It is fitting that Tim Wakefield throws the slowest pitch in baseball, because no major leaguer better represents the Tortoise. Slowly and surely, one knuckleball at a time, Wakefield has become, perhaps, the most unlikely legend in Red Sox history.
And, on Friday night, the Tortoise will pass the Rocket. Then on Sunday -- at age 42 -- he may finally reach the Stars.
"Not bad for a guy who didn't make it as a minor league infielder and was waived by the Pirates," says Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon, a former Red Sox teammate of Wakefield.
Not bad at all. In fact, it actually is pretty darn good. Wakefield will take his warmups against the Mariners and sometime around 7:10 p.m. ET Friday he will throw his first pitch. Those in attendance at Fenway Park will probably stand and cheer that simple act, a fluttering 70 mph pitch delivered to Ichiro Suzuki.
The cheers will not be for the pitch. But for all the pitches that Wakefield has thrown as a Red Sox and all the batters he has faced and all that he has meant as a key figure in the transition from cursed team to two-time champion.
Suzuki will represent the 11,525th hitter to step into the box against Wakefield since he joined the Red Sox on a minor league contract in April 1995, six days after the Pirates could tolerate his wildness no more and released him. That pitch will begin Wakefield's 383rd start for Boston, breaking a tie with Roger Clemens and moving Wakefield into sole possession of first place on the franchise's all-time list and a little bit more into the hearts of Red Sox Nation.
"It is really impressive," Boston GM Theo Epstein says. "Sometimes it takes these milestones for Wake to get his due, because people, including us, are quick to take his contributions for granted."
And this might just be the beginning of an unforgettable Independence Day weekend for Wakefield. On Sunday the All-Star teams will be announced, and Wakefield is a borderline candidate. He is tied for the AL lead in wins at 10-3, but his ERA is 4.18 and the AL is loaded with excellent rotation candidates, including Kansas City's Zack Greinke, Detroit's Edwin Jackson, Seattle's Felix Hernandez, Toronto's Roy Halladay, Cleveland's Cliff Lee, the Angels' Jered Weaver and Wakefield's Boston teammate Josh Beckett.
But Wakefield might be helped by having a great story attached, one that's naturally tied to his persistence. If named to the AL team, Wakefield -- a month shy of his 43rd birthday -- would become the second-oldest player ever selected to his first major league All-Star Game. He would fall only behind Satchel Paige, who was named to the 1952 AL team for an All-Star Game that would be played one day after Paige's 46th birthday.
"I am pulling for him bad," says Alex Cora, a Mets' infielder and former teammate of Wakefield's. "This would not be a gift. He would have earned this. Besides, if they are scared of ever having a tie again, they should have no worries with him, Wake can pitch all night."
Wakefield has endeared himself to his teammates and his fan base. He was a failed infielder in Pittsburgh who learned the knuckleball to survive in pro ball. He had meteoric success in the early 1990s with the Pirates, only to fall backward just as quickly.
He was a surprise blessing who helped the 1995 Red Sox win the AL East and was furious when the organization left him off the ALCS roster in 1999, a year in which without rancor he went from starter to closer (when Tom Gordon got hurt) and then back to the rotation. He was probably going to be named the 2003 ALCS MVP until his first pitch of the 11th inning of Game 7, which Aaron Boone hit out to win the pennant for the Yankees.
But Wakefield is the Tortoise. And slowly and surely he kept inching forward, moving deeper and deeper into the Red Sox history books and the goodwill of a fan base.
Back in the ALCS in 2004, the Red Sox were getting crushed in Game 3 by the Yankees, about to fall down three-games-to-none. Boston was running out of pitchers. Wakefield was scheduled to start Game 4. "Tito [manager Terry Francona] looked down the bench and Wake had his spikes on, and Tito asked if he could pitch," recalls Arizona GM Josh Byrnes, then the Red Sox assistant GM. "Wake, of course, said he would." Wakefield understood that he was sacrificing his Game 4 start, but knew that a loss would leave Boston with only a longshot chance to win the series. So he absorbed 3 1/3 innings of punishment in a 19-8 defeat.
Two days later, in a lose-and-go home Game 5, Wakefield threw three shutout innings of relief, covering the 12th, 13th and 14th innings. He was the winning pitcher. The Red Sox rallied from the three-nothing hole. Beat the Yankees. Won it all. Ended the Curse.
Wakefield, married to a Boston girl by then, knew where he wanted to be, forever. So the following April his agent, Barry Meister, floated this concept: His client would take an undervalued contract of $4 million a year if the contract came with option for every year thereafter at the same dollar amount, meaning Wakefield would stay in Boston as long as both sides continued to like the arrangement. It was your basic infinity contract.
"In those negotiations he made it a priority to stay in Boston over the last dollar," Epstein says.
Damon says, "He cost himself a ton of money over the years, but that is where he loves playing. His heart is there."
He has outlasted an entire first round of excellent pitchers from his 1988 draft, such as Jim Abbott, Andy Benes, Alex Fernandez and Charles Nagy. He is here in Year 15 as a Red Sox player, teammates with Mo Vaughn and Clemens back when, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling on one champion, and Big Papi and Manny on another.
In this game of baseball Survivor, he has won. Not with the most skill, but with one slow pitch after another. He will live the rest of his life as a dignitary of Red Sox Nation and an omnipotent presence in Boston's record book. He got there like the Tortoise. Cheer on Friday night for the slow and steady.