

Wake was alternately amused and horrified.

"You're kidding me," was all he could muster, while giving Bradford an extended look up and down, unimpressed. "No."

-- Wakefield loved NESN's Don Orsillo. The two made a commercial together early in Orsillo's career, and the long-time broadcaster credited Wakefield with helping him come out of his shell and show his personality, which saved his career. 

During one of the periodic rough stretches that came with being a knuckleballer, Wakefield gave up a mammoth homer to Brewers outfielder Corey Hart. Orsillo's call was simply one word: "WOW!" As he recalled later, the ball was still climbing when it passed the light tower.

The next day, Orsillo arrived at the park to find a disapproving Wakefield waiting for him with his arms crossed and one eyebrow arched.

"Wow?" he said. "Really?"

-- The Red Sox clubhouse was dead silent after the shocking Aaron Boone loss in 2003. The only sound once reporters cleared out was Wakefield sobbing at his locker, distraught at surrendering the homer, even though he had otherwise pitched heroically that entire series. One by one, teammates, coaches and executives filed by to console him, as crushed for him as they were over losing.

Fast forward a year, and the Red Sox are raising the World Series trophy in St. Louis. Johnny Damon makes a point of handing it to Wakefield, who has waited the longest to win it.

A smile plastered permanently to his face, Wakefield makes the rounds and thanks every person imaginable, from ownership to clubbies, for helping him finally win a ring.

-- Speaking of 2004, when the Red Sox were getting killed by the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS, Wakefield donned his spikes and volunteered to give manager Terry Francona some innings, even though he was scheduled to start Game 4. Wakefield said it was a lesson he learned from Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough, that a knuckleballer should always be ready to go.

Wakefield ended up going 3 1/3 innings, and the big three in the bullpen – Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, and closer Keith Foulke – only had to throw 14 pitches between them (all by Embree), leaving them fresh enough for the final four games.

Manager Terry Francona has long credited Wakefield's selflessness not only with saving the bullpen, but re-energizing himself not to give up on the series.

-- Wakefield often seemed as much at a loss to explain his signature pitch as the rest of us. During a long conversation, he once laid out some of his likes and dislikes. He loved throwing in domes because the air was still, contrary to the popular belief that a little wind would help the ball move even more.

He loved facing guys with short, compact swings – in other words, typically the best hitters in the game – because the knuckleball just completely confounded them. Hall of Famers Adrian Beltre (0 for 19) and Edgar Martinez (1 for 19) were but two examples.

The hitters who wore him out, however, weren't the ones you'd think. "I struggle against guys with long swings," Wakefield said. "They're on time against me."

That meant he got hit pretty good by the likes of Travis Lee (.353), Aaron Rowand (.550), and old friend Kevin Millar (.406). But the guy he particularly hated to face was Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, who went 12 for 25 with five homers lifetime. "Long swing, and he hits everything," Wakefield said.

-- A good soldier, Wake didn't love being jerked between the bullpen and rotation. He was known to grumble about his changing roles, and the PR staff used to ride me for revving him up. "Stop talking to him!" was a frequent admonition.

But Wakefield was a pro. At the end of the day, he took the ball every time he was asked, no matter the situation. The complaints were part of the package. At his core, he was nothing other than lovable.

-- Just a little thing, but one of the most common clubhouse sights would be to open the door and see Wakefield sitting cross-legged at his locker doing a crossword, a pair of readers perched on his nose. It was hard to tell if he was a big leaguer, or a science teacher who also coached linebackers.

-- I mentioned this in my appreciation on Sunday, but I sat next to him on the dais at the Boston Baseball Writer's dinner in 2004, when he might've been the only player to show up, and he couldn't have been friendlier.

His wife, Stacy, hailed from Brockton and I grew up in nearby Mansfield, so we chatted about that little corner of the world, from Rocky Marciano to Marvin Hagler to former Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan, who had bought the local sporting goods store in my hometown from Rocky's brother. This was a good 20 years ago, and even then, Wakefield liked the idea of settling here when his career was over.

-- Before air travel became a constant nightmare, nothing mattered more to a beat writer than making your flight on getaway day. Wakefield was money, just money. We never worried about making our flights, because he would inevitably give us a game in like 2:35, and we let him know it.

"You like me even better than <redacted>?" he joked of a slow-working teammate -- of which he had many!

-- My favorite Wakefield start came on Sept.11, 2005, a Sunday afternoon in Yankee Stadium vs. Randy Johnson. Wakefield made one mistake – a first-inning curveball that Jason Giambi just barely kept fair for a solo homer – and that was it.

The Yankees prevailed 1-0 in the clash of styles that turned into an incredible pitcher's duel. Wakefield struck out 12 over eight three-hit innings, flummoxing the hosts with his signature flutterball, and Johnson countered by allowing just one hit in seven innings.

Years later, I could still bring up that game with him, and he still lamented that curveball.

Oh, and one other thing. Time of game: 2:29. I made my train home with an hour to spare.

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