Tim Wakefield With the Pirates in 1992

Here’s the Associated Press describing Wakefield’s first game, for the Pirates against the Cardinals, on July 31, 1992:

Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield pitched a complete-game six-hitter and struck out 10 in his major league debut as the Pittsburgh Pirates beat St. Louis, 3-2, tonight, and moved back into sole possession of first place in the National League East.

Wakefield, a right-hander who will be 26 on Sunday, walked five and threw three wild pitches. He was the fourth rookie pitcher to make his Pirates debut this week, and he got to do it in front of his family at Three Rivers Stadium.

Wakefield, a former first baseman who converted to pitching in 1989, matched the Pirates’ season strikeout high, set by Doug Drabek on May 30 against San Francisco.

“I had relatives and friends here from Florida, D.C., North Carolina, they were all here for the big debut,” said Wakefield, whose locker was covered with congratulatory balloons. “I’m glad I could stick around long enough to give them something to see. Really, I wasn’t nervous except for the first pitch. I just stepped off the mound and looked around and saw Andy Van Slyke in center and Barry Bonds in left and Chico Lind at second. . . . That always makes a pitcher feel better.”

Wakefield was the first Pirate to pitch a complete-game victory in his major league debut since Randy Tomlin against Philadelphia on Aug. 6, 1990.

Tom Candiotti and Wakefield are the only N.L. pitchers who rely on the knuckler, but Cardinals Manager Joe Torre said they’re completely different.

“Candiotti throws a lot more curveballs than knuckleballs and this kid’s a legitimate knuckleballer,” said Torre, who used to catch Phil Niekro in Atlanta. “A good knuckleball is very difficult to hit.”

The Pirates’ victory, combined with Montreal’s loss to Philadelphia, gave Pittsburgh a one-game lead in the N.L. East.

Barry Bonds and Jay Bell homered off Jose DeLeon (2-7), who had replaced Donovan Osborne in the Cardinals’ rotation. DeLeon allowed all three runs and five hits in five innings, walked four and struck out two. He fell to 3-7 against Pittsburgh, his former team. The Cardinals, meanwhile, dug themselves deeper into fifth place in the divison, 6 1/2 games behind the Pirates.

Bonds hit his 20th home run of the season in the first after Alex Cole’s leadoff walk. No other Pirate has more than eight homers.

A few days later the New York Times followed up:

It is easy for him to picture his life without the knuckleball. He would be in Florida, probably near Melbourne, where he grew up and where his parents still live. He would have one of those nine-to-five jobs that come with an undergraduate business degree.

“Not always in life do you get a second chance,” Wakefield said. “I wasn’t playing well. I would have been released.”

A Pitcher’s Swing

After a poor-hitting start to his minor league career, Wakefield was given a choice: He could trade in first base for a shot at becoming a pitcher, or he could get ready for a bus ride back home. That was the summer of 1989. He had hit .189 in instructional league ball, sat on the bench most of the time since. Though hitting was his first love, he decided to pitch.

Pirates Manager Jim Leyland committed himself to keeping Wakefield in the rotation after tonight’s game. Wakefield, a right-hander who throws a wicked knuckleball, is a converted infielder — he was kept in the Pirates’ system solely because a rookie league manager once saw him messing around with a knuckleball during infield practice — and he has an average fastball at best. But Leyland plans to keep him. Even if it gives him an ulcer and makes him lose all his hair.

“If they want me to manage a knuckleballer, they’d better extend me for five more years,” Leyland said. “He keeps this up, I’m going to look like Telly Savalas.”

Even though his knuckler wasn’t working as well as it could have tonight — just ask catcher Don Slaught, who did some serious sweating — Wakefield racked up seven strikeouts and gave up only two earned runs, his first in the majors, on seven hits. Twice, in the third and eighth innings, he worked his way out of a bases-loaded situation, in the third by striking out Dave Magadan, looking on a knuckleball that was moving so much that Slaught couldn’t keep it in his mitt.

“It’s an oddball pitch, that’s why there are so few people who throw it,” Slaught said. “It’s tough to catch, and tough for a manager to sit and watch.”

Knucklers Aren’t Pretty

Leyland and Slaught aren’t the only ones to dread contact with a knuckleballer. Not many like the pitch. Not even some of the pitchers who throw it. Like Wakefield, for instance.

“There’s all this machoism in baseball,” Wakefield said. “Machoism for a pitcher is to want to throw the ball hard. Well, God didn’t bless me with a 95-mile-per-hour fastball. I have to go with what I have, and that’s the knuckleball. It doesn’t matter how ugly it looks as long as it gets the job done.”

A few months earlier, back in May 1992, the Times had reported on how Wakefield became a pitcher:

Two years ago TIM WAKEFIELD was a 23-year-old light-hitting first baseman for a Welland, Ontario, team in the Class A New York-Penn League whose future in baseball seemed dim.

Because injuries swept the staff, and because he had been seen fooling around with a curveball, Wakefield went to the mound but without much enthusiasm.

“When they put an infielder on the mound, it’s like they’re putting you out to pasture,” he told The Buffalo News recently. “They’re saying you don’t have what it takes to get to the big leagues.”

Wakefield could get there now. He has become that rarity, an accomplished knuckleball pitcher with control, and after three starts with the Buffalo Bisons of the American Associaton he had a 1-0 record and a 1.50 earned run average.

How many knuckleball pitchers are there in the major leagues?

Just two, CHARLIE HOUGH of the Chicago White Sox and TOM CANDIOTTI of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The radar scope catches Wakefield’s knuckler at about 66 miles an hour, his alleged fastball at 84 m.p.h. It’s the difference that matters.

Published in: on August 12, 2009 at 11:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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