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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Two great Tim Wakefield stories you probably have not heard

Since it appears that the Tim Wakefield era in Boston may be nearing its last hours, I thought it might be an appropriate time to tip my hat to one of my favorite all-time Red Sox by sharing two stories that show what kind of guy he is away from the field.

Wakefield came to the Sox in the spring of 1995, when Monica Lewinsky was a new intern at the White House and Jose Canseco was taking aim at the Coke bottles atop the Green Monster. Everybody knows what Wake did that summer -- starting his Boston career with a 14-1 mark and leading the Sox into the playoffs -- and even when his stats were far less gaudy in the 17 years that followed, he was a very valuable guy to have around. He started, closed, pitched long relief -- whatever the team needed.
In October of 2004, in the dismal final innings of Game 3 of the ALCS, I was among those shivering from behind the home dugout as Wake took one for the team and ate up precious innings during a 19-8 Yankees blowout. Those of us left when that game ended gave him a standing ovation, and by giving up his Game 4 start so others could rest, Tim paved the way for the eight straight wins that came next.

But you know all that stuff. Here's what you might not know. A few months later, the World Series trophy made one of its first stops on its all-New England winter/spring 2005 tour at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI). The Red Sox and Dana-Farber's Jimmy Fund charity have a relationship going back nearly 60 years, which I've been lucky enough to be part of since '99 as a DFCI staff member. This was one of my greatest memories from that long tenure, for it was Wakefield who came to the hospital bearing the trophy. I was one of his tour guides as we strode onto a back-entrance elevator, and a few minutes later emerged in the Jimmy Fund Clinic -- surprising many pediatric cancer patients who were waiting for shots, chemotherapy, and other treatment.
For a few minutes these kids got to forget all about their cancer, as Wakefield walked around the room slowly and bent down so every patient no matter how small could get a good look at the trophy and his face. I've seen dozens of celebrities work this same room, and most of them go through quickly with a smile and a wave. Tim took time to stop and make every child and parent feel like he really cared about them. The youngest kids didn't even know who he was, but he was a big smiling man with a shiny trophy, so they were happy.

We expected the visit to end after this, but Wakefield asked if he could stay and visit with adult patients as well. This time there were some tears among the smiles, as people who had waited 20, 30, 50 years or more for a Red Sox championship suddenly had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to thank one of the guys who helped make it happen. It certainly wasn't how they expected their day at the hospital to go.

Our photographer took dozens of photos, of course, but as is our policy I stood out of the way no matter how tempting it was to sneak into the frame. After all, I had waited 37 years myself for a World Series title. Wake must have sensed this, for after he was finally done shaking hands and doling out hugs, he was about to breeze out to a waiting Town Car when he turned around and said, "Hey, do you want a picture?" He didn't have to ask me twice, and just like that I had my own memento from that memorable morning.
Fast forward to the summer of 2008. The teenagers from the Jimmy Fund Clinic were taking their annual baseball  road trip to see the Red Sox play away from Fenway -- this time in Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field. These trips are a chance for kids to share laughs and war stories with peers who know what they are going through, because they're going through it as well. Baseball, like cancer, is a common bond.

As is usually the custom, the teens came out to the ballpark early to meet with some Sox players before batting practice. Wakefield was always one of the guys who made the most time for kids during these sessions, and this day was no exception. He walked over to the railing separating the stands from the field and started chatting with the young fans.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a bald-headed kid with crutches hopping on one leg about 10 rows back. It was clear that this boy, who had lost a leg four months due to bone cancer, was not going to be able to traverse down the steep stairs needed to meet Wakefield and his other heroes. Again Tim did what came naturally -- he vaulted over the railing into the stands, ran up the stairs, grabbed the grinning 15-year-old, and literally carried him down on his back to the front row so he could hang with his friends and the players. Wakefield went just 10-11 that summer, but that day he was Sandy Koufax and Walter Johnson wrapped into one.

"Every time I walk out to the mound and see that Jimmy Fund emblem on the Green Monster, I am reminded of the special role the team has played in helping fight cancer since Ted Williams was visiting with patients at Dana-Farber back in the 1950s," Wake once told me. "I'm proud to be a part of it." It certainly always showed.

So now it might all be over -- with Wake stuck on 186 Red Sox wins and apparently destined to finish runner-up to Clemens and Cy Young (tied at 192) atop Boston's all-time victory list. It's frustrating to think that for many fans, their last memories of the ancient knuckleballer will be his long, painful march to his 200th career win last year and his one unfortunate quote in nearly 20 years (one I am guessing may have been taken out of context anyway). They should remember all the good days he had while representing Boston with class and guts, and also know that when it came to delivering off the mound, Wake was in a league of his own.

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