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Knuckler: My Life with Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch Hardcover – April 6, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
The unpredictable knuckleball pitch shares the spotlight with the Boston Red Sox pitcher Wakefield in this book on one of the most enduring, determined hurlers in pro ball. Following a smart foreword by Phil Niekro, one of the master knucklers, Wakefield, a Red Sox pitcher since 1995 and winner of two World Series, explains how an immature Florida boy who struggled to make any team developed into an ace with a knuckleball that "floats in slow motion," giving batters fits. He credits those who went before him, such as Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil and Joe Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Wilbur Wood, with setting the standard that enabled him to record more outs than any previous Red Sox pitcher. The book, with able support by sports columnist Massarotti, depicts Wakefield as a "really decent person" on and off the field, but it reveals occasional blowups in the dugout with coaches and players, and the difficult times with a madcap prima donna like Manny Ramirez. Competent and entertaining, Wakefield's book is one to savor, especially for the stat-obsessed baseball fan and the novice pitcher in search of a knuckleball to call his own. (Apr.)
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At first I was very happy to see that there was a book written about Tim Wakefield, a player whose career defines perseverance. Having set many of the team pitching records for the Boston Red Sox, I expected his autobiography to be rich with many stories about his ups and downs, the various roles he has played in his pitching career and maybe even a few personal insights.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. There were two glaring issues I had with the book while reading it. One was that it wasn’t written in the first person. While autobiographies of celebrities are almost always written by a ghostwriter, they are at least told in the first person. This book doesn’t do that – the pitcher is always “Tim” or “Wakefield”, never “I” or “me.” So that was problem number one.
Problem number two, at least for me, was a trivial mistake, but one big enough that had me wondering where else I would find gaffes like this. Wakefield was a member of the 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates team that lost a heartbreaking game 7 to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. It is a highlight finish that was memorable for many reasons. The section describing that winning play is actually well written except for one detail: the batter who got the game winning hit was not “Fernando” Cabrerra as written in the book, but instead Francisco Cabrerra. While that may seem small, I had this thought: if the writer couldn’t get a memorable moment like that correct, what else could be wrong in this book? While I didn’t do a fact check on everything, it still seemed to take away from the book as a whole.
This isn’t to say there weren’t good parts to this book. I enjoyed the sections about the nuances of the pitch, whether it was about how to throw it, how to catch it or how it moves in a crazy fashion. I also liked some of the information on knuckle ball pitchers of the past such as Phil and Joe Niekro and Wilbur Wood. However, what would have made those even better would have been more stories about them, not just a recap of their playing days.
That same reporting style of writing was evident in the rest of the book as a large portion of it is devoted to the ups and downs of the Red Sox franchise during Wakefield’s time as a pitcher for them. While it was somewhat fun to relive the historic comeback the Red Sox made against the New York Yankees in 2004, and uplifting to see Wakefield become such an iconic figure for the franchise, the book felt more like a Red Sox history lesson (and one that skims at that) than it did as a biography for Wakefield. A disappointing read for me, but Red Sox fans might enjoy it for a brief historical perspective of the recent team history.
Did I skim?
Pace of the book:
It moved along fine. It never really dragged along or seemed too dry despite the lack of insight or personal stories.
Do I recommend?
No, unless the reader wants to learn more about the nuances of the knuckleball. That was the best part of the book. But if the reader wants to learn about the Red Sox or Wakefield’s career as a whole, those can be found in other sources.
Tim Wakefield began his life in professional baseball as a first baseman at Class A Watertown in the New York-Penn League in the summer of 1988. The Pittsburgh Pirates had selected him in the eighth round of the draft earlier that summer. It quickly became apparent to everyone that Wakefield was never going to make it as a position player. He simply did not have the bat speed that was required to be a big league hitter. But there is an old maxim in baseball that says "a guy with a good arm who plays a position and can't hit, you almost always try him as a pitcher before releasing him." Since he was a youngster Tim Wakefield had been fooling around with a pitch that his dad Steve had taught him. It was a knuckleball. One day in extended-spring training in 1989 Wakefield was playing catch with a teammate and mixing in an occasional knuckler. Unbeknownst to Tim his manager Woody Huyke was watching and he was intrigued by what he observed. Within a matter of weeks the Pirates organization made the decision to convert Tim Wakefield to a full-time pitcher. And the rest as they say is history.
After just a couple of years learning how to pitch Tim Wakefield was summoned to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the end of July, 1992. He had a terrific final two months for the Bucs and went onto to win two games in the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. But his success in Pittsburgh would be short-lived. In 1993 he simply could not get anyone out. By June he found himself back in Double A where he continued to struggle. Wakefield would spend the entire 1994 season at Triple A Buffalo. He continued to be unimpressive and the Pirates released him the following spring. Just a few weeks later Tim Wakefield was signed to a minor league deal by the Boston Red Sox. Thus began a long and fruitful relationship that persists to this day.
After signing Tim Wakefield, then Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette brought in Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro as a sort of mentor for Wakefield. Along the way Wakefield had discovered that when he was struggling most pitching coaches did not possess the wherewithal to help him. Phil Niekro spoke Tim's language and was intimately aware of the struggles he was experiencing. Niekro imparted a set of basic precepts to his eager young student that have served him extremely well throughout his career. And as a result Tim Wakefield rose from the scrap heap to have a long and productive career in a Red Sox uniform.
"Knuckler: My Life with Baseball's Most Confounding Pitch" presents a comprehensive overview of Tim Wakefield's entire baseball career. What I discovered along the way is that "Wake" has really been a much better pitcher than I had ever realized. Tim has done it all over 19 seasons in the big leagues and continues to be one of the games most respected players. With so many screwed-up celebrities and athletes out there it is quite refreshing to read about a man who is so generous and humble. Now as to the book itself I must agree with another reviewer who found it extremely curious that the entire book was written in the third person. Very strange. "Knuckler" was supposedly written by Tim Wakefield along with Tony Massarotti who is a sports columnist for The Boston Herald so you would expect that much of the book would be in the first person. Furthermore, at several junctures in the book you got the clear impression that Tim Wakefield has already retired from the game. Happily this is just not the case. Tim Wakefield continues to be a valuable member of the Red Sox pitching staff. In fact, this past Sunday afternoon I watched Tim post his 199th career win in a game against the Seattle Mariners. Whether you are a baseball fan in general or a Red Sox fan in particular my hunch is that you would enjoy "Knuckler". So pull up a chair, break open a brew and enjoy! Quirks aside this is still great summer reading! Recommended.