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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Book Review: "Knuckler" by Tim Wakefield (with Tony Massarotti)

“Knuckler” is the biography of Tim Wakefield, longtime Boston Red Sox knuckleball pitcher, written by Wakefield with Tony Massarotti. It tells a great story of his progression from his backyard in Melbourne, FL, fiddling with the pitch in high school and college, and through the 2010 season. Wakefield has experienced a number of highs and lows throughout his career. Highs include his dominating rookie year in 1992 with the Pirates, his outstanding 1st year with the Sox in 1995 in which he won 16 games, lost 8 and sported a 2.95 ERA, and being named to the 2009 AL All Star Team by Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon. Lows include the disappointing end to his rookie season in which he may have won the Rookie of the Year award if not for his last pitch of the season, his sophomore slump, and the Boone pitch.

I don’t need to know what a celebrity eats for breakfast, or if he wears boxers or briefs, and thankfully Massarotti stays away from most of Wakefield’s personal life. He includes stories about and from other great knuckleballers including Tom Candiotti, Charlie Hough, Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur Wood, Joe Niekro and his brother Phil, who wrote the Foreword. He tells of his relationships with the Niekros, and how they mentored him, and were there for him during his slumps. Read about his endless humanitarian work with the Franciscan Hospital for Children and The Jimmy Fund, and his winning of the Roberto Clemente Award.

A knuckleball pitcher is a completely different breed of animal from other pitchers, and Massarotti gets it. A knuckleballer is not defined by ERA and WHIP statistics. They may have pedestrian statistics, but are priceless in their other contributions. A knuckleballer can start, close, short or long relieve, or perform in the most dreaded of pitching roles- the mop-up man. Wake has done ‘em all and lived to tell about ‘em all. Two of the most telling of all Wakefield’s statistics are his 3222.1 innings pitched and his 2152 strikeouts. I’m sure Billy Beane would drool over Wake’s ratios of IP/$ and K/$.  Although he performs best in a starting role pitching every 4 or 5 days, he has taken many hits for the team including shuttling between the bullpen and the starting 5, starting on short rest in emergencies, sacrificing his post-season starts for emergency relief, and the aforementioned ‘mop-up man’ role. On more than one occasion, Wake has been ‘left in the barrel’ on days his pitch wasn’t working, soaking up innings to give the bullpen a much needed rest. Days like those don’t help out a knuckleballer’s bottom line, but Wakefield time and time again puts the team interests above those of his own. Despite his on field charity work, and the many games of little run support from the offense, Wakefield has been able to amass a tidy 200-179 won-loss record, giving him a quite respectable .528 winning percentage.

The book is a great story and an easy read, I was able to blast through it, twice. Massarotti does have a couple of annoying habits- including inserting phrases with questionable grammar in awkward places separated by dashes- and an inconsistent use of italics. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book for any Red Sox, knuckleball, or baseball fan to read.

 Wake and Fenway West's own Matt O'Donnell

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