In addition to being a perfect post-heatwave afternoon at Fenway, Sunday's Red Sox-Mariners matchup gave fans several opportunities to cheer on the most popular 65 mph pitcher in team history: Tim Wakefield.
Perhaps the most telling cheers of the afternoon, however, came when Wake was removed from the game an inning later. He had given up three consecutive singles with two outs in the seventh, then allowed a towering grand slam over the Green Monster to the immortal Brendan Ryan. Boston's lead had been sliced from a laughable 11-3 to a not-such-a-sure-thing 11-7, and Tito had no choice but to take out the 44-year-old righty. As Wakefield started his slow walk back to the dugout, the clapping started low and built to a pitch that matched anything heard after the previous inning's milestone. Sheepishly, he tipped his hat again just before reaching the steps.
As I joined in the reverie from my third base seats, I couldn't help but be reminded of another time when Wakefield earned accolades for a less-than-perfect performance. On the windy, chilly, miserable night of Oct. 16, 2004, when the Red Sox were in the midst of a brutal 19-8 loss to the Yankees that brought them to the brink of ALCS elimination, it was Wakefield who "took one for the team" and allowed five runs in a fast-emptying Fenway while the rest of the bullpen rested. The applause we gave him that night was more subdued, for sure, but offered up with no less respect or gratitude. And in the end, of course, Wake's act of self-sacrifice allowed the Sox to trot out several strong arms over the next two extra-inning contests and begin their Comeback for the Ages.
Is Tim Wakefield one of the best pitchers in Red Sox history? Certainly not. Has he been one of the most valuable members of the club since the Clinton administration? Absolutely. Whether spot-starting, long relieving, jumping into a regular rotation spot, or even closing (remember that?), he goes wherever he is needed and gives the team innings and effort. Whether or not he gets the 7 wins he needs to catch Clemens and Cy Young atop the franchise leaderboard is immaterial; the guy who is the MVP of the Jimmy Fund Clinic and the first Boston player to earn the coveted Roberto Clemente Award for "representing the game of baseball through sportsmanship, community involvement, and positive contributions to [his] club" is someone you are proud to root for. These days in sports, that's not so easy to find.
And that's why we cheer him, no matter the outcome. Wake is a guy you'd like in your foxhole.
Do you have a favorite Wakefield moment? Let's hear about it.