My father was painting the house back in the early 90’s as I listlessly watched a baseball. The Pirates were playing the Braves so the game was nationally televised and the effortlessness of the pitcher caught my attention.
I asked my dad, “How does he just lob the ball and get the guys out?”
“That’s not a lob, Chris, that’s a knuckleball,” he breathed out between quenching gulps of water cooling off from the summer sun. He sat down next to me on the couch and somehow — miraculously — he showed me the proper grip. And it would be the grip that I’d take into the professional ranks more than a decade later.
I became so obsessed with Tim Wakefield and his knuckleball that I’d listen to Pirates playoff games as I mowed my neighbor’s lawn in suburban Boston, Massachusetts.
But then Wakefield disappeared along with my interest in baseball.
Then, a year or two later, my father hurriedly pulled into the driveway to announce that his clients didn’t want his company’s season tickets that night, so we got to go to the game. These last-second tickets would pull through a dozen times a year, so I rushed through my routine of getting ready for the game.
We parked in our family’s secret free Fenway parking spot and walked just short of a mile to Gate A right as the game was about to begin. My father then turned to me to ask, “Did you grab the tickets off the fridge like I told you to?”
My heart sank as I patted down my pockets putting on a show for my father because I knew that I didn’t grab the tickets and it was too late to go back and get them. I’d blown it. I began to kick rocks when my dad smiled and pulled out the tickets from his pocket. He did it every time and it worked every time.
And that’s one of my biggest memories of the day that changed my life — my father fooling me into thinking that we didn’t have tickets. I also remember the tree roots eating the chain link fence on the Boston University Campus along the walk, the fat man asking if anyone was “selling tickets” in the parking lot (which my father explained to me as a workaround statement so he didn’t get in trouble scalping tickets), and the smell of beer-boiled hot dogs in the air.
Funny the things we remember but nothing would prepare me for the experience inside the park.
We had great seats — four rows behind the visitor’s dugout along the third base line — and I had a minor freakout as we sat down. It was Tim Wakefield on the mound for the Red Sox. He was my favorite thing about baseball with the Pirates and now he was pitching for my hometown team. I was so excited that I asked my dad to let me wander the park hoping for a better view. Surprisingly, he agreed so I took off.
I got kicked out of Stephen King’s season ticket seats along the first base line even after I insisted to the usher that the seats were mine and then evaded the red-coated ushers to sneak down right behind the backstop. It was late in the game, Wakefield was carrying a no-hitter and the umpire was out of the way for warmups between innings.
My jaw dropped.
I could read Rawlings on the ball as it darted left, right and then down into the catcher’s lap. The ball glowed white against the hazy summer backdrop of the Green Monster. The Citgo sign buzzed as the ball butterflied.
I was in love.
I didn’t realize a pitcher could also be a wizard capable of defying physics and needed to learn how to do it. I taped the baseball cards of Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield to my bedroom wall. I studied the full-page picture of Wakefield’s grip in the Sunday Boston Globe. And I took notes in front of the TV every time Wakefield took the mound.
And Wakefield never left the Sox, so I’d take the train to Fenway without tickets on days that he’d start hoping to get into the ballpark by the 2nd or 3rd inning. I’d drive when I had tickets and use my father’s secret spot to save $25 on parking. And I’d root for the Red Sox with everything I had whenever Tim toed the slab.
I’d throw wiffleball knuckleballs until my arm fell off. I’d play catch with anyone who had a glove. I even wore out tennis balls throwing knuckleballs up against my father’s shed. But I never played organized baseball. I’d left the game after Little League for basketball but the knuckleball would reel me back into America’s Pastime.
I went off to college only to find myself sneaking into the Umass baseball facilities during lunchtime to throw buckets of balls into a sock net, and, when it came time to graduate, I had a choice to make — move in with friends in the Boston area while using my degree to land a job with an eye on law school or chase the knuckleball out west.
Well, after a night of deep introspection, I decided to chase the knuckleball. And I was delusional.
I thought baseball would be a meritocracy and that my skill would be recognized, signed and cultivated. But all I found was dead ends. Every scout told me that the pitch looks great but there’s no way to recommend a knuckleball to the organization.
I’d spent a year of my life in Phoenix, Arizona, teaching myself how to pitch. I had a ragtag bartending job to pay the bills and I attended every baseball tryout I could. And I was at my wits end about to head back home to “settle down” when I met Charlie Hough.
It was an accident. His golfing buddy was the scout running the tryout in Long Beach, California. The scout had called Charlie when he saw me throwing knuckleballs, and Hough came down to the ballpark to check me out.
And he called me, “Horse sh*t with potential. He gave me his phone number while telling me to call him in two weeks.
I called him and he brought me under his wing alongside RA Dickey. We learned from Charlie for an off-season before Hough helped me land my first pro contract. And pro baseball opened the door to a relationship with Phil Niekro. One that ended with him telling me, “I love you, Chris,” months before his passing in 2020.
I’ve also worked with Tom Candiotti, Steven Wright, Mickey Jannis and Alex Blandino.
But I never was able to create a relationship with Wakefield; the man who inspired it all. Tim Wakefield remained a legend to me — larger than life — and he would’ve been one of the few humans capable of leaving me star-struck.
It was his knuckleball and on-field personality that inspired me to meet my heroes, play out a dream of professional knuckleballing, and found Knuckleball Nation.
And with his passing, it’s got me thinking — who else out there has learned the knuckleball from the greats like Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro? Who else out there can bridge the gap between the knuckleball knowledge of the past and the modern game of baseball? Who else out there loves the knuckleball so much that he can explain the nuances of the pitch in easy-to-understand pieces?
Tim Wakefield inspired me to take a risk and it’s left me with priceless knowledge of an art form on the brink of extinction.
I just hope I can pass this knowledge on to someone who’ll carry it forward for the next generation.
I owe it to Tim.