09/15/09 12:00 AM ET
As a leader, no one better than Wakefield
Knuckler's teammates in awe of veteran, on and off diamond
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
Though that will be the ultimate statistical proof of what Wakefield has meant to the Red Sox for all these years, those who have observed him throughout his 15 years in Boston don't need such tangible evidence to realize what the knuckleballer has meant to a team and a community.
All-time wins leader for a storied franchise? That will be a laudable accomplishment, for sure. In truth, however, Wakefield has long been a leader.
"I just see him as an absolute professional," said Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler, who played with Wakefield in Boston for four seasons. "He's very dependable. He's a really, really good teammate, from top to bottom. He's the kind of guy you want to have around you in the clubhouse. He's very knowledgeable. I have nothing but great things to say about him. I see him as a guy who is perfect for young pitchers to emulate as it relates to being a professional on and off the field."
Who did Wakefield absorb his leadership lessons from?
"I think early on, my father. Growing up, watching him work for a living and supporting my sister and I and my mom," said Wakefield. "And my college coach Les Hall, who taught me not only how to be a leader, but how to be a man growing up from the age of 18 to 22. And then, in the Minor Leagues, various managers and pitching coaches throughout my career really taught me how to be a leader."
This year, Wakefield has even managed to lead by example while being shelved for much of the second half with a troublesome back injury. There is a loose fragment in Wakefield's lower back that has turned his walk into a limp, and that is why he will probably pitch every 10 days for the remainder of the season.
"He can't run," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "It's tough on him. He's battling for us and we know that. We appreciate it."
Wakefield could have opted for surgery, effectively ending his season. If the 43-year-old Wakefield had done so, nobody would have questioned it. Wakefield was recently asked if he would have shut it down had the Red Sox not been fighting for a postseason berth.
|"I just see him as an absolute professional. He's very dependable. He's a really, really good teammate, from top to bottom. He's the kind of guy you want to have around you in the clubhouse. He's very knowledgeable. I have nothing but great things to say about him. I see him as a guy who is perfect for young pitchers to emulate as it relates to being a professional on and off the field."|
|-- Gabe Kapler, on Tim Wakefield|
"No," said Wakefield. "I wouldn't shut it down unless I absolutely have to. I'd still be pitching."
In Wakefield's mind, he gets paid to pitch. So if there's any way he can physically do so, he will.
"Sometimes it's hard to watch knowing that he knows he can't make a particular play [covering first]," said Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz. "But then to still see him go out there and get up and down after three outs and get back out there and still battle, I can honestly say that 90 percent of the players wouldn't be able to go out there and do what he's doing with the stuff he's going through, so it's really neat to watch."
Players can get a thorough education in the right way to do things just by observing Wakefield on a daily basis.
"When I came up here two years ago, I didn't know how to go about talking to him, because he's been in the game a long time and I've watched him pitch a whole lot," said Buchholz. "He's all about business here and whenever there's the time to joke around, he can joke around with you and have fun with you. I just have the utmost respect for him."
Though Wakefield has never been a rah-rah type, he has a presence and a touch of class that permeates through the clubhouse and beyond.
"He sets the standard for our players, and for all of us, as people," Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino once said. "He uses his popularity and prominence the best possible way: to make his community and our world a better, kinder, more humane place. I wish we had 25 players with his perspective and maturity. We are really proud to have him wear 'Boston' on his uniform."
"To me, he's as steady as they come in terms of his demeanor," Kapler said. "This is the kind of market that will expose guys over a long period of time, and he's the kind of guy that really is easy to watch and easy to pull for all the way through."
In a transient era when players almost inevitably are traded or sign somewhere else, Wakefield has managed to be one of the few who has established a clear identity of pitching for the Red Sox. His two seasons in Pittsburgh (1992-93) almost seem like they were in a previous lifetime.
"I'm very lucky to put on this uniform every day and to be able to wear the same one for such a long period of time," said Wakefield. "I'm living out my dream that I had as a child, and I think a lot of these other kids have dreams of their own. If I can help them try to fulfill these dreams, it's something that should be done."
One of the clearest signs of Wakefield's uniqueness came in 2005, when he was negotiating a new contract with the Red Sox. In an age when players test the free-agent market to measure their value, Wakefield instead decided to sign a $4 million extension that included additional club options at that same value for as many years as he wanted to pitch.
Each November, exercising Wakefield's option is as close to a no-brainer as Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has. While the starting-pitching market has continued to boom since Wakefield signed that deal, he has never once second-guessed the unique arrangement that all but insures that his final pitch in the Major Leagues will be for the Red Sox.
|"He sets the standard for our players, and for all of us, as people. He uses his popularity and prominence the best possible way: to make his community and our world a better, kinder, more humane place. I wish we had 25 players with his perspective and maturity. We are really proud to have him wear 'Boston' on his uniform."|
|-- Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino, on Tim Wakefield|
"My hometown in Florida, I grew up and was raised there and still live there in the offseason," said Wakefield. "But to be able to call this place home also says a lot about the organization and allowing me to stay here for such a long period of time. I met my wife here, my wife is from here. Both my kids were born here. It really is my home away from home, so to speak. I've dug my roots in pretty deep here and plan on staying here for a long time."
Last year, Wakefield led the Red Sox in community appearances with 31. He will be right up there for the top spot again this year. By staying with the Red Sox, the Wakefield Warriors program has been able to go on for more than a decade.
Before each Tuesday home game, Wakefield has young patients from the Jimmy Fund and Franciscan Hospital trail him around during the game, be it on the field during batting practice or meeting some of the other stars on the team behind closed doors.
"It's a program I started back in '98 after I had been here for a couple of years. I wanted to give back to the community that had supported me through my first four years of my career here," Wakefield said.
He also continues to help out in his original home of Melbourne, Fla., raising money and awareness for the Space Coast Early Intervention Center, a non-profit preschool that offers care for kids with special needs.
"I got involved with that back before I was even in the Major Leagues," Wakefield said. "I was in the Minor Leagues and the director and her husband, they had a child with Down Syndrome and they started the school with three kids. They would have softball tournaments, and in the offseason, I would help, whether it be umpiring softball games or working in the concession stand just to try to raise money. I fell in love with the program and what their mission was. I told them that if I ever made it to the big leagues, we would get involved and have a charity golf tournament. It happened in 1992 and we've been doing it ever since."
Be it on the mound or in the community, Wakefield just keeps chugging along. Who does Wakefield think of these days when "leader" is mentioned?
"There's a lot," he said. "Jason Varitek is obviously the captain of our team. Going around the league, Derek Jeter is the epitome of leadership for the New York Yankees. The President of the United States is one of our top leaders, obviously. I think our manager, Terry Francona, is a great leader. He gets the most out of every player on this team and does it the right way."
Francona is just one of many around the Red Sox grateful to have Wakefield around.
"He's meant so much," Francona said. "Not just to Major League Baseball but to the Red Sox, for sure."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.