The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the 1992 season as two-time defending National League East champions. Back then, both the AL and NL had just two divisions, East and West, and the playoffs consisted of a single Championship Series pitting the division winners of each league; the winners of the LCSs would then face off in the World Series. No wild-card teams, no play-in games, no divisional series, just two teams in each league facing each other for the pennant and then the World Series. The Pirates had lost the NLCS in 1990 to the Reds, and then they lost the NLCS again in 1991 to the Atlanta Braves. They lost some talent after 1991–most notably, Bobby Bonilla–and not many people penciled them in for another division crown in 1992.

But somehow, the Pirates managed to surge early to a lead in the division, which they somehow maintained throughout the season, though in the middle of the season, through July and the All-Star break, it looked like their lead was in trouble. The Montreal Expos were breathing down their necks (partly because of the play of Moises Alou, a former top Pirates prospect that the Pirates dealt to the Expos two years earlier for pitching help), the bullpen wasn’t doing terribly well because for all their talent the Pirates never managed to find or develop a true closer, and the rotation was two really good guys (Doug Drabek, Zane Smith) and a few other OK guys.

Meanwhile, down in the minors, there was a first baseman who occupied his downtime by practicing throwing a knuckleball, one of the strangest of all baseball pitches. When this guy was told straight-out that he would, at best, plateau as a position player no higher than AA ball, he decided to try reinventing himself as a pitcher, with the knuckleball as his main pitch. He didn’t have much other than the knuckleball, to be honest; his fastball speed was never above 80mph, so he was never going to overpower hitters at the plate. No, it was knuckleball-to-the-majors or bust. He made the conversion to pitcher and started toiling away in the minors as a full-time pitcher in 1990.

Knuckleball-to-the-majors or bust, indeed.

It worked.

He made it to the majors on July 31, 1992, when the Pirates decided that they needed some help in the rotation. Up came this weird knuckleballer, who proceeded to go 8-1 down the stretch for the Pirates, with a 2.15 ERA; his presence helped fortify the rotation and provided an exciting boost. The Pirates ended up winning the NL East handily, and went on to face the Braves again in the NLCS.

Honestly, it felt like the run was over very quickly; the Braves took a three-games-to-one series lead–but the one game was a complete game thrown by this rookie knuckleballer who managed to out-duel Tom Glavine, one of the game’s best pitchers and a future Hall-of-Famer. Suddenly everybody knew who this kid was.

His name was Tim Wakefield.

The knuckleball, if you’re unfamiliar, is a very strange pitch. Every other pitch–fastball, slider, curveball, you name it–relies on spin to control the ball’s trajectory. The knuckleball, so named because of the weird grip used to throw it, negates all of that. The idea is the throw the ball with no spin, so that the ball might do anything on its trajectory to the plate. If it’s thrown right, it might start off looking like this big fat old baseball moving slowly into the hitter’s zone…and then drop suddenly, one way or the other, as the hitter swings. Or it might look like it’s going to drop and then not drop, so the hitter either doesn’t correct or doesn’t swing at all. Or…you get the idea. The knuckleball is an unpredictable beast, and since most athletes at that level rely on predictable results from muscle memory, nobody wants to work with a pitch that relies on total randomness. In Wakefield’s first game in that NLCS, Braves hitters–a potent lineup including David Justice entering his prime–were made to look like inept Little Leaguers.

The Pirates won Game Five, behind a complete game by pitcher Bob Walk, setting up Tim Wakefield to go again in Game Six, on three days’ rest (the knuckleball’s other main grace is that it puts very little strain on a pitcher’s arm), again facing Tom Glavine. The series was back in Atlanta for the last two games, all Atlanta had to do was win one to return to the World Series. Surely there was no way this rookie knuckleballer was going to beat the future HOFer again.

Tim Wakefield beat Glavine again. He threw another complete game, his second of the NLCS. The Pirates, who had trailed the NLCS 3-1, now tied it up, 3-3, with Game Seven to come.

It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that the Pirates’ three wins had all been complete games. Everyone knew that the bullpen was not great and that all bets were off if the starter got knocked out. Doug Drabek, the staff ace who had won the Cy Young Award two years earlier, went out and shut the Braves down for eight innings.

And then, the ninth inning happened.

I’m not going to relate the specifics of that inning; suffice it to say that the Braves managed to get Drabek out of the game, the Pirates’ lack of a closer reared its ugly head in exactly the worst way at exactly the worst time, some backup “whodat” catcher came up with the pinch-hit of his life, Gold-Glover and Best Ever Barry Bonds couldn’t manage to throw out at home a guy who couldn’t outrun a rock…well, that’s a lot of specifics after I said I wasn’t going to relate any, but the bottom of the 9th of Game Seven of the 1992 World Series might well be the most galling memory of my sports-fan life. That one may actually hurt more than “Wide right”. (Google it, if you don’t get the reference.)

After 1992, the Pirates entered a salary purge. Bonds and others were gone, and when 1993 dawned, there were a bunch of rookies up with the club and Wakefield–who had finished third in Rookie-of-the-Year voting just the year before–found himself anointed as Opening Day starter, staff ace, and all of that. It was probably too much for him, and he spent most of the next two years bouncing back down to the minors before the Pirates gave up after the 1994 season. Wakefield ended up with the Boston Red Sox, where he successfully worked his way back into an MLB rotation–and he was a damned good one. He had a couple of really good years, and a whole bunch of solid years, riding that knuckleball all the way to a career that spanned 19 seasons and saw him make crucial contributions to two World Series winning teams.

