There’s a reason why half the planet tunes into the Super Bowl every year. There’s a reason why you can buy Red Sox hats in 20 different colors. There’s a reason why ESPN has aired multiple sports trivia shows over the years and why FX now has a sitcom about a Fantasy Football league. We are absolutely addicted to sports. All of us. Big, small, black, white, rich or poor, sports captivate us all. It’s the richest form of theater there is. Shakespeare couldn’t write a better script than the way the ’04 ALCS played out for the Red Sox. MacBeth doesn’t hold a candle to the story of 1980’s U.S. Olympic hockey team’s win against the Soviet Union.
Sports is compelling and it affects us on an emotional level because it’s real life. Nothing is scripted or predetermined. Nobody ever knows what’s going to happen and some of the things that occur are so heroic, so unexpected and phenomenal that true fans can’t help but get a little choked up.
I know some of that narrative may seem a little over-the-top but the fact is, I’m passionate about sports and there are a ton of people out there who are just like me. I love a dramatic, overtime sports game with unlikely heroes the same way I love the plot of Good Will Hunting or a movie like Shawshank Redemption.
As a Sox fan, Tim Wakefield has carried this same kind of emotional appeal over the years. Wakefield is about as surprising a hero as Rudy or Rocky Balboa. His fastball is barely over the Mass Pike speed limit. He looks like Larry the Cable Guy. Heck, Wake didn’t even start pitching until his early 20s when a scout told him he’d never make it to the majors as a first basemen.
Twenty years and 199 wins later, Wakefield has become a symbol of sport that chews up and spits out athletes by the dozens. He’s the ultimate survivor and Sox fans love him. Every time Wake has pitched this season as he inches closer to win number 200 and eventually victory number 193 in a Boston uniform (which would pass Roger Clemens and Cy Young for the most ever), Fenway has cheered for him … desperately.
As the 45-year-old takes the hill for his seventh try at win number 200, the cries will be as desperate as ever. And why not: with Wakefield struggling and Andrew Miller suddenly becoming a viable option as the number five starter, if Wake doesn’t get the job done in his next game (probably next week against Toronto) it could be his last start. I think it should be.
I’m all for inspiring narrative and underdog tales but there comes a point where we all just need to move on. Isn’t Wake’s recent failure just getting kind of sad? His record since notching win number 199 is 0-3 with a mediocre 4.97 ERA. Even before the dry spell, Wakefield wasn’t performing at a particularly high level. In his last win, he gave up seven runs and Wake hasn’t allowed less than three runs in an outing since June 14th in Tampa. That was 13 starts ago.
While Wake has been struggling, Boston has been able to solidify the rest of its rotation. Nobody’s ever going to confuse John Lackey for Nolan Ryan but he’s at least gotten better as the season has worn on. He’s won seven out of his past eight decisions and he’s pitched into the sixth inning in each of his last nine starts. Lefthander Erik Bedard has looked solid since being acquired from Seattle at the trade deadline (3.46 ERA in five starts). And since being reinserted into the rotation August 19th, Andrew Miller has been lights out: he’s 2-0 with a 0.77 ERA.
In two days when the Sox make September call-ups there could be even more options for replacing Wakefield. Kyle Weiland, who got a taste of the big leagues earlier in the season, has performed well for Triple-A Pawtucket this year (3.46 ERA in 23 starts) and Felix Doubront (2-5, 4.22 in Pawtucket this season) showed flashes of potential during his 12-game big league stint last season (2-2, 4.32). Both players along with Miller and long-relief man Alfredo Aceves (9-1, 2.86 in 42 appearances) could compete for Wake’s spot in the rotation.
I’m not suggesting the Sox completely kick Wake to the curb. Hey, given Wake’s age and the unpredictable effectiveness of the knuckleball, I think the fact that he’s at 6-6 with a 5.10 ERA this late in the season is incredible. I’ve been shocked by the productiveness of both Wakefield and fellow dinosaur Jason Varitek (.234, 9 HR) this season. Both of these guys can still play in this league.
That doesn’t change my opinion though. Wake doesn’t belong in the rotation: at least not right now. Terry Francona has given Wakefield more than a fair shot this season and right now Boston needs to buckle down and lock up the division title. Even with a patchwork starting rotation that includes has-beens like A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, the Yankees are still only a game and a half back. Francona can’t keep worrying about making Wakefield last five innings every night just so he’ll have a chance to get his 200th win.
Wake’s done a lot for the Sox over the years, but this isn’t his team. It’s Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez’s team. And it’s a damn good one too. This is the best squad Boston has put together since they won it all back in 2004 and in time it could be even better than that one.
If you want to win the World Series, you have to put the best players out on the field at every position. Right now Wakefield isn’t one of them. There’s a time for breaking records and appreciating milestones. Just a few weeks ago Jim Thome reached 600 home runs and back in July Derek Jeter collected his historic 3,000th career hit. But this is September baseball. It’s win or go home.
I hope I’m wrong about Wakefield. I hope he proves that he belongs and wins number 200. But I also think he can still help this team out of the bullpen down the stretch as New York and Tampa Bay nip at Boston’s heels in the ultra-competitive AL East. It might not be next week in Toronto but we all know
Wake’s time will come. If there’s one thing I’ve learned by watching 15 years of Tim Wakefield it’s to expect the unexpected.