Watching Wakefield

Watching the 2003 ALCS made me a permanent Tim Wakefield fan. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)

I first discovered Tim Wakefield during the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees. I wasn’t a Red Sox fan back then; I’d only discovered baseball in any meaningful way a week prior in the ALDS. Through that Oakland series I learned a few key players (Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez), but it was all on the fly.

I didn’t understand what made a great or even just entertaining baseball player yet. Individuals grabbed me for specific skills or attitudes (Damon’s speed, Martinez’s power, Ramirez’s cockiness), but I hadn’t latched onto one player as my passport to Red Sox Nation.

And then I watched Wakefield. And I fell in love.

Pregame commentators talked about the knuckleball, a pitch I’m not even sure I’d heard of before hearing of Wakefield, the way the ancient storytellers spoke of battles: full of mystery and awe. The knckleball was so unpredictable it had become the stuff of legend. And as a religion major and lover of mythology, I knew I had to watch it.

Watching Wakefield’s knuckleball dance and dart that night in October 2003, I realized the commentators were as baffled by it as the Yankees. Words couldn’t quite describe a ball that would appear to be headed high and inside, only to finish on the opposite corners. The pitch moved so slowly that a fastball that rarely broke 75 appeared 20 mph faster. It dipped like a split-finger, but with the side-to-side movement of a slider. It moved almost like many other pitches, but just different enough to defy description. I was mesmorized.

The 2003 ALCS ended tragically for Wakefield. Had the Red Sox won, he would have been MVP. Instead, he wound up losing the final game on a gut-wrenching home run by Bucky Dent lookalike Aaron Boone.

The Red Sox picked Wakefield up the next postseason however, rewarding him with a Game 1 start of the World Series after pitching three scoreless innings in the momentum-shifting Game 5 of the ALCS.

I have held a deep love and admiration for Wakefield ever since that October start eight years ago. I have watched him morph into the Red Sox’s elder statesman: a leader among the pitchers, but a willing soldier for Terry Francona. Every year that he continues splits me: I want him to stay on, to keep inching towards displacing Cy Young and Roger Clemens. But I also want him to leave the Red Sox with dignity.

Now Wakefield teeters on the brink of 200 wins with the Red Sox. He hasn’t suffered the second-half breakdown this season that he did in the previous two, but he’s nowhere near the pitcher who won 17 games four years ago.

Wakefield’s problems this season have been his slow starts and his slower finishes. His ERA in the first two innings of a game is 5.14, which then drops across the third and fourth. When he reaches the fifth inning, however, his ERA explodes: 7.36 in the fifth, 6.94 in the sixth, 8.64 in the seventh (it drops in the eighth and ninth, but Wakefield’s pitched a combined seven eighth or ninth innings).

Wakefield hasn’t lost the knuckleball the way he did last year. Instead, his pitch limit has shrunk. Through the first 75 pitches of all outings this season, opponents are batting .251 and slugging .430 off Wakefield. After 75 pitches, however, BA jumps to .357 and SLG to .732. When Wakefield tires, the knuckleball is just a very slow fastball, and it becomes infinitely more hittable.

The answer, it would seem, is to curtail Wakefield’s outings sooner. That will of course tax the bullpen, however, and the Red Sox must ask themselves exactly what they need from a fifth starter who may not play another year and almost certainly would not play for any team other than Boston.

It may take a blowout to get Wakefield his 200th victory, because Wakefield can no longer finish games without giving up runs. Luckily, the Red Sox have the best offense, and Wakefield’s run-support is no longer limited by his catcher (unlike Doug Mirabelli, who usually caught but rarely hit).

I will be happy when Wakefield wins no. 200: My earliest memories as a true Red Sox fan are too tightly bound to my memories of him for me to feel otherwise. But my joy will also be tempered by the knowledge that this is a man so very far past his prime, a man for whom the reasons to stay in the game must weaken with every start.