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On Good End of a Knuckle Sandwich : Baseball: For Wakefield, two terrific seasons have been wrapped around a dreadful period; now the pitcher takes nothing for granted.

August 23, 1995|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His collapse was so swift and sudden that a befuddled Tim Wakefield reached a point "where I didn't even know how to tie my shoes," let alone throw his knuckleball.

"I'm not a quitter," Wakefield said in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse at Anaheim Stadium, where he will face the Angels tonight. "It wasn't going to beat me, but nothing I tried worked, and that gets annoying and old in a hurry. It was as if I was lost out there and didn't know where else to turn."

Yet, here he is, back on top only five months after being left for dead by the Pittsburgh Pirates. His dizzying rise and fall with them has been followed by an equally spectacular ascent with the Red Sox.

Said Boston catcher Mike Macfarlane: "He is not only the comeback player of this year, but the comeback player of any year."

Added first baseman Mo Vaughn: "He's been awesome. We wouldn't be where we are without him."

The Red Sox are leading the American League East and Wakefield is challenging Randy Johnson, Mark Langston and Mike Mussina for the Cy Young award.

He would be the first knuckleball pitcher to win it, but if he is reluctant to look back, he is equally reluctant to look ahead.

"I've been at both ends of the spectrum," he said. "I know how quickly it can turn around. I know you're only as good as your last start. I'm only trying to have fun and stay on an even keel."

With Red Sox aces Roger Clemens and Aaron Sele having been plagued by injuries, Wakefield has a 14-2 record with a 2.08 earned-run average.

Phil and Joe Niekro, retired knuckleballers, helped restore Wakefield's aggressiveness and confidence in the mysterious pitch, and the 29-year-old right-hander has turned the season into a 1992 sequel and more.

He leads the league in victories and earned-run average. He is tied for the lead in complete games with six and has held opponents to a league-low .212 batting average. He has pitched seven innings or more in 14 of 18 starts and taken no-hitters into the seventh inning three times.

"I'm not surprised," Pirate Manager Jim Leyland said. "As long as that pitch keeps working, the Red Sox can ride him a long way. He's a good kid and I'm happy for him.

"The only thing that bothers me is that I've read and heard a lot of garbage about how we weren't willing to work with him and the Red Sox were. That's not true. We tried everything with him, and it just finally reached a point where he needed the change of scenery."

There is some dispute about how much the Pirates did for Wakefield, or were willing to do, and how much Wakefield did or was willing to do.

Pittsburgh General Manager Cam Bonifay said he talked to Wakefield's agent, Bill Moore, in mid-season of 1994 about having Wakefield work with the Niekros when that season ended, but it never got done.

Bonifay said the Pirates didn't formally set up the session but did talk to Phil Niekro and knew he was receptive.

"I had assumed Tim and his agent would follow through on it, and I have to assume that either the agent didn't think it important enough to tell Tim about the suggestion or that Tim felt he could turn it around on his own and it wasn't until we released him that he came to the conclusion that he had to get help," Bonifay said.

Wakefield said that any contact he had with the Niekros before his release--he did talk to Phil and Joe at different times by phone--was on his own.

However, he doesn't blame the Pirates for his collapse in 1993 and '94.

"They tried to get me help," he said. "I mean, the man [Spin Williams] who had been my pitching coach during two years in the minors and helped get me to the majors was the bullpen coach in Pittsburgh when I was having my problems, and he tried to do what he could. I just think that I had to wipe the slate clean and start over. The change of scenery helped a lot, as did the time I spent with the Niekros this spring."

It was in the back yard of the Wakefields' Melbourne, Fla., home that a young Tim first received flight training in the knuckler from his father. But the Pirates drafted him from Florida Tech as a first baseman in 1988. Only a year later, after he failed to bat .200, Wakefield was spotted goofing around with the knuckler in the outfield during extended spring training.

Woody Huyke, a minor league manager, pointed it out as Wakefield's release was being discussed. So Wakefield became a full-time pitcher, winning 10 games at Salem in 1990, 15 at Carolina in '91 and 10 at Buffalo in the first half of 1992. Then he joined the Pirates and went 8-1 as Pittsburgh won the division title. He pitched two complete-game victories over the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs.

The good times faded quickly, though. Wakefield was 6-11 with the Pirates in '93 and 3-5 at double-A Carolina. He opened and closed the 1994 season at triple-A Buffalo, going 5-15. He knew his release was coming, but he still cried when he got it.

He says now that he probably became distracted by the byproducts of his stardom--the appearances, the autographs, the pictures.

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