Tim Wakefield retired after the 2011 season. He’s a fond memory for Pirates fans, but he’s beloved by Red Sox fans, and with good reason. Yes, I wish the Pirates hadn’t screwed up the team when he was there, but getting out of Pittsburgh was the best thing for him as the 1993 Pirates were starting a run of losing baseball that would last more than two decades. Consider: Wakefield came up as a rookie in 1992 during the Pirates’ playoff run that year…and then he played out his entire 19-year career and retired before the Pirates finally made the playoffs again, two years later.

Tim Wakefield died yesterday, aged 57.

Make sure you read Sheila’s post; she comes at it from a Red Sox fan’s vantage point. No doubt more satisfying than a Pirates’ fan’s remembrance, but that’s how baseball goes. Many players start one place and then blossom in another. It happens, a lot. It certainly happened for Tim Wakefield.

It turned out that he had been suffering a very aggressive form of brain cancer. The public wasn’t even supposed to know about this, but his former teammate, Curt Schilling, decided to take it on himself to ignore Wakefield’s and his family’s wishes and reveal Wakefield’s condition on his podcast last week. (Schilling may well have Ty Cobb to thank for keeping him out of first place for Worst Person To Ever Play Major League Baseball.)

Tim Wakefield is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and looking at things from a strictly statistical standpoint, I suppose that’s the right decision…but then, I remember what I wrote last year when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick retired from the NFL:

But I submit that it’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats. The Hall of Fame does not exist merely to honor numerical excellence. I’m a storyteller, and stories are why I love the Hall of Fame–in fact, stories are what I love most about sports in general. Who doesn’t love sitting with friends around a beer or two, swapping stories about great games and great players or even players who weren’t so great but had some great moments?

We don’t love sports because of stats. Stats help and they’re fun in themselves, but stats aren’t what connect us to sports at the most basic level. Stories are why we connect with sports: stories that we can share, stories that we recall collectively, stories that bind us together in fandom either in love for this team or, yes, hatred for that team or player, the one that always drives in the knife.

I stand by that. Yes, baseball is about numbers, probably moreso than any other sport; when you play that many games in a season and when there have been that many seasons–more than a hundred of them!–then numbers become part of the way we talk about the game more than for any other games. But still, numbers aren’t everything. Numbers offer a shorthand to talking about the game, a way of quantifying greatness…but they don’t capture the game. As I wrote in another post:

You can’t look at a box score and tell how blue the sky was that day, or what it smelled like in the park because maybe the breeze was coming from the lake or the industrial park the other way (in Buffalo, with the cereal plants downtown, it often smells of Cheerios). A box score won’t tell you how scuffed up the first baseman’s jersey is after several close plays, or how the catcher is still trying to work off the gimpy ankle from that play at the plate last Tuesday night. The box score won’t tell you the crowd’s mood: Are they giddy and jubilant, or are they kind of grumblingly negative because the team’s having a rough season and they’re sarcastically cheering the guy hitting .197 who just managed to leg out a weak grounder safely to first?

The box score won’t tell you if the players are attacking an early season game with vigor, or if they are visibly just playing out the last few weeks of the schedule, mired in fifth place and just wanting nothing more than to go home and rest for about a month. The box score will tell you that a particular player homered in the sixth, but it won’t tell you that he was on a hot streak and he came up against a tiring pitcher who probably should have already been pulled and who had of late been surrendering homers to right-handed hitters at a surprising rate for a guy who, up to a few weeks before, had been almost unhittable.

Numbers are great and important and useful…but they are also a flattening force, a force that tends to flatten out story. A baseball player who collects more than 3000 career hits is almost guaranteed a spot in the Hall of Fame…but is that all that player does? All I really know about Robin Yount is that he hat 3000 hits in his career. That’s numbers: for me they reduce a Hall of Fame player to a guy who had roughly 150 hits a year over his 20-year career.

But, what if I ask a person who has been a Milwaukee Brewers fan their whole life, “Hey! Tell me about Robin Yount?” Then, I’m not going to hear about 3000 hits. Then, I’m going to hear stories.

Sport isn’t just numbers, it’s also stories. I think that’s why we follow sport so adamantly as a species–well, partly, anyway. I don’t want to discount numbers, after all. But numbers aren’t the whole story.

Yes, I stand by all of that, as well. One common thing that I hear often in Hall of Fame discussions when players come up whose statistical accomplishments seem to make them a borderline candidates is, “Can you tell the story of the sport without mentioning this person?” And I suppose, depending on how deep you want to go, maybe you can tell the story of Major League Baseball, or the last thirty years of it, without mentioning the Tim Wakefields of the game…but it’s the Tim Wakefields of the game who flesh out the stories, who make them live. Every sports fan talks about their team’s Hall-of-Famers…but I wonder if it’s the not-quite-HOF guys that sports fans actually prefer to talk about. I wonder if they’re the ones whose stories summon up those knowing smiles and the twinkles in the eyes of the people who know.

I’ll always be a stories-over-stats person. It’s in my nature. And though he may not be in the Hall of Fame, but Tim Wakefield is in mine.


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One Response to Wake

  1. Roger says:

    hen Grant Wahl, the soccer reporter, died, I felt much worse about his passing the more I learned about him than I did when I first learned about his death. It’s the same with Tim Wakefield, whose charity work The Boston Globe extolled.

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