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Remembering Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today we remember the former pitcher of the Boston Red Sox Tim Wakefield. He died this weekend at the age of 57. He was one of the last pro baseball players to throw a knuckleball. It's this old-timey kind of pitch which moves unpredictably. And he used it to help Boston win two World Series titles over 17 seasons with the team. His former teammate, Jason Varitek, is now a coach for the Red Sox.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASON VARITEK: I've always said it. Wake exemplifies what this uniform is. And it's not just the name on the back. It's the name on the front.

CHANG: All right. Let's turn now to Ian Browne, Red Sox reporter for Major League Baseball. Welcome.

IAN BROWNE: Hi, Ailsa. How you doing?

CHANG: I'm good. So you could really hear it there in Varitek's voice. There's - I mean, this is such a huge loss for the whole Boston sports community; isn't it?

BROWNE: It really is. And, you know, I've covered Jason Varitek a long time just like I covered Tim Wakefield a long time. And I've never seen Jason Varitek be emotional like that. He's a very stoic person. So just to see him lose it like that really kind of hit us all who were standing next to him in the clubhouse yesterday.

CHANG: Well, take us back to when Wakefield signed with the team. I mean, he was already a sensation. I'm told he began his 1995 season with a 14-1 record. Tell us more about that.

BROWNE: Yeah. I mean, this is a guy who was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates because, you know, that knuckleball's so unpredictable. And he was great in the '92 playoffs, so the Pirates kind of came out of nowhere and then just fell apart and got released. And any team could have had him, and the Red Sox picked him up, staking a flyer on him. They put him in the minor leagues for a couple months. And he really trained with a couple...

CHANG: Yeah.

BROWNE: ...Famous knuckleballers - Phil Niekro and Joe Niekro and Charlie Hough. And by the time the Red Sox got him and activated him in 1995, he just went on this incredible run. One of the best starts to a career in Red Sox history - went 14-1 - and then just become a pillar for this team for a decade and a half, really, and just - also just a class act. His pitching exploits were impressive, but I think what more stands out is the impactful figure he was in the Boston community.

CHANG: Can we talk about the 2004 playoffs real quick? - because the Red Sox, at that point, had not won the World Series since 1918. And in the 2004 playoffs, they're facing their arch rival, the New York Yankees, who knocked them out the previous year. And Tim Wakefield - very briefly, how did he factor into that series?

BROWNE: Yeah. In 2004, I mean, the ALCS - the Red Sox are in the process of going down three games to none to the Yankees. And they're getting killed in Game 3, Ailsa. To this point, nobody's ever come back from 3-0 in a postseason series. Tim Wakefield puts his spikes on. He was supposed to start Game 4. He goes up to manager Terry Francona, and he says, I want to pitch the rest of this game. I'll finish this game so we can preserve the rest of the bullpen. We don't have to use any of our relievers, and then we can win tomorrow. And so Wakefield gave up his own start to reset the team, to reset the staff. And that was really the start of them winning those next four games - is that selfless act where Terry Francona really relied on his bullpen, which he was able to do because of what Wakefield did. And just - you don't see that from many players.

CHANG: That is Ian Browne, who follows the Red Sox for mlb.com. Thank you so much, Ian, for helping us remember Tim Wakefield.

BROWNE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.