Red Sox great Tim Wakefield still pitching in for kids


Tim Wakefield could be described as the ultimate Red Sox teammate. Over his 19-year Major League career (17 spent in Boston), the knuckleballer baffled the opposition to the tune of 200 career wins and 2,156 strikeouts. He was a two-time World Series champion. An All-Star. Has the third-most wins in Red Sox history (behind Cy Young and Roger Clemens). Finished third in the ’95 Cy Young race. Saved 15 games for the Wild Card-winning ’99 Sox when incumbent fireman Tom Gordon went down for the season. Pitched three scoreless innings of relief in Game 5 of the ’04 ALCS, when David Ortiz made a winner of the Sox and Wakefield with a walk-off single in the 14th frame.

The list goes on and on. And on. Wakefield was my favorite Red Sox player for the bulk of his tenure for his sense of duty to the team – whatever it takes to win. And he demonstrated the same approach in the community. The pitcher received the 2010 Roberto Clemente Award in recognition of his steady commitment to improving the lives of children in the Boston area as well as near his Florida hometown.

These days, Wakefield, who retired in 2012, continues to be a fixture around the Red Sox, doing analyst work for NESN and serving as an instructor. In 2013, he was named Honorary Chairman of the Red Sox Foundation, a relationship that allows him to continue his work to benefit children.

On Thursday, Wakefield visited the Harvard-Kent Elementary School in Charlestown, MA to read “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” to lucky second graders as part of a MetLife  event promoting good oral health habits during the Halloween season and encouraging parents to take advantage of dental benefits offered during annual open enrollment periods. Other MetLife events in Denver and San Diego featured Chauncey Billups and Tony Gwynn, Jr., respectively.

After the knuckleballer read the classic tale to kids in the midst of a gymnasium pumpkin patch, the second graders trick-or-treated for healthy snack items and learned about taking care of their teeth. And I had opportunity to sit down with the Red Sox great, talking Snoopy, oral hygiene, and reflecting on great moments in Red Sox history.

BSI: October 23rd, 10 years ago, you started Game 1 of the World Series at Fenway. You were drafted in ’88, so it took you 16 years to get to that moment. What were your feelings being able to represent the Red Sox in that situation?

Tim Wakefield: First of all, I was so honored to be named Game 1 starter, especially after what happened the year before, you know, walking off the field in New York, giving up the homer to Aaron Boone. I was nervous. I was excited at the same time…The big thing I was worried about were the flash bulbs going off as I threw the first pitch. I was like, “I hope he doesn’t hit it back at me!”

It ended up not being as bad as I thought, and once I got through the first hitter – it was Renteria actually, we ended up playing together – it was a cool feeling… The weather wasn’t great – like it is today, but a lot colder. But I didn’t care. I was starting Game 1.

BSI: A few days before that, the team had been down 3-0 to the Yankees, the comeback was on, and Game 5, you got to be on the mound: 10th inning, coming on in relief, do-or-die. You’ve got to hold the lead or you’re going home. What was that like?

TW: Obviously that’s a nerve-wracking situation to get called into, but, you’re asked to do a job and you go out there and try to get as many outs as possible. And I was able to get the nine outs they were asking of me in those three innings before David got the base-hit. You’re facing the New York Yankees, you were down three games to none, now it’s Game 5; you’re in survival mode.

People ask me, “what do you remember about that?” I don’t remember a lot. You’re focused on one pitch at a time – talk about being “in the zone” – I can’t remember who the hitters were, I just kept telling myself, “get an out, get an out.” It’s funny – you look back at that whole series and it’s a blur. It really is. The games were late, a couple of those games were extra innings. It was insane.

BSI: You mentioned Ortiz. Of course, he pulled through in the 14th with that clutch hit. He said the other day he’s on the “dark side” now.

TW: Yeah, I saw that. He’s working for FOX Sports.

BSI: And that’s something you’re doing here (with NESN). I was wondering how that transition is going and who you would cite as your biggest mentor in that transition?

TW: It’s something I never thought I would do. I was asked  if I’d like to do it when I retired. For me, it was a way to give back to the game that was so good to me for such a long period of time and I wanted to give the fans a player’s perspective on what was going on. Mr. Werner allowed me to dabble in it; I did about four or five games to see if I liked it and… I really started to enjoy it.

Tom Caron was a great mentor for me. He’s so easy to work with and he’s so knowledgeable…To be able to do this and work – indirectly – with Jim Rice, Dennis Eckersley, and now Steve Lyons is pretty cool. It keeps me in and around the game; I’m still able to interject things that I see on the field with the coaching staff. The organization has allowed me to help out. I go to Spring Training; I work with Steven Wright as a mentor and act as an extra set of eyes for the pitching coach and the manager.

