Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sports Memories I'll Tell My Grandkids About: Tim Wakefield, Fenway Park and My First Red Sox Game

Following my most recent visit to Fenway Park, I decided to sit down and make a list of all the major league baseball games I have ever attended. It was an exceedingly easy task, I discovered – despite my long-time geographical proximity to Boston, I have never liked visiting the city and don’t often make the effort to do so, two facts that kept me from seeing Fenway Park up close and personal until 1995 and have limited me to just six subsequent visits.

A lot of interesting stuff has happened in those seven games: Alex Rodriguez hit a homerun off Pedro Martinez. Devern Hansack held the Baltimore Orioles without a hit for five full innings. My wife stood on her seat and cheered as the benches emptied against the Yankees. Pedro and Roy Halladay engaged in a tense pitcher’s duel. Rickey Henderson played his final game at Fenway Park and received a car from Red Sox management. I haven’t been to many games, but the ones I’ve seen have always seemed to contain at least one memorable event.

One of my favorite Fenway moments, however, remains the first game I ever saw there, a contest between the Red Sox and California Angels late in the 1995 season. The date was September 3, a Sunday. The Sox were competitive for the first time in years, running away with the American League East division by fourteen games over the second-place New York Yankees. The Angels, meanwhile, had been enjoying a dream season, steaming toward their first division crown since 1986, but like that previous campaign it was quickly becoming a nightmare; the Halos entered the September 3 game in the midst of a terrible and historic free fall, with eleven losses in twelve games allowing the charging Seattle Mariners to chop seven games off the lead. The Red Sox advantage in the East ultimately held, with the Yankees taking the wild card, but three weeks later the Angel’s collapse was complete, the team overtaken for good by the Mariners following a nine-game losing streak.

The game started just after one, so my father and I got an early start so we could pick up a pair of binoculars from Rich’s department store in Portsmouth before meeting up with my soon-to-be brother-in-law Ron and his son, Jaymes, at their house in Melrose. From there, we headed into the city, where I was to get my first glimpse at the place writer John Updike once called “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.”

I honestly can’t remember the first time I saw Fenway Park from the outside or even what the concourse below the stands looked like; my first viewing of the playing field, however, more than compensates for those missing pieces in the mental jigsaw puzzle. Our seats were in the centerfield bleachers (I didn’t realize it at the time, but the centerfield bleachers at Fenway Park are actually located several miles away in Cambridge; hence the binoculars) but we somehow ended up entering the seating area on the opposite side of the ballpark, behind the first base grandstand. My first experience with the playing field of Fenway Park was straight out of a movie: the field laid out in front of me, the green expanse of center field stretching out endlessly, the Green Monster looming high above the truncated left field, the net on top making it seem that much higher.

The game itself might have been forgettable if those Red Sox hadn’t been so damn good. They refused to show mercy on the sliding Angels, jumping out to an early 3-0 lead on Tim Naehring’s first inning homerun to left (which I missed because every fan in our section stood as one to see if the drive would carry over the Monster) and chasing starter Chuck Finley with three more by the end of the fourth.

Boston’s early advantage was safely held by Tim Wakefield, the 29-year old pitcher who had traveled a winding road before coming to Boston in late May. A knuckleballer in the tradition of Hoyt Wilhelm, the Niekro brothers and Charlie Hough, Wakefield’s major league career had begun in fine fashion with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992; after being called up from AAA Buffalo in late July, he won eight games against just one loss to help the Bucs reach the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. He became a national sensation in the NLCS, winning both his starts – including a must-win in Game Six to avoid elimination – and indicating that, at the age of 26, his career as a solid major league pitcher was just getting started.

The knuckleball, however, is a fickle pitch – one day it’s working perfectly and seems untouchable, the next it rolls up to the plate screaming, “HIT ME!” Such was the case with Wakefield, who watched fame, fortune and his future disappear along with his knuckleball into thin air. In a complete reversal of fortune from the previous year, he couldn’t get anyone out, starting the season by walking nine Padres and finishing 6-11 with a 5.61 ERA, nearly 3 ½ runs higher than his rookie mark of 2.15. It got so bad that the Pirates shipped him off for a midseason stint in AA Carolina in an attempt to regain control of the pitch. The maneuver didn’t work – Wakefield’s numbers in the minors were even worse than his major league stats – although he showed a spark with back-to-back complete game shutouts over the Cubs and playoff-bound Phillies in his final two starts of the season.

The positive vibe didn’t carry over to the 1994 season, as Wakefield was banished to Buffalo for the duration of the season, presumably with the hope that he would finally work out the kinks in his bread-and-butter pitch and cash in on the potential that he had flashed two years before. He rewarded the team’s faith by demonstrating consistency for the first time in his career, struggling to a 5-15 record and 5.84 ERA in thirty games. The frustrated Pirates had had enough, releasing him on April 20, 1995.

Six days later, Boston called, offering Wakefield the chance to play with their AAA team in Pawtucket and work toward becoming a major league pitcher again. He took the opportunity, worked with both Phil and Joe Niekro to make changes in his mechanics, pitched well in four games for the Paw Sox and was wearing a Red Sox uniform by the end of May. He won his first four starts for the team before losing to the Blue Jays, then won ten more in a row to keep them ahead of the pack well into August. By the time we saw him in September, he had come back down to earth, losing two consecutive starts en route to a 2-7 finish that took him out of the lead in the race for the Cy Young award (he eventually finished third behind Randy Johnson and Jose Mesa), but his role as the anchor of Boston’s pitching staff through the dog days of summer was not to be taken lightly.

On September 3, we saw the Tim Wakefield who had pitched for the Pirates in 1992 and the Red Sox earlier in the summer. His knuckler was working to perfection; the Angels could barely touch him. As the game wore on, I looked at him on the mound a few times through the binoculars and admired the confidence he carried out to that solitary hill, the sense that he was in total control. He ran into trouble only once, in the second inning, when three singles and a hit batsman plated the only run he allowed in eight innings. His poise was most evident under this extreme duress, however: with the bases loaded and one out, nursing a two-run lead, the game in danger of turning into an offensive slugfest, he induced back-to-back pop-ups to end the threat and break the Angels’ spirit.

Knowing that Wakefield had the game safely in hand allowed me to take in some of the other things that were going on around the ballpark at that time. Most notably, a lifelong fear of the right field bleachers was drilled into me that day by the denizens of that area, who at one point began loudly taunting Angel’s right fielder Tim Salmon with a long, sustained “Saaaaaaaaaaaaalmooooooooooooon!” chant. It was the type of thing that has stuck with me, a fairly quiet fifteen year old kid; to this day, I haven’t dared venture into those sections (although I did wind up in the next section over on my last trip – I needed to point out the Ted Williams Seat to my wife and see just how far from home plate it is, but we were separated by a runway).

Beyond all that, the memories are hazy – I know I brought my glove and put it on every time Mo Vaughn came up, even though we were almost five hundred feet from home plate, and I remember Jaymes, barely four years old at the time, curling up in his seat and falling asleep during the late innings – there are certain areas beyond even Retrosheet’s scope of information. But I think I remember enough to know that it was a good day. I saw Fenway Park for the first time, my favorite team won (the first of a 6-1 record with me in attendance; I’m drafting a letter to Theo Epstein to get myself some complimentary tickets) and I watched the pitcher who was and is my wife’s favorite player as he struggled to overcome his personal demons and prove he belonged in the major leagues. Yes, it was a good day indeed.

Tim Wakefield Statistics -
Tim Wakefield Statistics - The Baseball Cube
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