Tim Wakefield's trip from first base to the mound began with 57 strikeouts and a .189 batting average. He compiled those rather undistinguished numbers swinging a bat, not throwing a ball.
07/27/2011 1:01 PM ET
Wakefield still holding strong
Red Sox knuckleballer is in his 19th big league season
By Bruce Lowitt / MLBPLAYERS.com
The Red Sox right-hander loved to fool around with the knuckleball at Eau Gallie High School and Florida Tech in Melbourne, Fla. And with the short-season Watertown Pirates after Pittsburgh drafted him in 1988.
And in 1989 at extended Spring Training in Bradenton, Fla., and with the Class-A Augusta Pirates and the Welland Pirates after they moved to Canada from Watertown.
The problem is that Wakefield was primarily a first baseman back then.
Woody Huyke, a Gulf Coast League manager for the Pirates for nearly three decades, was the first to notice Wakefield's knuckler in 1989.
"I was just goofing off in the outfield, but Woody said, 'Hey, that's pretty good. Let's give it a try on the mound after the game.' I threw for Woody and [pitching coach] Bruce Kison. Nothing else was said."
At Welland later in 1989, "I was playing first, third, second, wherever I could play as a utility guy," Wakefield said. "After the organizational meetings the Pirates came to me and said, 'We're going to make you into a pitcher -- and if you don't [want to], then go home.' "
He wasn't excited about the prospect.
"I'd only had a year in the Minor Leagues as a hitter, and I hadn't made the adjustments yet," Wakefield said. "But I was quickly persuaded to go to the instructional league that fall and was converted into a full-time pitcher."
He made his Major League debut with the Pirates on July 31, 1992, allowing two unearned runs and six hits in a complete game win over St. Louis.
"It was one of those games where you're in survival mode just trying to get through your first start," he said. "I feel like I've been that way ever since."
Wakefield went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA as a rookie but 6-11 with a 5.81 ERA the next season, losing nine in a row in May and June and spending most of July and August in the Minors.
"I just kind of lost my confidence, and they didn't know how to try and fix it," he said. "They sent me down to work with the pitching coaches I'd had the year prior to that."
It didn't help. Plus, there was postseason elbow surgery to clean out some bone chips, "and I never recovered from that," Wakfield said.
Wakefield spent all of 1994 with Triple-A Buffalo, desperately looking for answers. Nothing worked.
"Obviously," he said. "I was terrible. Our whole team was terrible."
Wakfield went 5-15 with a 5.84 ERA that season, and the team finished the year at 55-89.
The Pirates released him two weeks into Spring Training. "I called my agent on my drive home," Wakefield said. "He said I'd hear from him in a couple of days, to stay by the phone."
His agent, Bill Moore, had a close relationship with Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, who had been the Expos general manager in 1992 and remembered Wakefield helping the Pirates to the National League East championship.
The Red Sox signed him six days after his release and sent him to City of Palms Park, their Fort Myers, Fla., spring home where the Colorado Silver Bullets women's baseball team was training, coached by former knuckleballers Phil and Joe Niekro.
"I worked with them for about 10 days," Wakefield said. "It was nice to talk to someone who had done what I was trying to do. I kind of got my confidence back a little bit, went to [Triple-A] Pawtucket for three starts and got called up in May."
Seventeen seasons later, Wakefield is still serving up knuckleballs for the Red Sox. Along the way he has become the oldest active Major Leaguer.
He turns 45 on Aug. 2, about 8½ months ahead of White Sox infielder Omar Vizquel -- although Vizquel made his big league debut on April 3, 1989, more than three years ahead of Wakefield.
"Either way," Wakefield said, "We're dinosaurs, and I'm very proud to be a member of that club."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.