Tim Wakefield reads “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” to second graders at the Harvard-Kent Elementary School in Charlestown as part of a MetLife event promoting good oral health habits during the Halloween season. Photo courtesy of MetLife.

BSI: That’s one place I was going to go. You came into the league after the Niekro brothers – you worked with both of them extensively – both of them had retired. Charlie Hough was nearing the end of his line. R.A. Dickey turns 40 next week, so he could have a good five years left in him. Who gets to be the guy to carry the knuckleball into the next era?

TW: When I retired, I passed the torch to R.A. He’s got a good five years but I think Steven Wright would be the next guy in line. He’s only been throwing it two or three years now and he’s already gotten to the big leagues and had success. He got hurt earlier this year, but to make it back from sports hernia surgery, back to the big leagues in September and to pitch well…I think he’s the next guy.

BSI: Are you kind of rooting for him? There are a lot of young guys right now: Webster, Ranaudo, Workman…he’s in that mix.

TW: He is. I think he’s probably the first guy that’s going to get a look. He’s got a really good chance at making the club out of spring training. You look at it, and he out-pitched most of those guys except for maybe one or two…Based on that, I think he’s gonna get a shot to crack the rotation and be the fourth or fifth starter as well as do what I did – be the “pitcher and a half,” as I called myself, where I could start and also relieve between starts.

BSI: Dan Duquette brought you to Boston in ‘95. He’s now with the Orioles; they had a pretty good run this year. What do you think about the things he’s been able to accomplish in Baltimore?

TW: He’s done a good job. Dan’s a great baseball guy. He put together some great teams here in Boston…He was out of baseball for such a long period of time but never gave up, stayed doing what he was doing out in Western Mass and got an opportunity with the Orioles and put together a good team.

Along with the coaching staff. Showalter, as well as Dave Wallace, their pitching coach – loved him when he was here. So I’m really happy for their success.

BSI: You’re keeping busy as the Honorary Chairman of the Red Sox Foundation. Your charitable work has been well-documented. How has that role enabled you to continue doing the work you’ve been doing for a couple of decades now?

TW: It gives me another platform to be able to give back to a community that supported me for so many years. With the Wakefield’s Warriors program, to being a part of the Franciscan Hospital for Children and the Jimmy Fund…It ends up that all corners of the Red Sox Foundation are things I supported as a player so it makes perfect sense for me to jump into this role.

I was honored that they asked me. I still do my charity work back in Florida where I grew up. For 17 years, these fans supported me and what I did.

BSI: How about the support of the team… you brought kids to visit Fenway on off-days for years. A couple years ago they had a “Tim Wakefield Day”…

TW: Yeah, the Red Sox got me with that one. You do things because you care, but you don’t really realize how many lives you affect until I saw that garage door open and all those kids come out. So that was a cool thing for me to experience.

BSI: Can I get a World Series prediction?

TW: Good question! (laughs) I don’t know after last night (Game 2). I’m rooting for both teams. Bruce Bochy I know really well, Jake Peavy’s over there, Javy Lopez is with the Giants, and then, on the other side, you feel for the Kansas City fans. We went through an 86-year drought here; for them to have 29, 30 years of waiting just to get back to the postseason…it’s pretty special. It’s just a group of young kids that are getting it done. They’re really fun to watch. Both teams are really good.

BSI: Do you have a favorite Peanuts character?

TW: Snoopy. Just because he was quiet, cool, did funny things and was kind of on his own. I had a great time today reading that. Brings back a lot of memories of when I was a kid, with my sister, watching “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

And to support healthy lifestyles. I’m going through this with my kids right now – brushing your teeth – you have to stay on top of them to do it twice a day. We talk about how important oral health is to your overall health. I have an eight and a ten-year old – now that they’re going through the process of getting braces, I tell them how important healthy snacks are. They can’t eat hard candy anymore. It’s hard because Halloween is right now.

BSI: I’m sure you want to communicate to these kids that, while they may or may not make it as ballplayers, they can definitely have better oral hygiene than some Major Leaguers.

TW: And that’s exactly it. MetLife is doing their Open Enrollment Program and we want their parents to get dental insurance to help cover their needs so these kids can have healthy oral hygiene.

Thanks to Tim Wakefield, MetLife and the Harvard-Kent Elementary School for the opportunity.